Politics & Policy

The Limitations of Capitalism

Volunteers with the Points of Light organzation lend a hand at a school in East Harlem, N.Y.
The institutions outside of it — the Burkean little platoons — need to pull their weight.

Dear Reader (Including the growing number of you who don’t want this “news”letter to be a safe place where you can share things),

Here’s something I don’t say everyday: Capitalism ain’t all that.

#ad#Don’t get me wrong. I’m still the artist behind the spoken-word album, Capitalism Is My Bag, Baby. But here’s the problem. Because most people on the right love and respect capitalism and pretty much everyone on the right feels the very real need to defend capitalism from the Occupiers, technocrats, sans-culottes, nudgers, equalizers, faux pragmatists, and other members of the Social Justice League, we don’t spend enough time focusing on the limitations of capitalism.

I say “limitations” rather than “faults,” because limitations aren’t necessarily faults. This is a really important distinction that is sometimes lost on people. A car that can’t go more than five miles per hour is faulty. A car that can’t drive through solid rock is simply a car. Water has no protein. But few would say that water isn’t essential or good. Water does what it does, but it can’t do things water can’t do. Air is awesome. I use it every day. I’m using it right now! But if ever there was a good illustration of how “necessary” and “sufficient” aren’t the same thing, air is it.

And so it is with capitalism. Okay, technically we don’t need capitalism the way we need air or water. Cavemen didn’t have it. And, as a result, they ate a lot of grubs, scraped their dangly bits on rocks while running away from large hungry animals, and usually died a violent or painful death at a young age. The North Koreans don’t have capitalism and many North Koreans would count themselves lucky to live like cavemen. In fact, much of the West didn’t have it, in a meaningful sense, until around 1700 at the earliest. And that’s why it stunk to live in 1700 — literally and figuratively — for a lot of people.

Since then we’ve gotten richer — a lot richer. In fact, living standards have improved 16-fold since the 1700s according to Deirdre McCloskey (for more on this please read this great little item by David Boaz). And as stunning as that fact is, it probably fails to measure the huge but intangible improvements in our lives made possible by the fruits of capitalism.

See, I’m guilty of the very thing I’m criticizing. I wanted to talk about the limitations of capitalism and yet I felt a burning need to defend it first. It’s a good reminder — for me at least — that capitalism is sort of like Israel; for all its objective strengths its enemies are always looking for an opportunity to pounce on it or use statements from its defenders against it. And so its friends feel the need to preface every criticism with a defense of it first. They may also feel the need to go on a huge detour or tangent. But not me . . .

Glass Feeling

Last week a person named Amy Glass wrote a breathtakingly honest — and breathless — rejection of traditional motherhood:

I hear women talk about how “hard” it is to raise kids and manage a household all the time. I never hear men talk about this. It’s because women secretly like to talk about how hard managing a household is so they don’t have to explain their lack of real accomplishments. Men don’t care to “manage a household.” They aren’t conditioned to think stupid things like that are “important.”

 Women will be equal with men when we stop demanding that it be considered equally important to do housework and real work. They are not equal. Doing laundry will never be as important as being a doctor or an engineer or building a business. This word play is holding us back. 

First, a few small points. I hear men talk about how hard it is to manage a household and raise kids all the time. (We may not talk about it in terms Glass can recognize, but as a subscriber to the Happy Wife, Happy Life school of marriage, it’s my experience that husbands who don’t recognize and appreciate how hard it is to run a home soon become ex-husbands or miserable husbands.) Glass also may only be hearing what she wants to hear. Or, she may know only asinine men. Who knows? Frankly I don’t care which one is right because I don’t put a lot of stock in what Glass has to say.

Second, this is truly shabby work:

Doing laundry will never be as important as being a doctor or an engineer or building a business. This word play is holding us back. 

Talk about word play! You see the sleight of hand, right? “Doing laundry” is a single, discrete task, a subset of a vast realm of responsibilities that often come with running a household and being a mother. Being a doctor, engineer, or business-builder are total careers or vocations. In other words, it’s a false analogy. Like saying being a chef isn’t as worthwhile as being a truck driver because chefs “cut vegetables.” Every career or calling involves unpleasant or tedious tasks (“Tell me about it” — The Couch).

