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What Capitalism Is For



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My essay on the homepage this morning is derived from my new book, The End Is Near And It’s Going To Be Awesome, which is one part nerdy analysis of the fiscal pickle we’re in and one part meditation on how to go about building institutions that work once the bankrupt ones we have finally fall apart.

One of the things I’ve tried to emphasize is correcting a defect in the rhetoric and thinking of free-marketers and libertarians: the self-aggrandizing “law of the jungle” conception of the capitalist enterprise, an idea that takes too seriously and too literally what Ayn Rand called “the virtue of selfishness.” Capitalism is the opposite of the atomistic, antisocial tendency sometimes ascribed to it — by both its critics and admirers — because in the free market the only way to prosper is by paying a great deal of attention to what other people value. (I got into that idea a bit in “Welcome to the Machine.”) While I am by no means opposed to the political philosophy that may be summarized “Leave me the hell alone,” I’d like to pay some more attention to the question of why the government should leave people the hell alone. The answer is that we value human beings and the ends they have for their own lives, and that we can do more for each other outside of politics than within it. The issue is not only how we govern, but how we live.

In part, this argument is intended as a response to a question that T. S. Eliot poses in Choruses from ‘The Rock’:

When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?
 

The problems that the welfare state was intended to address are not going away; there will always be among us the poor, children, the disabled, the unlucky, and others who need our help. I have never thought that Americans particularly resented this; we are an extraordinarily generous people. What we dislike and resist is the defective, politics-centered approach to these issues that simply cultivates dependency and exploitation while doing little or nothing to address the substantive problems. I’d like all of us to consider the possibility that we can start changing that now, not at some point in the theoretical future when all the right people are elected to high offices and all the right ideas are being taught in the schools, but today, without begging permission. 



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