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Criticisms of "capitalism"--in search of a contrast class

A persistent problem that I see in criticisms of "capitalism" is the unclarity in the use of that term, which in turn seems to be a result of the absence of a clear contrast class.

Let's take, for example, a criticism to the effect that "Capitalism over-values efficiency to the detriment of other important goods."

What does it mean? I ask this question in all seriousness, because the more I think about it, the more sure I am that I don't know.

What, precisely--and I do mean precisely, is this "capitalism" being personified in the criticism? Capitalism as opposed to what?

Here are some possible meanings:

The criticism could mean that people nowadays who tout the free market or laissez-faire economics (such as myself, for example) are more prone than the general public, or are more prone than those who advocate a more heavily regulated economy, to over-value efficiency to the detriment of other important goods. This interpretation at least gives the criticism a meaning, but it makes it very hard to decide that it is true without begging the question on particular matters of policy. After all, the person who brings the criticism presumably disagrees with someone like me on whether and how this or that business should be regulated. One can guess that he would characterize our disagreement by saying that I overvalue efficiency to the detriment of other important goods. But in that case, we might as well just debate the particular policy issues where we disagree. The generalization that involves personifying an entity called "capitalism" really adds nothing to the discussion.

Another point, if we give this interpretation, is that we social conservatives ought to agree among ourselves that some of the most egregious examples of valuing what is said to be efficiency at the expense of other important goods come not from the advocates of the free market but, emphatically to the contrary, from the advocates of central planning. Here I am thinking particularly of the area of health care. Who is it that speaks blithely of "our" healthcare dollars and tells us that "we" need to spend them more "efficiently" and "rationally" and therefore need to rid ourselves of the elderly and dependent? Answer honestly: It isn't the American Enterprise Institute, the Action Institute, or the Mackinac Institute. And it certainly isn't individuals cheering for the free market like Lydia McGrew. No, it's those who are panting and yearning to centralize the entire healthcare industry so that panels of "experts" can impose their ideas of "efficiency" on all the rest of us by getting rid of the "life unworthy of life." It's the free marketers who think that such plans are utterly disastrous, for a whole slew of reasons.

No doubt other examples could be given. For that matter, even the use of eminent domain to force people to sell their land for the building of an electric dam in the name of efficiency is going to meet with a somewhat ambivalent response from someone with libertarian sympathies like myself. We happy moderns, cheering the movement of progress, may be all in favor of electric dams, but those of us who get queasy about government power are not exactly excited about forced purchase for the sake of bringing them into existence.

Let's try another interpretation of the criticism. One could take the criticism to refer to industrialism and to mean that people in industrial societies are likely to overvalue efficiency more than people in pre-industrial societies. I doubt that this is true, but it's at least meaningful. However, it then has little or nothing to do with free market economics. For Communist countries have been highly industrialized, while some tribe still working with stone knives and bear skins can and often probably does have a highly unregulated and laissez-faire economic approach.

Another interpretation might be the claim that people living in countries with more unregulated economies tend to over-value efficiency and that more regulation seems to produce a greater ability to value other things. It would be difficult to say what evidence someone might bring to bolster such a claim, but it certainly seems disconfirmed by the history of America itself. As we look at the past 150 years of American history, we see the loss of social capital and the growth of cold-heartedness coming along with ever-increasing government regulation of business, a level of regulation that makes it harder and harder even to start a business.

Nor am I saying that this coldness of heart and failure to value intangible goods is caused by the government regulation of business. That's not the point one way or another. The point is that there really doesn't seem to be any good evidence that increasingly poking and prodding the money-making goose that lays the golden egg has the beneficial effect of somehow making people value the intangible finer things of life.

I hope that this short series of examples will show how very difficult it is to pin down attempted criticisms of a shadowy entity known as "capitalism." In my opinion it's salutary for would-be critics to discipline themselves by trying to think of a contrast class, to ditch the personification of "capitalism," and to ask themselves exactly what they really mean, followed by asking themselves what concrete evidence they have for the now-clarified claim.

A few further points: Sage indicates that perhaps fans of the free market are uncomfortable with the question, "How much efficiency is too much?" To tell the truth, I'm simply baffled by the question. What does it mean? Efficiency in what area? "Too much" in what sense? And so forth.

I would say that in general, it seems to be extremely elusive to decide that some process is "too efficient." For example, is driving a car "too efficient"? Would it be better if cars were banned and if everyone were forced to use horses instead? Obviously, that's an extreme example, but it illustrates the baffling nature of the question.

In such elusive areas, it seems to make the most sense to allow individuals to decide for themselves to a very great extent how much efficiency they want.This cuts both ways; it also amounts to a defense of the person who prefers to be inefficient relative to some currently available technology. For example, if someone wants to do without e-mail, more power to him! I have no ambitions to force him to use e-mail! But on the other hand, I don't think the agrarian should have ambitions to try to chivy me not to use e-mail or a cell phone or what-not.

An important point is that I shouldn't assume that I know better than anyone else "how much efficiency is too much" in every area or even many areas. This isn't false modesty. Sometimes I do think I know better than others. But in a nebulous area like this, it behooves us to take a lighter-handed approach. If indeed society works better, as Sage hypothesizes, with a certain amount of what will look to some people like inefficiency, then perhaps we should count on other people to recognize that as well. In that case, the free market system will take that into account.

"Inefficient" (the scare quotes are deliberate, as it isn't clear that they are always really inefficient) ways of doing things can easily be catered to by the market when there are people who want them. We already see this in many hobby areas, with everything from scrap-booking to micro-brewery to growing "heritage grains" (not to mention far more important things like home schooling) made possible by the prosperity and leisure time which are the gifts of free enterprise itself.

All of this seems to me to be counterevidence to one final possible interpretation of the above criticism--namely, that a materially prosperous people (as opposed to a poorer people or country) values efficiency of production too much, to the detriment of other intangible goods.

Comments on this post are closed and redirected to the cross-posting at Extra Thoughts. This is for a very specific reason, and here, without being angry in any way, I would like to address a specific commentator: Nice Marmot, I'm sure you mean well, but you are positively the worst offender recently here at W4 in the area of bringing criticisms of something you call "capitalism" (or sometimes "corporate capitalism") without specifying your meaning. At times I really think perhaps you are not capable of being more specific, but it tends to get frustrating and can waste time. You also have a tendency to criticize advocates of free market economics like myself of things we have expressly disavowed, which is also frustrating and time wasting. By no means am I saying that I will not approve your comments at Extra Thoughts, where full moderation is enabled. I may do so. But I think the discussion will be more profitable if the discipline I've enjoined in this post is enforced--that is to say, if you have to do more than make generalizations and repeat yourself, and if you have to define your terms and specify a contrast class. It's an excellent exercise and I think often could force those who are used to talking to people who agree with them and used to dealing in sweeping generalizations to recognize, if only in the privacy of their own minds, that they really do not have a very clear idea of what they are saying and what their criticism amounts to. Sweeping history of ideas that deals in lofty generalizing terms, not to mention psychoanalysis of those who disagree with one, can be addictive.

I would like to challenge the critics of the free market to go cold turkey.