I object to the term “crony capitalism” because it gives a misleading and negative perception of the most beneficial — and moral — economic system ever experienced by man.
I object to New York Times columnist David Brooks for the same reason.
Few things are more harmful to a rational debate over national economic policy than an electorate that is not just uninformed, but misinformed. And when it comes to economics, misinformation almost always has the effect — no doubt intentional — of encouraging voters to mistrust liberty, especially economic liberty, while looking to a feckless, impersonal, self-serving government for care and comfort.
Assailing capitalism is necessary for the election of Democrats. But, outside of liberal enclaves and universities, spreading misinformation and distrust of free enterprise is not a particularly easy task since its benefits are obvious to most Americans: capitalist countries have higher standards of living than non-capitalist countries; capitalism has lifted a billion human beings out of poverty in less than a generation; Americans are congenitally allergic to government meddling in our businesses (though too many are willing to tolerate meddling in other people’s businesses); and our nation was conceived to enable your “pursuit of happiness” — a pursuit that you instinctively know is most compatible with economic freedom.
Therefore, an effective (even if dishonest) critique of capitalism requires attacking its edges rather than its strong heart by focusing on barely relevant tertiary effects (real or, as with Brooks’ claims, fictitious) and demonizing the rich as greedy, heartless, and parasitic. You’ve heard these myths repeated ad nauseam, particularly leftist frothing about income inequality, the rich “buying elections,” the “one percent,” and so on.
Each of these tropes is easily — and often — debunked. But they still have some effect on those whose basic understanding of economics and liberty causes them to forget that no other economic system has done as much good for as many people as capitalism and no other system is compatible with a free people.
Of course, it’s all the better for the left if a “conservative” makes the arguments for them — which is where David Brooks usefully comes in.
Brooks’ recent article, “The Ambition Explosion,” represents the pinnacle, or more accurately the nadir, of soft elitist antipathy toward capitalism. The basic point seems to be that capitalism “arouses enormous ambition, but it doesn’t help you define where you should focus it.”
Brooks’ article isn’t reprehensible simply because it is so wrongheaded but also because it plays into the Upper West Side view of capitalism as spiritually and morally bankrupt, letting the supercilious cocktail party crowd say, while resting on Brooks’ declining credentials as a conservative, “See, I told you so.”
To wit: Within the online comments to Brooks’ confused article are such liberal gems as “Finally you have written a column I can completely agree with. I love the good of capitalism and I hate the evil of it. We need balance.” So, Christine, just what do you “balance” freedom with?
And then there is Daniel who says that “Capitalism promotes individualism. As such it is antithetical to tradition and morality.” Is that because collectivism is so tradition-honoring and principled? How’d that work out in Cambodia, just to name one national victim of anti-individualism?
David Brooks assumes that one’s economic life is supposed to be the source, or at least a key underpinning, of one’s spiritual life. He argues that capitalism “nurtures the illusion that career and economic success can lead to fulfillment, which is the central illusion of our time.”
But does it really, and is it really? Did Hayek or Friedman or Smith suggest profit as a substitute for prayer or any other non-economic aspect of human endeavor? Is there anything inherent in free-market economics that implies it is supposed to create or replace “fulfillment”? No, Brooks’ target is the thinnest of straw men.
David, what capitalism allows is for you to avoid the life described by Thomas Hobbes as the default situation for humankind: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Capitalism ensures that you don’t have to spend every waking hour looking for food or worrying about illness, injury, or death; capitalism allows even the poor some time to pursue other things — things that can lead to “fulfillment,” a term with a meaning so broad as to be meaningless in a discussion of economics.
And if capitalism actually does cause people to think that economic success can lead to fulfillment (not an entirely unreasonable proposition as far as it goes), is that not preferable to, say, communism’s nurturing a realization that fulfillment is both impossible and a thought crime?
Brooks expands on his bizarre idea to argue that “Capitalism on its own breeds people who are vaguely aware that they are not living the spiritually richest life, who are ill-equipped to know how they might do so, who don’t have the time to do so, and who, when they go off to find fulfillment, end up devoting themselves to scattershot causes and light religions.”
Condescend much, David?
