Saturday, January 30, 2010

Capitalism, The System of

Given that I call myself The Raging Capitalist, I can't miss an opportunity to provide a good example of what the capitalist spirit is really all about. Such is provided in the linked article by David Brooks, particularly in his discussion of Lincoln and Hamilton. Brooks writes:
They rejected the zero-sum mentality that is at the heart of populism, the belief that economics is a struggle over finite spoils. Instead, they believed in a united national economy — one interlocking system of labor, trade and investment.

In their view, government’s role was not to side with one faction or to wage class war. It was to rouse the energy and industry of people at all levels. It was to enhance competition and make it fair — to make sure that no group, high or low, is able to erect barriers that would deprive Americans of an open field and a fair chance. Theirs was a philosophy that celebrated development, mobility and work, wherever those things might be generated.
Brooks' concern is that populist rage over abuse of the financial system will ultimately lead to the suppression of the capitalist ideals that have been so fundamental to our prosperity as a nation. His concern is valid, and the public's rage needs to be properly addressed, and without focusing that rage on a condemnation of capitalism itself.

Capitalists in no way want to turn a blind eye to those who have corrupted and co-opted our financial system. True capitalists aren't about gaming the system, or buying political influence, or hoodwinking the masses. They believe in the rule of law, creating open and fair playing fields, and allowing funds to easily flow between investors and entrepreneurs. Therefore, it would be high on the typical capitalist's agenda to want to dispense justice to those who have abused the financial system. However, those efforts need to be intelligently targeted and the penalties should be in proportion to the crimes (see my post on Obama's financial crisis fee). Similarly, we must enhance regulation, but we must take care to not strangle the system. We must ensure that risks taken with capital are in-line with investors' intentions, but capital must be allowed to flow freely. We must give the public free and fair access to the resources of the financial system, but we must not do it in such a way that checks and balances are ignored and unintended consequences result.

Importantly, we must remember that capitalism is a system. It has no political or social agenda. It doesn't think, or feel, or have opinions -- no different from the plumbing in your house. Attempts to weave the social agenda into capitalism (e.g., to make housing "affordable") have always failed, as they interfere with the "laws of nature" that apply to capitalism, such as having to live with the risks that you create. It is implicit in the capitalist system that its "users" -- the public -- can decide for themselves how hard they want to work, and how much risk they want to take. Some will succeed, and some will fail. Like Mother Nature herself, capitalism turns a blind eye to personal tragedy and hardship. Some will go out on a limb and run their own businesses, and others will choose to become human resources in those businesses. Capitalism makes no value judgments. Businesses generate profits, and their owners evolve into investors who bankroll the next generation of entrepreneurs. That's the cycle. That's how the system works. For all its harsh realities, capitalism is simple, self-correcting (when not interfered with), elegantly pure, and time-tested. We need to protect it with everything we've got.