Feed on

My students and I have been discussing our views on why folks seem to be so hostile to capitalism. I think this is a little bit of begging the question, as my reading of history leads me to believe that folks on average were never all that warmed up to the idea. We may see more hand-wringing in writing, but we also see more articles on UFOs today – I don’t think we are any more inclined today to believe that green aliens are going to come and mow down some corn in a cool pattern.

I do think folks like to complain and worry about all kinds of things and then give those things names, it’s easier than articulating lengthy views on a position. Consider the case of envy. Surely if you are human there are things that make you envious of others. We do our best to keep that emotion in check, but I argue that it is one of the hardest emotions to get control over. When you think about the types of people you might find yourself more envious of, or when you examine the types of folks that others around you are envious of, which of the following two characters comes to mind.

(1) The “do it everything guy”: all of you know this person. He can hunt with a bow and arrow and skin and butcher and preserve his catch on his own. He can make cedar siding for his house and install it beautifully. He can grow a ridiculously lovely garden that seems to produce food and flowers all year round. He can wire his own electricity. He can play acoustic guitar. He can hit 80% of his fairways, 300 yards out, with a nice tight draw. And so one. You see this guy out there every day practicing his craft. You see him stacking his firewood, cleaning his yard, fixing his equipment. Every day. But he never once brings you a pepper or sides your house for you. He doesn’t so much as bother you – even if his lawn clippings stray from his lawn, he picks every last one of them up. You see him roasting meat in his yard for his family. You see him bring an old engine back to life. And the guy grows enough food and hunts enough meat to feed himself without having to go to the stores for much more than some spices and oils.

Does this guy make you envious? He is basically self-sufficient and has no need of you, nor does he invite you to be part of his life.


(2) The “do nothing guy”: we are all basically this person. I have some saws and Dremels and the like in my basement, but I cannot so much as build a dog-house without elaborate directions and many hours to spare. I have a couple of pepper plants and cucumber plants, but those are more novelty than food item. I can change my oil, because all it requires is turning a screw. If a shingle falls off my house, I can climb a ladder and nail it back in. I can play a few tunes on an acoustic guitar, but none particularly cleanly or beautifully. If my neighbors see me at all, it is with a backpack on my back heading to or from school or the library to deliver a talk or prepare a talk or attend a conference or seminar. If I am in my yard with multiple people, it is not with my family or friends, but a group of students who basically have hired me to teach them stuff. There are no stockpiles or wood, nor freezers full of meat or anything like it.

Does this guy make you envious? He is the furthest thing from self-sufficient and has great need for you. After all, you pay to send your children to the school he teaches at, and he uses that income to buy his food, roof repair, car repair and so on. The harder this person works, the more he finds himself in need of you. When his wood pile gets high, someone else is receiving the income for it, it is not (directly) a result of this guy chopping down trees and not sharing with you.

Now I am leaving out some good economics here, but reflect for a moment on which of these two people you are likely to have a twinge of envy about? The person who is self-sufficient or the person who exchanges. My two cents is that an honest assessment would have more people answering (1) than (2). And if that is the case, then what do criticisms of capitalism from these same folks amount to? I offer up that people view capitalism as akin to a skilled guy, a self-sufficient guy, who has no need of others, continue to see his wood pile grow as his less-skilled neighbors around him fret about the coming cold winter. They see capitalism as the guy who has no need of others and as the guy who does not teach the rest of us how to survive lives on our own.

I submit that conflating capitalism with a self-sufficient neighbor is wrong. But it doesn’t matter what I think about this – the fact is that I see the tendency of others to envy the sort of “selfish” success that individuals have on their own, and worry that in a world where people were not actually cooperating with one another, many of us would be led to starve. The great blessing (yes, blessing!) of private property and free-exchange is that it encourages us to leave our shells of self-sufficiency (even if for entirely self-motivated reasons) and share our skills and bounties with others. And it calls forth this sharing without having to rely on strong forms of state coercion. Is there some sort of societal coercion working on us? Sure. If I decided to turn my suburban plot into a self-sufficient farm, I’d probably be looked at like a loony. but at least I still have the option of doing it. That I choose not to do it, even as I romaticize the folks that have that ability, is a testament to the UN-alienating aspects of capitalism and markets.

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