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.