And — as economist Don Boudreaux taught me, the key question when considering an economic policy — compared to what? Compared to non-capitalist societies where religion is frowned upon, if not banned and persecuted? Compared to places and times where mere survival would take all your time? At least it saves the hungry and poor from a metaphysically devastating awareness of their lack of spiritual fulfillment. Oh, the humanity!
Brooks’ mention of “light religions” and “scattershot causes” is particularly bizarre. After all, the United States remains, despite a persistent decline in our economic freedom, a highly capitalistic country. It is also consistently one of the most religious (and most generous) countries in the industrialized world. Furthermore, I would suggest that there is an inverse correlation in this country between the “lightness” of a religion and its members’ support for capitalism. For more information, see “Unitarian” and “Reform Judaism.”
From Rotary Club to church groups to Boy Scouts to environmentalist organizations to a never-ending array of charities that millions on the left and the right hold deep commitments to, the idea that Americans engage in “scattershot causes” is laughable. Perhaps Mr. Brooks, wading through his own religion of “light conservatism,” is just projecting.
The article spends most of its time oddly criticizing China as “an extreme example of this phenomenon,” claiming that “(capitalist) fever, like communism before it, stripped away the deep rich spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Taoism.” It says something about NY Times readers that they would take seriously anything Mr. Brooks says after a statement so comprehensively disconnected from reality.
Early in his murderous tyranny, Chairman Mao Zedong spoke positively of religious freedom — while at the same time attacking Christians, especially westerners, and saying that missionary work was designed by “imperialist powers” to “poison the minds of the Chinese people.” But any ambiguity about Mao’s (unsurprising, given his Marxist roots) hatred of religion was long gone by the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966: religion faced intense assault, with houses of worship destroyed, bibles, religious texts burned, monks and priests beaten and shamed.
As UCSD Professor Richard Madsen — an author of a dozen books on Chinese culture and (unlike David Brooks) a true expert — put it, “Until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the People’s Republic of China suppressed—and, during the Cultural Revolution, violently persecuted—virtually all forms of religion.”
But in recent years, as the still dictatorial Communist Party has moved the country steadily toward a capitalist economic system, the revival of religion (along with the decline in poverty) in the Middle Kingdom has been nothing short of astounding. Madsen continues: “Most secular China scholars in the West… assumed that Chinese religion was dead. Thus, one of the biggest surprises of China’s reform era (beginning in 1979) has been the resurgence of religious belief and practice. All across the country, old forms are being revived and new forms invented. These unexpected developments call into question not only our ability to understand China, but also many of the assumptions that social scientists hold about the secularization of the modern world.”
Yet Brooks wants us to believe that increasing economic liberty (even without equal political liberty) has had the same impact on religion in China that the bloody wave of Maoism had? His claim shares more in common with Holocaust deniers than it does with reality.
Brooks wrings his hands over the fact that Chinese “capitalist reforms… raised the ambition levels of an entire society.” I’m still struggling to understand how anyone could object to that, given the alternative of passively watching your squalid life ebb away under the boots of depraved commissars who would not allow you a moment of self-concern, much less ambition.
Perhaps Mr. Brooks would like to ask a quarter-billion new Chinese urbanites who have fled the persistent grinding poverty of Chinese farm life whether they would like to exchange their current economic opportunities for their prior oh-so-pleasant lack of ambition (and the short life span that goes along with it).
A Chinese peasant knows what Mr. Brooks doesn’t: Free market capitalism, despite the screeching and condescension of the hard and soft left, is — borrowing Winston Churchill’s characterization of democracy — the worst economic system except for all the others.
Brooks manages to contradict his own theory of the spiritual equivalence of communism and capitalism by noting that as China was moving from the former to the latter, “many Chinese sensed that there was a spiritual void at the core of their society. They sought to fill it any way they could, with revived Confucianism, nationalism, lectures by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and Christianity.”
As if the beginning of capitalist reform rather than decades of brutal repression caused that “spiritual void.” And as if those living in Maoist China would have even dared discuss a “spiritual void” much less have the ability to try to fill it. For their new opportunities, economic and spiritual alike, they have capitalism to thank.