The Only Thing Worse Than Capitalism Is Everything Else
Moving 'past' capitalism means going backward.
Dear Reader (But perhaps not those of you tempted to do the Twitter equivalent of blackface humor to own the libs),
I really like the movie Good Will Hunting, despite the fact I hate it. I know that sounds weird, but I bet you have a bunch of movies like that. Well, not you over in the corner. But the rest of you. The American President is another movie I find compellingly watchable even though there’s so much of it I can’t stand.
I just cut three paragraphs of ranting about The American President from this “news”letter. Suffice it to say, the movie is everything I can’t stand about Aaron Sorkin’s stuff. He really is a very gifted writer. But he is so sure of the rightness of his views, the stupidity and villainy of those he disagrees with, and so confident that he understands politics better than anyone else, that he ends up making borderline propaganda that’s all the more effective because he pretends that he’s offering the best arguments from conservatives.
Good Will Hunting is annoying in similar ways. The main thrust of the movie is fine. It’s this one little subtheme that drives me nuts: Matt Damon’s character is a super genius, as demonstrated by his uncanny ability to solve complicated mathematical questions. That’s believable enough. Math prodigies are a thing. But we’re supposed to believe that his ability to instantaneously understand math (and organic chemistry) also applies to history and, to some extent, politics. So of course, he thinks Howard Zinn is the bomb (I am forgoing a 20-paragraph rant about Zinn).
Anyway, none of that is particularly relevant to what I wanted to talk about, but there’s this scene in Good Will Hunting where Skylar asks Will out for coffee and he replies:
“Great, or maybe we could get together and just eat a bunch of caramels.”
“What?” She replies.
“When you think about it,” he says, “it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.”
Haha. Brilliant! (In that douchey, “I took a course in postmodernism” way).
Red light, green light.
Except, you know what? That’s a really dumb way of thinking about it. I mean I get the point, but the custom of getting together for coffee isn’t actually arbitrary. It evolved as a cultural norm over centuries.
Think of it this way: Using the color red in stoplights is equally as arbitrary as meeting for coffee. We could have gone with green for “stop” and red for “go,” but we didn’t. And societies around the globe have evolved around the idea that, if you see a red stoplight, you should stop. If you arbitrarily changed the system tomorrow, you know what would happen? Lots of people would crash their cars.
Arbitrary means: Based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system. I am entirely open to the idea that the initial decision to pick red for “stop” was arbitrary—even though it wasn’t. From what I can tell, it was picked because red was already the color for “danger” (and because you can see red from the greatest distance). In the first stoplights—which were used for trains, not cars—they used white for “go” and green for “caution.” But a red filter on one stoplight fell out, making the lamp underneath look white. A train accident followed. So they went with green for “go,” red for “stop,” and yellow for “caution” because yellow was the hardest to confuse for the other colors.
The story of coffee is even more complicated, though it starts with the fact that Americans considered tea drinking a British thing. John Adams called tea the “traitors drink.”
Part of my point is that lots of things that seem arbitrary or baseless aren’t. Just because you don’t know why we do something doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason for it (cue mandatory reference to Chesterton’s Fence and 500 pages of Hayek).
Another point worth appreciating is that nature has an uncanny way of creating order out of chaos. I could explain, but this video is a way cooler illustration.
Human beings aren’t nails, but they do have a remarkable ability to spontaneously set up rules of behavior. I learned from David Skarbek that prison gangs create elaborate systems of behavior, including their own constitutions, without ever being told to or consulting the Federalist Papers.
But my real point is that even if something originated as an arbitrary decision, it doesn’t stay arbitrary because humans take it into account as part of the social and cultural landscape. Think of trees: Where a tree takes root could be called fairly random. Certainly, you can pick an arbitrary place to plant one. But once it takes root, the arbitrariness melts away as birds nest in it and squirrels set up their terror networks therein. The address of that specific tree may be arbitrary to you and me—it may seem no different than a thousand other trees—but it is home to the creatures living in it. One of the nastier tactics of the British Empire was to tear down or burn shade trees when trying to conquer various parts of the globe. Big shade trees were—and remain—the natural meeting place of civil society in many cultures.
Disruption vs. disruptors.