#page#Just in case you still don’t get it, another illustration. Raising kids involves taking the barbarian clay of a baby and through the alchemy of love and the application of intellect turning it into an emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy human being and citizen. Meanwhile, doctors put their fingers in old men’s butts. So, to sum up: “Putting fingers in old men’s butts will never be as important as raising children. The word play is holding us back.”

Third (as a reader flagged for me), Glass is not exactly a rigorous thinker. On January 15 she writes:

Every time I hear someone say that feminism is about validating every choice a woman makes I have to fight back vomit.

#ad#On January 17 she writes:

The great thing about Feminism is that it means that women can do anything. You can be a working woman or a stay at home mother and both choices are equally valid. There is no “wrong way” to do feminism.

This means that as good feminists, we never judge the choices of other women. 

Assuming there isn’t a technical explanation for what’s going on here (a false byline, a prank, or maybe an angry capuchin monkey loose in the IT department) this is the kind of inconsistency that doesn’t invite refutation so much as medication.

 

Feminism and the Market

Still what I found interesting about Glass’s disparagement of being a mom is how it largely buys into not only a traditionally male understanding of self-worth but into a capitalist one. Want to be a real woman? Get a job! Start a business! Escape from the dungeon of domesticity!

Yes, I know Betty Friedan, a Communist who found feminism a useful Trojan Horse, made similar arguments. She called the traditional home a “comfortable concentration camp.” But as with most influential writers — and she was influential — her own motives in making her argument are less interesting than why the arguments persuaded people. To wit: Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique didn’t catch on because socialism was succeeding in America. It caught on because capitalism was.

The revolutionary tide of living standards Deirdre McCloskey identified was crashing on all sides. Dishwashers, refrigerators, laundry machines, etc. were tangible tools in what Francis Bacon (mmmm bacon) called “the relief of man’s estate” or more properly in this context the relief of woman’s estate. On another side, the rise of mass communication and mass education raised the ambitions of women. The market-fueled spread of meritocracy transformed the Ivy League from finishing schools for the young princes of the WASP kingdom into a brass ring for the best and brightest of all races, creeds, and sexes.

Fast-forward to today and the old tired anti-capitalist feminism — still thriving on some campuses to be sure — looks as relevant as Soviet realist posters of big-boned women carrying in the wheat crop. These days being a feminist boils down to being a famous woman who isn’t identifiable as a Republican. Beyoncé and Sheryl Sandberg are feminists because feminists are women that left-wing feminists want to claim as feminists.

Interestingly, the surest route to becoming a feminist icon isn’t through politics. See: Sarah Palin, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Margaret Thatcher, et al. No, if you’re a non-conservative woman who wants to get profiled on the Today Show or 60 Minutes as a feminist hero, you only need to do one of two things: get rich or get famous, but preferably both.

 

It’s Still Only Two Cheers for Capitalism

Even if I wasn’t the father of a daughter, the husband of a very successful wife, and the son of, well, you know who, I would hail the liberation of women as one of the greatest selling points of capitalism. Capitalism frees people, not just from material poverty but from systems of oppression. It smashes old prejudices, provides the means of self-discovery, establishes objective standards of merit, and creates ever new and exciting ways to hide more cheese on a pizza (I keep thinking of George Heart’s philosophy of gold from Deadwood).

But capitalism has its limits. It creates wealth, but is utterly silent about what should be done with that wealth. It provides avenues for accomplishment in certain spheres, but engenders a culture — on the left and the right — that often looks with skepticism or hostility at people who want to measure their accomplishments in terms not easily monetized. (Quick! Everyone read some Christopher Lasch!) Because of its insatiable and ingenious capacity to translate human wants and desires into products, it has the tendency to commercialize things best not commercialized, from sex to Christmas to childhood itself.

But the problem “with” capitalism isn’t capitalism. It’s with the institutions outside of capitalism: family, community, faith, and, yes, government. They are failing to keep up their end of the ecosystem.

