The Corner

The Meaning of Capitalism

I’ve received an enormous amount of email, mostly positive, about my capitalism column (the most common complaint from the friendly readers was that capitalism is a Marxist term we shouldn’t concede. A fair complaint). But I thought this email is worth responding to:

I’m sure that even you understand that as human beings our needs are not limited to material wealth. For most people, what motivates us is not acquiring wealth, but feeling that our lives have meaning. While capitalism does build our material wealth, it does this at the expense of making many people increasingly irrelevant. Is the trade-off worth it? Probably, but that doesn’t mean capitalism is a flawless system.

Me: First, I like that “even you understand” dig.

Second, I never said capitalism was flawless, which even this reader should be able to understand.

Third, I agree that capitalism is flawed and that it doesn’t provide us with a sense of meaning. However, I don’t think that is it’s flaw. I don’t want the government to provide me with meaning. I don’t want to live in a society where politics is the chief provider of “meaning” either. Some may recall, I wrote a whole book touching on the problems with politics of “meaning.”

Fourth, I don’t believe that capitalism makes people irrelevant. Democratic free market systems respect individuals far, far, far more than systems which reject both democracy and free markets. Explicitly anti-capitalist systems treat the individual with barbaric indifference. In America, we lionize the individual. And, in our system, and those like it, the government is not openly hostile to the better and more authentic sources of meaning – faith, friends, neighborhoods, culture, civil society etc. Of course, sometimes the state oversteps its bounds, makes mistakes, gets in bed with business, whatever. But these are not the fulfillments of free market ideology. Most often they are violations of it.

Update: Heh, from a reader:

In response to your reader who doesn’t understand the irony of complaining to Jonah Goldberg that capitalism’s flaw is that it doesn’t provide people with meaning… as the great Thomas Sowell once wrote,

“Many have argued that capitalism does not offer a satisfactory moral message. But that is like saying that calculus does not contain cabrohydrates, amino acids, or other essential nutrients. Everything fails by irrevelant standards.”

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