Conduct a global survey between capitalism and collectivism and the latter wins hands down, even backing out the votes of those suffering in collectivist regimes, who would fear stating their true preference. If capitalism were a brand, its owner would be consulting advertising and public relations mavens, deciding if it should be saved or retired. It has been losing shelf space for years to Ism X and Ism Y; perhaps it’s time to remove it entirely.
Of course, capitalism versus collectivism isn’t Coke versus Pepsi; it’s nectar versus battery acid. Perversely, battery acid is winning. One reason is deceptive labeling. Picture impoverished youth in an impoverished tenement in an impoverished country, desperate to change their situation. The causes of their poverty are standard: an overarching state, capricious laws and regulations, corruption, confiscatory taxation, and a crony-take-all economy. However, tenements are fertile grounds for purveyors of change, and no matter what the rabble-rousers are peddling, they blame capitalism for the intolerable situation, although it’s the departures from capitalism that have caused the misery.
Impressionable youth can be forgiven for believing nonsense, but despite their poverty many of them have cell phones and the internet. It is too much to hope that they will Google the historical record, which clinches the case for capitalism against collectivism, but if they want to know what life is like in a collectivist utopia, one search suggests itself: “surpluses and shortages in Venezuela.”
Befitting an egalitarian paradise, essentials—copies of President Nicolás Maduro’s latest speech—are plentiful, while luxury items like toilet paper are nowhere to be found. (Enemies of the state use the former as a rough substitute for the latter.) Other luxuries—milk, gasoline, electricity, water, diapers, soap, beans, tortillas, hard currencies—are also in short supply. In the US, where store shelves are packed with toilet paper in a variety of textures, plies, softnesses, sizes, and package quantities, any politician whose policies produced a shortage wouldn’t win 5 percent of the vote. Maduro won an election last year. In Venezuela, deprivation has been the winning platform, admiration of US plenitude a sure ticket to electoral oblivion, and good riddance to retrograde running dogs who emigrate to capitalist cesspools.
Would that we could swap such emigrants for our celebrities expressing admiration for Venezuela (Sean Penn), Cuba (Beyoncé, Danny Glover, Michael Moore), North Korea (Dennis Rodman) and China (too numerous to list); or trendy fashionistas jauntily displaying their Mao- and Che-wear and accessories; or the intellectuals without intellects raving about Thomas Piketty’s rewarmed Marxism. So what if collectivism has enslaved and murdered billions; it’s cool! If we can’t work that swap, can we get a show of hands from any proudly capitalistic billionaires volunteering to buy one-way airfare for those enamored of such “cool,” so they can enjoy permanent residency in their admirably progressive bastions?
Adam Smith observed that self-love, rather than benevolence, motivates the butcher, baker, and brewer. We give them money in exchange for steak, bread, and brew. They profit; we eat and drink. An admittedly incomplete survey of major religions and philosophies reveals few words of praise for either self-love or profit and numerous condemnations of both. We are extorted to live for a god or gods, families, tribes, villages, cities, provinces, nations, governments, races, the whole world (of which we are citizens, after all), common good, public interest, or environment, but never for ourselves (Ayn Rand is the outlier)
It can be argued that the weight of all this tradition, piety, and profundity crushes the case for capitalism, with its self-love and profit. However, today’s politicians, celebrities, fashionistas, and intellectuals are not traditional, pious, or profound, so their animus towards capitalism must spring from some other source. While one of the joys of psychology is ascribing mental and emotional pathologies to people you don’t like, the suggestion is now advanced—without malice—that the causes of their loathing are rooted in that branch of science.
As we wanna-be psychologists are wont to do, let’s journey back to childhood. The psycho-educational establishment has declared self-esteem an entitlement, but the fact remains that some kids are smarter, more popular, better looking, and more athletic than others. Capitalism rewards productivity and competitive ability in the marketplace. For those who come up short in those attributes, it’s the playground all over again. They might feel badly about themselves and resent, even envy, those who succeed. With their deficient self-esteems, rather than improving themselves, they might advocate a political philosophy that promises to chop down taller trees.
They might also compensate for their deficiencies by seeking the approval of others. The quickest way to make friends in a bar is to buy the drinks. Politically, one does the same thing by promising goodies. Unlike the bar, you don’t even have to spend your own money; your beneficiaries will applaud as you take it from the productive. Not only are you cool, you get to pose as a humanitarian. A few curmudgeons might be unhappy about funding your popularity, but who cares about them? They’re definitely uncool—selfish, stingy, and mean.
Uncool as capitalism may be, a thought experiment helps make the case that it is the only moral economic system. Imagine a world without violence. Humans have evolved and no longer use it; some sort of invention has stopped it; by whatever stroke of fortune, violence is absent, unimaginable even. If nothing can be taken by force, people have to produce or exchange for what they want, or rely on voluntary charity from others. There is only one system that could exist in such a world—capitalism—indeed it would thrive. The main ingredient of all those other brands is violence; the main ingredients of brand capitalism are freedom, production, and mutually beneficial exchange. Reason enough to leave it up on the shelf. After everything else comes up short, shoppers will one day make the switch.
