On Capitalism

If the links I’ve posted recently give any indication — and they do — I am a critic of capitalism. I have some scruples, though, that keep me from going all the way with that criticism. Let me try to explain.  

  • First, I am not an economist. I have read broadly but not deeply on a variety of economic theories, and I have to confess to coming away rather more confused than I had hoped. Thus I cannot offer a solid opinion on the overarching mechanisms of the economy, since the theories I’ve familiarized myself with conflict, sometimes severely. So I have to admit to “going with my gut” with a number of my views here (not always advisable for a philosopher). But I’d also have to say that I am doubtful that anyone can provide a knock-down, irrefutable argument for one economic system versus another. There is an “irreducible complexity” to global and local economic systems, and different theories offer different tradeoffs. There is no utopian system forthcoming.  

  • Second, even some of us critics of capitalism can see some of that system’s merits. Indeed, even Marx and Lenin can be found approving certain aspects of the capitalist system, at least as they pertain to its role in the “inevitability” of communism (for instance, in the elimination of scarcity). A recent piece regarding capitalism’s role in combating climate change has to be read against the flood of evidence of capitalism’s responsibility for producing dangerous climate change. As this article aptly puts it, we may not be able to “crowd source” our way out of this mess.  

  • Third, I am highly dubious of centralized solutions to challenges of this complexity. To reiterate an ancient knock on socialism, nobody is smart enough to organize the economy from an armchair.  

  • Fourth, I believe in the power of freedom, including free markets. A central tenet of my criticism of capitalism is that it prevents there being truly free markets. The markets we have are oligopolies kept in place by the armaments of various nation states who have become the corporations’ lap dogs. They are anything but free. They are anything but rational. Remember there are two concepts of freedom: I can open up a chemistry lab full of chemicals and bunsen burners and so forth and let you have at it to your heart’s content. You are free to do as you will. But if you are ignorant, you will simply be free to blow yourself up. The lack of restraint is identical to your being captive to the severe consequences of your ignorance. But if you are extremely disciplined in learning how all that equipment works and how all those chemicals might react with each other, then you will be truly free — not to do any old thing you want, but to work in harmony with the reality of that lab in order to do beneficial things relatively safely. Our so-called “free market” seems to me only free in the first sense, having overall a reckless disregard for people and for our world. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical of overly-centralized power.  

  • I cannot at this moment offer a coherent alternative to the clearly problematic and, indeed, dangerous system we now have in place. Things simply must change. But, unlike our current president, I will not embark on a campaign that offers simply a slogan: “Change.” No. Hard work has to be done, and I should be responsible and play my small part. A new theoretical approach (literally, a way of “seeing” our situation) must be developed. I have no doubts that there are insights to be drawn from Marx, but perhaps also by Smith, and certainly by many others. But 18th and 19th century theories will not be adequate to 21st century problems.

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