Monday, November 26, 2007

The "genius" of capitalism

In our society of 30 second advertisements and flashy packaging, of consumerism and status symbols, the myth of the merits of capitalism is largely accepted as truth. Basically, the myth boils down to something like this: If one works hard, and provides a superior product/service at a reasonable price, the laws of the marketplace (sometimes referred to as Adam Smith's invisible hand) dictate that one will be successful, that one will be financially rewarded. There need be no concern for the common good, or for society at large; such altruistic fruits will come about naturally via one's efforts on behalf of one's self. Or, to quote Adam Smith directly:
...every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. --The Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is frequently and reverently referenced by conservative luminaries who justify regressive and unfair tax policies, foreign wars, and any number of practices that, on their face, are detrimental to the common good.

(Check out these examples: Gerald Segal says East Asians need tough love. The Sword of Gideon assures us that, by helping the poor, we only perpetuate their misery. The Heritage Foundation, back in December 2003, urged Junior Bush to show some tough love at the Americas summit, lest Latin American governments fall into the trap of insisting on control of their own natural resources.)

There have been any number of authors and philosophers since Smith who have taken his message and distorted it to more completely fit their respective agendas. It is an indication of how completely conservatism has dominated the political and economic discourse in this country that the farce of an inherently good "marketplace" governed by the laws of capitalism is accepted as truth.

Sometimes this faith is taken to comical levels: I was at a poker game once, where we called out to the local Pizza Hut in the wee hours of the morning. Well, an hour passed and the pizza had not yet arrived. One of the conservative light bulbs at the game got on the phone to complain and demand that, when the pizza arrived, it be submitted gratis. It was all I could do to not burst into uproarious laughter as I listened to his half of the conversation:

"No, you don't understand. I like Pizza Hut pizza. I want to continue to order it. But if you can't accomodate me, I won't come back. You'll lose a customer."

I could imagine a teenager, at a part-time job that he despised, on the other end of the line listening to this harangue (delivered in a reasoned and logical tone) and coming to the realization that people really are as stupid as he had hitherto suspected.

Or, at a professional event recently, I became involved in a political discussion (surprise, surprise) with some coworkers. When I mentioned that the CEO pay-to-minimum wage ratio has soared over the last 40 years, one of my coworkers shot back: "But a CEO deserves that extra money. He carries so much more responsibility than the line worker."

If only this were true. CEOs get rewarded regardless of the performance of the stocks for which they are ostensibly responsible, regardless of the financial health of their organizations, in short, regardless of the degree to which they succeed. Read Ralph Nader's recent article on the matter here.

The myth of benevolent capitalism has even penetrated the realm of spirituality. For example, consider the hypocrisy of today's Christian mega-churches.

The point I'm trying to make, I guess, is that the first step in recovering from the regressive and brutal miasma of unbridled greed, is to expose the myth of capitalism. It is a monumental task. It will surely take a long time. But the ancient wisdom of China reminds us: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

1 comment:

Shus li said...

Your voice joins many others decrying the evils of capitalism!

Now if I could just stop buying stuff.

One of the best approaches I've seen to countering capitalism is communal living. Some friends of mine are maintaining a groovy eco-village, living close to the land, producing their own food, sharing what minimal material goods they have.

They and their children are thriving in ways we, as a conspicuous consumers, have forgotten; they are rich in socializing and very happy.

Commune, anyone?