What I like about capitalism: early thoughts

This is in response to my friend Tom’s post about capitalism a few weeks back. Let me expound, not entirely coherently, on why I consider myself a capitalist these days.

I guess, really, it comes down to what I commented there:

... I can’t think of a lot of cultures that are really dynamic and multiracial and have economies that are significantly different from the Washington Consensus.

The word “multiracial” matters, and it matters tremendously, and I guess I can’t help but feel like I’m personally invested in that part of the issue. I’ve briefly lived and traveled in Europe, and I feel like the model of socialist democracy they have in many continental countries works extremely well, if you were fortunate enough to have been born inside the country in question. But how does it work for outsiders? What is it like to be an immigrant in Sweden? Are the Moroccans living in the banlieues outside of Paris happy with the opportunities they have?

I lived in Spain for five months, from 2001 to 2002, and I enjoyed myself, but there was never any doubt: I could live in Spain for fifty years, and nobody would’ve considered me a Spaniard. This isn’t the sort of thing a lot of people worry about when they’re younger but I suppose I was starting to think about these things in adult terms, and a certain degree of social acceptance matters to me, not least ‘cause then I don’t have to watch my back so much. You might have friends and co-workers who like having a drink with you at the bar, but if something serious goes down, if you have legal or financial troubles or who-knows-what, are they going to watch your back?

How’s that related to capitalism? Well, my tenuous theory might go something like this: In the U.S., we’re slowly taking every other sort of prejudice and replacing it with one based on money. For example, I remember reading (in The Nation, I think), that the Sears Roebuck catalog gave a generation of black working class families the ability to buy household goods that they couldn’t buy in the local department store.

So, you’re given a fragmented, inequal, chance to climb out of a situation of prejudice if you just work really hard and are sort of smart. This is pretty vicious in practice but perhaps it’s more fair than the old system of prejudices. Sure, I can complain about how Paris Hilton never had to work the way I did, but I can still work hard and make okay money. I can be a self-made success story from Pakistan or Estonia and a lot of Americans will accept me as an American at least. But if I’m an African immigrant in Spain, there’s probably nothing I can do to become Spanish.

And I think that cultural freedom (or vacuum, from a particularly statist European point of view) and capitalism are closely related. The U.S. and the U.K. seem to be relatively successful at racial integration, and they are fairly capitalist economies. Many of the countries in continental Europe have been successful at guaranteeing a high standard of living for their natural-born citizens but seem to be significantly less welcoming to newcomers. I’m not a huge expert in Europe or anything, so there could be cases I’m missing, but most of what I’ve read and heard and experienced makes me lean this way.

That doesn’t mean that I’m equating an open marketplace with liberty—I usually never use the phrase “free market” precisely because I dislike its theological intentions. There’s nothing inherently immoral about high taxes, to my mind, though a poorly designed tax can have bad consequences.

And certainly, an unfettered capitalism has many downsides, a lot of which are on display right now. The financial system is a mess, and the big banks are like tapeworms working their way up the intestines of the federal government. Also, this has been back-burnered for a second, but the global race for growth has been done in a way that’s severely destructive to the planet’s health, and we need to fix that too. I guess I’d say my ideal would be a system that has severe regulations on the environment, shrinks the size of the financial sector, and protects the poorest among us, but is still capitalist at its core. Maybe that’s as utopian as imagining a socialist America, it’s hard to say.

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Tagged: economics

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