A pleasure to read such crisp and logical prose, well-reasoned and straight on.
As for psychological theories, there is a template running in people’s emotional equipment, reinforced by religions as the golden rule. In its most primitive form, it encourages behavior that is helpful, not hostile, toward fellow humans, so as to influence them to be likewise helpful, not hostile or predatory. It’s the formula for trade, for voluntary exchange of values. Both sides of a relationship are accommodating of the other for self-interested reasons. In an advanced form, people also learn to invest for future benefit, not for immediate pay-off. Such forward-thinking use of savings invested in long-range planning is what capitalism is in its essence.
In earliest caveman days, cooperation began for group benefit. Even baboons do it. Where things go wrong is when humans get so clever and wily that they figure out how to cheat each other to gain a bigger advantage. So the slow, stupid and weak may not even notice they’ve been had, and they go along, accepting leaders as long as some crumbs fall their way. They can’t be weeded out entirely, since the rulers need them to do the inferior work. And if sly cheating doesn’t work, intimidation and force will set in.
As it happens, capitalism is the only social formula by which every individual can reach full potential without cutting down anyone else.
“Thou shalt not lie” and “Thou shalt not steal” were not originally religious precepts; they were best practices for community coherence and mutual benefit. Those who break these rules are called criminals, disrupting the peace and damaging the communal welfare. Societies institute various ways of dealing with their disruptors, from casting out to imprisoning to death. Sadly, these days the criminals have worked themselves into the ruling positions.
Another built-in psychological program has to do with economics, with gauging return on investment. Even a lion knows when to stop chasing a gazelle. There is an automatic calculus for what to put effort into and how much, whether in hauling rocks to build a shelter or sowing seeds to raise food. Without a profit margin, a return on investment, the output will stop. If one spends more energy in obtaining food than the amount of nutrition that food provides, there is a negative return and the creature will starve.
In the worst case, this calculus leads some people to enslave other people whose energy is thus stolen for the slave owner’s benefit. To this day, the calculation of how to maximize what is gained from others in exchange for the least amount possible to give back (what the market will bear, or through deceit or force), is the operating principle. And by calling on the ages-old template of compassion and mutual help, the tables have turned to force people by law to support other people, a latter-day form of slavery.
In an ideal world, exchange of values benefits both parties equally. In a moral world, neither party would seek to cheat or exploit the other. In today’s world of perverted practices, few places remain where you can find fair dealings one on one; the underground economy and tiny businesses and home-based enterprises are some examples of such micro-capitalism.
One of the motivating forces of so-called greed, the drive to get more than one gives, is another built-in human program, namely the drive to grow. It is the most basic life principle, whether to grow physically to full maturity or to grow in knowledge and skills, or in power and influence and possessions. Every little meme in the DNA and in the brain seeks its actualization at a totalitarian terminus towards which every being is driven to strive.
In the absence of a power of objective analysis, or dispassionate reason, these drives will continue to push people on into mutually destructive behaviors, like a cancer that grows beyond the healthy balance of the cellular template.
What we see today as “cronyism” is that some groups gang up for their benefit against those who can be fooled and forced. These power wielders count on the oldest meme still ruling people: obedience to laws, to leaders, to the alpha male, to wise elders, and to those with bigger weapons. Such obedience and law-abiding behavior is inculcated in childhood and fed as propaganda in the entertainments–films, books, TV–by which the public is inundated.
Through natural selection (thank you, Charles Darwin), certain groups gain ascendance within social systems and become polarized, which explains why we have a two-party system and get opposing value systems each with its own adherents. Those in power run countries with a short-sighted pursuit until they run it into the ground or until the serfs rebel. Keeping the serfs ignorant, fearful and under control may then require lots of foreign wars. Unfortunately, that’s where we seem to be sitting right now.
Here’s one way of understanding the dyamics of all these unpleasant ways human societies are run. I posit that all ideas and motivations are rooted in memes. Memes, according to Richard Dawkins, are the parallel in human software to what genes do for human hardware. Every idea, every belief is a meme. Our premises are memes. And memes take on a life of their own, using their hosts (us humans) to pursue their own survival, spreading themselves from one mind to another like an infection. Mindless replicators, on a par with microorganisms, but forming complex clusters, often they are perverted, dysfunctional and stupid, since they tend to drive their hosts into self-destructive behaviors.
It will take Reason and free will to recognize our destructive premises and override them with sane and viable ideas. All conflicts and disagreements we see in the world and in our own lives are at base meme warfare. And the more emotional, the stronger the resistance to what memes sense as a threat to their existence. That’s what accounts also for why irrational beliefs, like religions, are to “sticky” and hard to overcome. They are embedded in the emotions, not in Reason, logic, and evidence-supported reality.
Sorry this turned out so long. It just seemed like a good place to present it. I’ll be doing a book on it soon.