I got a spanking recently from a few commenters at the Belmont Club for comparing capitalism and communism. I won’t go so far as to say they are the same thing, which would be ridiculous, but they have plenty in common, because of the times we live in.
Knowledge was once limited to the very few. Knowledge that couldn’t be passed along orally had to be passed along in books, which were hand written and extremely expensive. This changed with the printing press; you could produce large numbers of books fairly cheaply. I have not said anything not stunningly obvious or said a million times before.
The problem, as a businessman will tell you, is not producing a product but selling the damn thing. If you don’t want a warehouse full of rotting books, they had better be something the average man with a few shillings in his pockets wants to read. Thus at this point in history, the most important thing about an idea is not whether it was good, but whether it was popular. And that remains the case to this day.
Capitalism and communism are both ideas intended to appeal to the majority of the population. Purists of both philosophies will claim they have never really been tried, which is both true and irrelevant. Reasonable facsimiles of both have been tried in the real world, and we have seen how they worked out.
With communism it went really, really badly, for reasons well-understood. Capitalism has triumphantly claimed its victory, but I don’t think it gets credit for all it claims; much of what is good in any capitalist country (or socialist country) comes from the character of its people, not its political and economic system.
If capitalism doesn’t have the drawbacks of communism, which does it have? In truth we have not the hard, heroic capitalism of Ayn Rand, with genius inventors and sweat and grease covered laborers, but the fun and friendly capitalism of Milton Friedman, where everything is just wonderful as long as government doesn’t interfere- with the important exception of precisely controlling the money supply. The fact that just what the money supply is, isn’t entirely clear is a trifling detail. The capitalism of modern conservatism is a Disney theme park of wealth, prosperity, and ease, with the sources of these things carefully hidden away behind locked doors that say “Cast Members Only!”
One example of this is modern conservatives’ devotion to the idea of education. The obsession with education isn’t really liberal, I don’t think. The idea that people can be educated, and thus become much better producers and consumers, is really a capitalist hope. Education certainly offers a lot of possibility, for certain people under certain conditions anyway. Sociology benefits nobody, and engineering only those intelligent enough to grasp it.
Monetarist economics has two pillars, cheap money, as endlessly injected by the Fed to keep the party going, and cheap labor, the endless supply of immigrants to supply us with goods and services to buy with our cheap money. The goods are turning out to be both worthless and very expensive- $700,000 tract homes in California rotting from the inside due to poor construction and cheap plywood. The immigrants themselves are of course outrageously expensive, bankrupting the once Golden State.
The conservative response here is that California is run by idiot liberals, which is partly true. But the cheap labor economy was well-established there in the 80’s, when it was still firmly in the control of libertarian conservatives who supported illegal immigration. Keynes qualified his idea by saying the government should run a surplus in good times, but of course this is ignored in practice; the same with Friedman’s allowance that you can’t have both a welfare state and unlimited immigration. Human nature being what it is, we have deficits in good times and bad, and a welfare state specifically for illegal immigrants.
The idea that you can’t get something for nothing or there is no free lunch are salty ideas well known to the common man, but in a society devoted to the common man you dare not say them- if you want to run a government or a corporation. If you want to say it in your cranky blog, fine, just stay anonymous.