The Other I

November 10, 2012

My problem with capitalism

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 3:30 pm

I grew up after the second world war in an America obsessed with the evils of Communism, and I was in my late twenties before I began to ask about the virtues and otherwise of capitalism.  I thought about it pretty seriously when, along with most of my generation, we were protesting about civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the possibilities offered by Vatican II for opening up Roman Catholicism.  I eventually concluded that I couldn’t think of any system that was better than capitalism, and moved on to thinking about other Great Issues.

I have liberal friends, many of whom have spent their lives working in Africa & Latin America, and seem convinced that it is perfectly obvious to any moral person that capitalism fosters greed, inequality, injustice, exploitation, and environmental destruction.  I can list the limitations of capitalism along with the best, but I have two difficulties with this left-wing perspective.  

The first is that it seems to me that capitalism comes in many shapes and forms – rather like religion – and that a blanket condemnation is based on an incoherent definition of capitalism. Are we talking about the capitalism of Romney and the Tea Party in which pretty much it’s every man for himself? the capitalism of Scandinavian countries where there is a strong safety net and high social mobility? or one of the many practices of capitalism in between?

My second question is what replacements for capitalism might be better.  We’ve just finished a century of the most destructive alternatives – the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Shining Path in Peru, Apartheid in South Africa, Communism in Russia and eastern Europe.  Millions of people have died for a vision of a better, more equal world.  But people still aren’t equal, they are still often desperately poor, do not live under an effective rule of law, and have limited access to justice administered by an impartial court.

Personally, I rather like capitalism – capitalism-light if you will.  Capitalism with a safety net, with educational opportunities, with a rule of law that applies to all, capitalism that permits the maximum social mobility.  So not capitalism totally unregulated, but capitalism with the most room for individual initiative that we can manage.  I’m not much in favor of what here in Britain is called “left-wing social engineering,” and I am extremely wary of over-regulation ostensibly for health and safety, or to protect “ordinary people” from risks of which they may not be aware.

So my problem with capitalism is that I don’t know a better alternative.  History demonstrates the danger of giving capitalism a free hand but it demonstrates just as clearly the problem of giving absolute power to the government.  I’d much prefer to try to make capitalism work better than to throw it out altogether.

But some of the anti-capitalists with whom I am acquainted are educated, experienced, caring, and thoughtful individuals for whom I have great respect.  So I am looking for someone to explain to me what alternative to capitalism they believe so passionately would be better.  I don’t promise I will agree, but I do promise I will listen intently with respect and with a real desire to understand.  

I obviously have a blind spot.  Blanket anti-capitalism simply makes no sense to me.  And yet there are sensible people out there for whom it does.  I am serious.  If you can explain, I really really would be extremely grateful if you would.





  1. I think I agree with you here. I find politics too tricky when you can see the benefits of too many people’s points of view. I do think “big” government chokes creativity and drive, but so many realities mean that we need a safety net.


    Comment by sanstorm — November 10, 2012 @ 3:49 pm | Reply

  2. you have delineated so well my thoughts on the matter and would truly appreciate those who advocate an alternative to capitalism. i am wondering if some kind of fluid system predicated on place, situation – right now in new york/jersey folks who ordinarily are self-sufficient are totally broken down mentally, morally, economically, on the other hand to be on the dole easily and without limit is crushing patronizing, ensuring the have and have-not society it is a misconception that people of color are the major recipients of welfare in the u.s. in fact it is whites. i do not have the statistics in my head and am crashing after a twelve hour shift of volunteering in a shelter for sandy victims – the one i am is for those individuals needing medical care – many from nursing homes that had to be evacuated or those who were home with daily nursing home visits/care. i am fighting with those nursing homes that are open to take on these medically compromised who are now homeless – many were evacuated with nothing but what was on them – nursing homes demanding insurance cards – (do not have) or if they have it, the do not accept that insurance or some other excuse.
    in the interim they are on the floor of the high school that is serving as temp housing – volunteers having to kneel on the ground to bath them, turn them, etc. Target (a great great company) has come in with loads of mattresses, bed rolls, blankets pillows sheets towels etc. but not enough, except now we are transferring 50 or so every day to nursing homes in pennsylvania, massachusetts, connecticut who will take them w/o insurance – bless them. if communism were operative here would it be different? how does one account for the human condition?


    Comment by kateritek — November 10, 2012 @ 4:58 pm | Reply

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