The Capitalists and Their Pet-Poodle Philosophers
by David Sims
I’VE BEEN contemplating capitalists and their pet-poodle philosophers, like Ayn Rand and Stefan Molyneux. The imagery here goes like this:
Capitalist: “Capitalism is the best. It always works. Isn’t that right, Fluffy?”
Fluffy says “Arf!” while the capitalist pets his fur.
The only thing that is certain is that capitalism endures time somewhat better than Marxist socialism does. It doesn’t mean that capitalism is morally righteous or that capitalism will ever reward anyone who tries hard with any degree of success. It doesn’t even mean that, while it endures, capitalism will do what an economic system ought to do. Capitalism is merely better than Marxism.
I like to use the metaphor of an overcrowded lifeboat, adrift at sea. Capitalism has the character shown when the bullies in the boat deny a place on the boat to some, so that occupancy of the lifeboat is reserved for favored others. This keeps the boat riding high, preventing the water from sloshing in, which keeps the capitalists safe from the sharks, and that is the whole point. They are selfish actors, and they will behave selfishly — even to the point of watching their fellow humans be killed by adversity.
Occupancy in the lifeboat, in the metaphor, is having a job, earning an income: “keeping your head above water.” And while “favored” might mean “the most productive,” the more accurate meaning is “the most pleasing to the capitalists,” and there are other ways — political ways, sexual ways — of pleasing capitalists.
Marxist socialism isn’t even that good. Marxism keeps everyone (except political dissidents) in the boat — as equals: The navigator, for example, is no more worthy than anyone else. The lifeboat, you will remember, is overcrowded. Its gunwales ride just above the level of the water in which the boat is floating. If anyone rocks the boat, or if a storm comes along, then the boat will sink and everyone in it will die.
Everyone. Not just some.
That’s why capitalism is better than Marxism. That isn’t to say that capitalism is particularly good. It only means that it isn’t the worst sort of economic system that can exist.
If anyone has ever devised an economic system in which there is no unemployment, yet the boat nonetheless rides safely high in the water, so to speak, then it isn’t capitalism. The idea that capitalism affords opportunity to all, if they will only seek it hard enough, is false.
As Robert Heinlein once mockingly observed: “If you pray hard enough, you can move mountains. How hard? Why, hard enough to move a mountain, of course!”
Likewise, the capitalists are either deluded or they are lying about the ubiquity of opportunity under capitalism. “If you try hard enough, you can get a job that will pay a living wage. How hard? Why, hard enough to find a job, of course!”
(I must admit that, while I was living in Huntsville, Alabama, during the 1990s, I did hear about a homeless man who was taken up on his offer to work for food. His “employer” put him to hard labor for two days, then paid him with a bologna sandwich. One bologna sandwich, and it was reportedly the cheapest sandwich that anyone could possibly put together and still call it a sandwich. The homeless man had burned up more calories while working than that sandwich gave him back.)
What capitalist system ever has 100% employment? None. The threat of unemployment is used by the capitalists to control the greater number of people who must earn wages in order to live. The persistence of unemployment in capitalist economies has the purpose of making that threat credible.
Government gets in on the act, too, of course. Political conformity can be enforced through the simple, easy mechanism of presenting a credible threat of disemployment and subsequent unemployability. No secret police required — though the government might have them anyway.
The notion, which capitalists ceaselessly put forward, that unemployment exists only because there are, among the jobless, a few persons who are unqualified for any sort of work and many more persons who won’t look for jobs (with sufficient diligence) is false. Under the state-sponsored, corporate capitalism that always evolves out of its laissez-faire beginnings, unemployment would exist even if every person were qualified for a job and even if every person looked for work continually during his/her waking hours.
And the capitalists have those pet-poodle philosophers for the primary purpose of obscuring that truth.
I am not interested in how any particular form of economy “should” work, in the theories of its proponents. The capitalists do a wonderful job of explaining why Marxist socialism does not work as a national economy, so I need not elaborate on that here. But someone needs to disillusion the proponents of capitalism in a similar way.
Regardless of how Ayn Rand (or Stefan Molyneux) describe how “free market capitalism” should work, there is one fatal flaw in their descriptions: It won’t last. It never does. Always, there comes a time when the capitalists can buy themselves state sponsorship, and with it coercive political power. And this isn’t primarily the fault of the state; it is primarily the fault of the capitalist, who instigates the merger.
To use the sexual metaphor, the capitalist is the male, the initiator, of the merger, whereas the state is the female, who responds to the capitalists’ overtures. This metaphor isn’t entirely appropriate, however, since sexuality is positive, the creation of new life, whereas the merger between capitalism and the state is unholy, evil, destructive of life. But that merger will always happen, sooner or later, with the same predictability that Marxist socialism will always fall prey to the tragedy of the commons.
Just as Marxism is incompletely conceived by the Marxist, so also is “free market capitalism” incompletely conceived by the apologists for capitalism. Neither of those economic systems remains what its proponents had hoped it would be. The only difference is that the inevitable devolution of Marxism into tyranny has been thoroughly exposed, whereas that of capitalism isn’t yet fully recognized.
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