One of the biggest problems with capitalism is the downside of its best features: It’s disruptive. It unsettles the settled. This is a glorious thing when it erodes bad institutions and customs. At various points, it helped overthrow tyranny, aristocracy, monarchy, slavery, and prejudice. But it can also wear down good stuff. It can disrupt settled communities, customs, and institutions that would not necessarily benefit from being unsettled. The factory in a factory town may have been built there for fairly arbitrary reasons, but it became a valued shade tree of sorts over time.
The disruptive nature of capitalism—“creative destruction” if you prefer Schumpeter’s phrase—is a net benefit over time. But in the moment of destruction it doesn’t feel that way, particularly by the people for whom it is not actually a net benefit. That’s why disruption itself isn’t the problem, the pace of disruption is. The wool and cotton mills were bad for the Luddites, but good for humanity. Humans can adapt. Americans are particularly good at it. But even the best of us need time to catch up.
I have no problem conceding this downside to capitalism, because it’s real and we shouldn’t shirk from conceding reality. Where I differ from almost all of the left and growing chunks of the right is when we get to the “and therefore what?” portion of the discussion. First of all, the rule of planners and bureaucrats—of any ideological stripe—is more arbitrary than the disruption of the market, and it can be equally painful. The Soviets, in their zeal to help the proletariat, destroyed a whole frick’n sea.
Capitalism works—or at least is supposed to—by laying out clear rules that apply to everyone. That’s the cleanest, clearest, and fairest way to set up an economy and a society. Those rules can have a certain amount of apparent or real arbitrariness behind them. Indeed, that’s inevitable, because cultures are weird by nature and laws reflect culture to some extent. But once set up, their enforcement cannot be arbitrary.
Again, when everybody knows that red means “stop” and green means “go,” the people can govern themselves—for the most part (think of the trillions of times drivers have stopped on red with no law enforcement around). But in a system where some people get to go on red, and others can’t, everything breaks down. If we have an economy where certain players are exempt from the rules because of who they know or because they belong to some special group, then the rules no longer have moral authority. Many people will follow the new arbitrary rules only if fear of getting caught compels them to. And many other people will respond to the new incentive structure and spend more time fighting, campaigning, and lobbying for their own special treatment or exemption from the rules.
The people championing the “little guy,” “the forgotten man,” etc., may be sincere, or at least start out as sincere; I’m sure many of the Castros, Chavezes, Lenins, and Maos of the world started out believing their own propaganda. But any system designed to let rulers arbitrarily decide who is deserving of favor will yield a society where the key to success is currying favor with the rulers. Clear, simple, and just rules help the little guy. Opaque, complex, and arbitrary rules help the rich and powerful. Sure, they may not help the current crop of rich and powerful people, but they will create a new crop of them, and they will not be interested in meeting the needs of the market in the most efficient manner possible. They will be interested, first and foremost, in meeting the needs of the rulers. One need only look at China or Russia today—or every regime prior to, say, 1700 A.D.—to see that.
The people proposing that we get beyond capitalism have many valid criticisms and observations, and some of their ideas have merit at the margins. And when they say that America doesn’t actually live up to the ideal of clear and fair rules for everyone, they often have a point. But what they propose is not to live up to that ideal, but to replace it with another: “We” should be the ones deciding the rules.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Yesterday I saw something awesome, and I wish I could have videotaped it. Gracie, my chonky and queenly cat, was out in the backyard with the dogs and me. Grace and Pippa get along well enough, often sharing a bed or couch. But Zoë and Grace are, at best, frenemies. Anyway, at one point, Gracie spotted a chipmunk and suddenly gave chase, her ample belly swaying to and fro. Zoë saw it and joined the hunt, in a brilliant pincer movement. The chipmunk got away, but I saw the makings of a new alliance forming. Anyway, the dogs are starting to get super needy. At first, they seemed just genuinely happy to be home from the beach, or at least the long car ride. But now they are back to the usual anxiety and neediness whenever my wife is missing (she and Lucy get back from the beach early next week). If I get up to go to the bathroom or grab the remote, they leap up, convinced that we’re either going for a walk or that I am about to abandon them. They’re a bit like an overprotective dad with an attractive teenage daughter. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Where do you think you’re going now?” I walk around the house with a full entourage of two dogs and one cat (Ralph still remains aloof, though less than he used to). Not much else to report, except that I captured on video the super rare four-point sitting spaniel waggle followed by a tennis ball snoot-bounce. She does love her ball. Oh, and Zoë discovered a hell mouth.
Photograph by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images.
And now, the weird stuff