05 January 2010

Is Criticism of Capitalism Bigotry?

Jonah Goldberg posed a rhetorical question in his most recent column:

Imagine if I were to collect the most infamous deeds of African Americans over the last decade — say, Michael Vick’s dog-fighting scandal and O. J. Simpson’s most recent criminal exploit — and then put a bow on it with the phrase “the decade in black America.” What if I did the same thing with Jews? Bernie Madoff, the face of Jewish America!

In Goldberg's opinion, people are practising, in his implication, a similar sort of bigotry, when they summarize a "recap of the worst financial and corporate scandals of the decade" as "the decade in capitalism." "Reducing capitalism to its alleged sins," Goldberg argues by analogy, is just as bigoted as declaring disgraced athletes of representatives of "black America" or Bernie Madoff as the embodiment of American Jews.

In capitalism's defense, Goldberg cites several samples of super-philanthropy from the likes of Warren Buffet. If bad capitalists can be considered expressions of the essence of capitalism, he suggests, can't we just as well argue that good capitalists express a more benign essence of the thing? "Capitalism doesn't just create generous wealthy people, but generous poor people, too," he notes.

Goldberg thinks it unfair that "Every good thing capitalism helps produce -- from singing careers to cures for diseases to staggering charity -- is credited to some other sphere of our lives [while] every problem with capitalism, meanwhile, is laid at her feet." It's unfair, he argues, because "the problems with capitalism -- greed, theft, etc. -- aren't capitalism's fault, they're humanity's. Socialist countries have greedy thieves, too."

That last bit is a valid point, as history proves. But Goldberg doesn't quite prove his case because he never really attempts to define what he considers the essence of capitalism. The closest he comes is an implicit equation of capitalism with "free markets" which are themselves in disrepute "particularly by the people running Washington." Goldberg may not have thought it necessary to spell out the definition of capitalism in an opinion column, but more likely he buys into notion that capitalism is synonymous with "freedom" and can thus be defined negatively by the absence of onerous laws and regulations. He worries that more laws and regulations "won't cure what allegedly ails capitalism -- people will still steal and lie -- but they will impede everything that makes capitalism great." Again, he's right that capitalism didn't invent theft and lies. But using that truth to argue against regulating capitalism is like people arguing against gun control on the ground that people will always be violent. We can grant the point about human nature without conceding that it's therefore okay for people to own assault rifles. Likewise, the fact that people are often inclined to steal or lie should actually make us more determined to ensure that such people don't get their hands on the tools that will let them do the greatest damage to society. If Goldberg worries that that can't be done without crippling capitalism's good tendencies, his apprehension only throws the moral essence of capitalism further into question.


Anonymous said...

THe thing is, people have the same view towards socialism. In fact, in this country it seems to be the average person's idea of socialism is that it's a system bent on punishing the capable. They forget that the point is to provide a minimum quality of life for everyone.

Sure capitalism produces the occasional Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, but it produces far more Bernie Madoffs and Enrons.

Samuel Wilson said...

Your comment is more proof of why we should avoid ideological systems. Since neither socialism nor capitalism (nor theocracy, I must add) can save us from human nature, we shouldn't put all our eggs in any one ideological basket. Instead, we should construct policies without worrying about whether one program is "socialist," another "capitalist," etc., as long as we stick to the main goal of "a minimum quality of life for everyone" that gets better over time.