Thursday, March 1, 2018

Why am I “still” capitalist?


A shares this link on wealth inequality, and asks:

“Serious question- I feel like most people I talk to don’t identify as communists but have come to the realization that capitalism is bad and cannot be reformed.  For people who still think capitalism is a workable system: Why? How can a system this cruel be reformed within the context of an economic structure that prioritizes profit over social welfare? How can it be sustainable in the context of rapidly accelerating climate change?

I think a lot of Hopkins students, politicians, public figures and the media continue to talk about radical change like it’s absurd or unrealistic. But they fail to recognize the reality that the general population has become completely disillusioned with the idea that politicians are trying to help them or protect their interests. I think most people genuinely believe that the economic and political system are fundamentally rigged against them and even if they haven’t articulated an alternative yet they don’t think that the current system will ever actually change or improve things regardless of who’s elected.”
Appreciate the sincere questions, (friend).  I share your impression that there’s widespread distrust and disillusionment with American politicians and a feeling that “the economic and political system” are rigged against them.  I think most people are right to feel that way, so I also share your frustration that the people pulling the strings are so out of touch with that dissatisfaction, and so reluctant to consider radical change.

We just disagree on which specific parts of “the current system” are causing those problems.  It isn’t capitalism – to me, that’s a uselessly broad villain.  Describing our system as merely capitalist is like describing ISIS’s ideology as “religious”: technically accurate, but not specific enough to be a meaningful identifier of what’s wrong.  Likewise, private property ownership and the profit motive are not fair stand-ins for what Americans are so fed up with.

Wondering how we can support tinkering with “an economic structure that prioritizes profit over social welfare” presupposes those things are in contrast.  They’re totally not!  Profit occurs in a capitalist system when people help each other through trade, making mutually beneficial transactions that leave them both better off (in their own minds) than they were before.  In other words, profit is the RESULT of incremental improvements in social welfare.  It is the proof that some degree of social welfare was created.

I can quibble with the way they calculated this “report” in another comment if you’re interested, but my main point is that Jeff Bezos making billions of dollars is not in contrast with the welfare of society.  It is the byproduct of his launching an online interface that has made an enormous diversity of products conveniently available to billions of people at cheap prices and fast shipping times.  It is the result of his technological and logistical innovations vastly improving the world and making all of our lives easier – our welfare, enhanced.  That he makes boatloads of money from it is just a happy side effect, not the main story.  And were he prevented from doing so – taken from “according to his ability” before Amazon got so big, and Bezos so rich – the result would be more poverty, not less.

As for how it can be environmentally sustainable, we have to impose costs on behavior that damages things nobody can own, so as to simulate the same protections capitalism affords the things we can own.  If we punish carbon emissions in proportion to the harm they inflict on others, we can capture the cost of the externality into the price of engaging in those activities. 
The plan Jason shared the other day is one sensible way to do this.

No comments:

Post a Comment