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.