Friday, April 14, 2017

Nobody Is “Forced” To Live Under Capitalism

 I saw the phrase “…being forced to live under capitalism...” on Facebook recently. It was part of a meme from one of those click-baity left-wing pages, probably “Being Liberal” or something similar. Possibly a gullible friend had shared it. I immediately thought, Wow, what a whopping non sequitur of a concept.
If we take “capitalism” to mean free markets and free association between consenting adults, then no dear, you aren’t being “forced” in any meaningful sense. Rather, you live in a world where basic human freedoms are respected and you don’t care for the shape that it takes. You dislike some of the features of this world, but reshaping it to meet your approval would require actual force. You perhaps don’t approve of some of the choices and decisions that other adults make. But that’s the flip-side of freedom: other people get to exercise it, too. Freedom is a grand compromise. I cannot dictate the terms of your marriage contract, and you cannot dictate the terms of my labor contract. Your basic freedoms of association with other adults do not suddenly come to an end the moment money changes hands. Supposing you have a basic human right to privacy and freedom of association, you retain those rights when you transact commercially.

Of course the term “capitalism” is loaded. It has many definitions and carries a lot of baggage. Some use the term to mean “crony capitalism”, a system in which the government explicitly grants favors to certain businesses and industries at the expense of everyone else. This is nearly the opposite of what free-market supporters mean when they say the word. So any argument about “capitalism” should specify which sense of the word they mean. If it does mean “crony capitalism”, then indeed I am forced to live under “capitalism” and I object to it, too. I’d rather do away with the special privileges granted to certain players (import quotas, subsidies, implicit insurance via government bailouts, etc.). But a business operating in a truly free market is not being "privileged" in any meaningful sense. Businesses operating under free-market capitalism can only make offers to their customers and potential employees; the customers and employees have the power to unilaterally deny them the terms offered. You may dislike some of the terms being offered, but it is bizarre to describe this state of affairs as "forced to live under capitalism."

Perhaps to some the term does indeed mean “free markets” but it somehow implies an obsession with material wealth or betrays sympathy with businesses and capital owners. Such insinuations about motives and sympathies are beside the point (in addition to being extremely rude). Suppose I offer an argument that minimum wages and other labor “protections” are bad for workers. They restrict worker options and force them into terms that they otherwise wouldn’t choose for themselves, and they fail to transfer income from capital owners to workers. So the argument goes, anyway. Suppose I make an extended, data-rich presentation of this argument replete with historical examples. Does it matter that deep down in my dark heart I secretly carry a torch for the capital owners? Or that I hold some sinister antipathy toward the working man? Do you have to worry that such insidious sympathies have biased my analysis? No, you can check my work. We can talk impersonally and disinterestedly about the merits of policy without implying a wicked motive or perverse sympathies. Now, if I simply asserted “Free markets are for the best. Trust me, I’m some kind of expert!” and that was my entire appeal, you’d be right to point out something questionable about my motives. But if I’ve offered an impersonal argument for my position, you can check it for yourself. Motive-questioning is a bad faith move.

I actually have no idea what the person who shared this was thinking. Maybe s/he just flippantly hit the "share" button without giving it any thought. Maybe the main point was some other part of the quote, and I'm fixating on an irrelevant, throw-away piece that stuck out like a sore thumb. But I am increasingly seeing denunciations of "capitalism" and support for full-on socialism on my Facebook feed and it disturbs me. It's like some people don't realize that the 20th century happened. 

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