Monday, October 24, 2011

Jonah Goldberg: Capitalism loves you, baby

Jonah Goldberg this morning delights in his own prescience in writing this 2008 column about how the children of capitalism are spoiled and ungrateful:
In large measure our wealth isn’t the product of capitalism, it is capitalism.

And yet we hate it. Leaving religion out of it, no idea has given more to humanity. The average working-class person today is richer, in real terms, than the average prince or potentate of 300 years ago. His food is better, his life longer, his health better, his menu of entertainments vastly more diverse, his toilette infinitely more civilized. And yet we constantly hear how cruel capitalism is while this collectivism or that is more loving because, unlike capitalism, collectivism is about the group, not the individual.

These complaints grow loudest at times like this: when the loom of capitalism momentarily stutters in spinning its gold. Suddenly, the people ask: What have you done for me lately? Politicians croon about how we need to give in to Causes Larger than Ourselves and peck about like hungry chickens for a New Way to replace dying capitalism.
Although I agree with Goldberg, generally, that market capitalism has generally been the best force for raising the living standards of the maximum number of people. But I think it's terribly weird that he would advance the idea—as he seems to here—that capitalism is an end unto itself. It's not: It's a means to an end; an imperfect means—and one can acknowledge that and still be a capitalist!—but likely the least-worst means.

Goldberg today places the column in the context of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and it's here that you start to see that he creates a bit of a straw man in dealing with critics of the free markets. While it's true that there are Marxists, socialists, and anarchists among the protesters, the movement has broad support beyond the fringe not because it opposes capitalism, but because it's asking an important question: Why has capitalism stopped working for us, the broad mass of Americans?

The answer the protesters have come up with is this: The wealthiest Americans and wealthiest American institutions have bent government to their will, so that while the rest of us are left to live with "austerity" and "creative destruction," the banks and banker bonuses are protected from their catastrophic mistakes with taxpayer dollars. The alternative? Letting them lay waste to the economy if they fail, making things even worse for the rest of us. As conservative commentators like Nicole Gelinas and Timothy Carney have noted, that's not free-market capitalism, properly understood—and, in fact, serves to undermine the discipline that markets usually impose when the possibility of failure is real. Corporatism is tearing at the foundations of capitalism, in other words.

It is not "spoiled" to point out when capitalism is coming unmoored from its foundations, or when it is failing to deliver the maximum good to the best number of people. (It's also not irrational to compare one's lot with one's contemporaries, instead of being grateful that conditions are better than they were 300 years ago.) The Occupy Wall Street folks are far from perfect, but they're giving voice to an important critique of the status quo that even serious advocates of the free market can agree upon.

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