Let’s be lazy and compare capitalism to water again. Capitalism, like water, is what it is and does what it does. You don’t create a dam with water (unless you’re the dude from the Wonder Twins — “Form of an ice dam!”). You create a dam out of some other substance. Over time water will wear down almost any obstacle; the Grand Canyon teaches us that. But you can maintain dams. That’s what a healthy society does: It maintains the infrastructure of a healthy society. When a dam bursts, no one blames the water for doing what it does; they blame the dam (or the dam-keepers) for failing to do what it’s supposed to do.

#page#One of the biggest problems facing the Right these days is an inability to answer the question, “How should we live?” One reason for this is that we don’t want the government imposing an answer. Another reason is that we rightly don’t want to tell other people how to live. A third is that the conservatives who do try to tell everyone how to live are simply buzzkills and pariahs in the mainstream culture. A fourth reason is that we simply assume that the institutions of civil society that we draw meaning from are adequate for others to draw meaning from as well. And maybe they are — but something is stopping a lot of people from drawing sustenance from the Burkean little platoons of civil society. And, as a result, many are also having trouble making the most of what capitalism has to offer.

This was my point about how the Constitution is powerless against Satan. A healthy society should not have to resort to constitutional arguments to explain why building a shrine to devil-worshippers on public land next to the Ten Commandments is incredibly stupid. Indeed, if all you have left are constitutional arguments, you’ve lost.

#ad#“Today, the New Left is rushing in to fill the spiritual vacuum at the center of our free and capitalist society,” Irving Kristol wrote over three decades ago in Two Cheers for Capitalism. Indeed, because they are liberated from the need to pay tribute to the idols of the old order, the Left has always had an easier time telling people how they should live. Conservatives — who wish to conserve what is good or even eternal about the old order — are always at a disadvantage in this regard. (Our advantage is that our ideas may be boring but they have been proven to work. “What is conservatism?” Abraham Lincoln asked. “Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?”)

Thanks to the mostly healthy influence of libertarianism, conservatives have lost interest in making arguments about right and wrong, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable, preferring instead to fall back on the principles of the Constitution, federalism, and individual liberty. We’ve largely gotten out of the business of telling people how to live. And that’s probably a good thing, at least in most circumstances.

The problem is that the Left hasn’t gotten out of that business — at all. It is selling people an answer to “How should we live?” It’s fine for us to point out the deficiencies of their offer. But it would be nice if conservatives had a counter-offer that people wanted to hear.

 

Various & Sundry

Zoë is home. She is still in rough shape but on the mend. It didn’t sound like she’d survive last week (her white-blood-cell count basically dropped to nothing). She didn’t eat solid food for almost a week. She’s skin and bones now and her gastrointestinal discipline is roughly on par with Joe Biden’s verbal discipline. We have concerns about medical and behavioral issues, but for now we’re just happy she’s out of solitary confinement at the vet. Please, puppy buyers take note. Parvo is some serious stuff. Anyway, thanks for all the support. Here she is in my lap on the way home from the vet yesterday.

My column today is on Wendy Davis — the superhero of abortion rights for whom talking about abortion is kryptonite.

I had a grand time out in LA for the 200th Ricochet podcast recording (here I am hashing out everything with Dennis Prager). Really, a wonderful bunch of people. Even James Lileks.

Speaking of Lileks, given the nature of the V&S portion of this “news”letter, it’s kind of outrageous that I’ve never linked to his wonder-emporium of the fun and bizarre. You should spend the whole day there.

Undersea circles solved.

Sell your kid into slavery, buy a great TV. (See the reviews.)

Punxutawny Phil’s record.

Government goons destroy kids’ fort.

Ten movies Roger Ebert really hated.

Eight Super Bowl commercials for companies that don’t exist anymore.

Speaking of losers and football, do you remember the “Loser Bowl”?

Cutting out the bad-Chinese-food middle man! Man allegedly adopted plump black cats so he could eat them.

20 photos of the best snowmen ever made.

38 pieces of food-inspired clothes and accessories that look “dope.

Self-portrait in cake.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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