Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Social Virtues of Capitalism

Capitalism forces people to get along with others different than themselves, and to value a variety of talents. Alternative means of bestowing status and goods are invariably much worse. The accusations of soulless money-making, sometimes true at the individual level, turn out to be exactly reversed at the societal level. It is the market economies which allow people to find importance in many ways. We trade money for all sorts of things, not only at the spending end, but at the making end. Imagine that as a young person you decided that your one goal was to make money. By taking a dangerous, insecure, or distant job, nearly anyone can make a lot of money. But we trade safety for money – we don’t want to work high-story construction. We trade morality – we don’t sell drugs or sell ourselves. We decide we would rather be near friends, we would rather have job security, we would rather not work nights, we would rather have a status job, or one with hope of advancement. We trade income for working conditions, for sense of purpose, or for time with family, for pleasant companions. Those choices have a monetary value to us, though we seldom think of them that way. And we can each decide the value for ourselves.

Some of these trade-offs are available in socialist economies, but to a far lesser extent. Mobility is restricted. Levelling of income just makes the other factors, e.g. status or location, of greater importance. The currency changes, that's all. When we make every job of equal worth, who would work longer hours? Who would choose the dangerous job when the safe one pays almost as much? If we don’t reward these things according to the choices that people actually make, no one will put up with unpleasantness unless made to.

People’s objections to capitalism usually boil down to the fact that the Wrong People make money, doing things that are less valuable than what my values say should be so in a just society. I find the ensuing statements of who should be rewarded to be humorously self-serving. Tangent. We think cancer researchers should be better rewarded than baseball players -- but we hate pharmaceutical companies.

The poverty of some is held up as the basis for complaint, but a greater percentage of Swedes are below America’s poverty line than are Americans. Virtually no Swedes are below Sweden’s poverty line, but that’s not the same thing. There is a poverty of hopelessness and fear which is greater in America than in other developed countries, but that is caused by the very things we have done to fix it.

We have made neighborhoods dangerous with urban architecture, for example. Each building in The Projects becomes an island, difficult for society’s controls to penetrate.


David Foster said...

I once saw an interview someone did with a southern plantation owner and slavemaster, before the Civil War. He said that a major advantage of his way of life over that of a northern businessman was that the businessman had to *get along* with people to earn his livelihood..something that he (the plantation owner) thought was degrading, and that he didn't feel he had to do in his own environment...

SC&A said...

AVI, remember this?