January 13, 2008

Capitalism's PR Problem

The best argument for capitalism is socialism, but it suffers a bit of a PR problem (via Tim Blair):
The problem for those of us who believe that capitalism offers the best chance we have for leading meaningful and worthwhile lives is that in this debate, the devil has always had the best tunes to play. Capitalism lacks romantic appeal. It does not set the pulse racing in the way that opposing ideologies like socialism, fascism, or environmentalism can. It does not stir the blood, for it identifies no dragons to slay. It offers no grand vision for the future, for in an open market system the future is shaped not by the imposition of utopian blueprints, but by billions of individuals pursuing their own preferences. Capitalism can justifiably boast that it is excellent at delivering the goods, but this fails to impress in countries like Australia that have come to take affluence for granted.

It is quite the opposite with socialism. Where capitalism delivers but cannot inspire, socialism inspires despite never having delivered. Socialism’s history is littered with repeated failures and with human misery on a massive scale, yet it still attracts smiles rather than curses from people who never had to live under it. Affluent young Australians who would never dream of patronising an Adolf Hitler bierkeller decked out in swastikas are nevertheless happy to hang out in the Lenin Bar at Sydney’s Circular Quay, sipping chilled vodka cocktails under hammer and sickle flags, indifferent to the twenty million victims of the Soviet regime. Chic westerners are still sporting Che Guevara t-shirts, forty years after the man’s death, and flocking to the cinema to see him on a motor bike, apparently oblivious to their handsome hero’s legacy of firing squads and labour camps.
And today's most self-righteous have flocked to the next-generation socialist ideology:
Environmentalism, too, has the happy knack of inspiring the young and firing the imagination of idealists. This is because the radical green movement shares many features with old-style revolutionary socialism. Both are oppositional, defining themselves as alternatives to the existing capitalist system. Both are moralistic, seeking to purify humanity of its tawdry materialism and selfishness, and appealing to our ‘higher instincts.’ Both are apocalyptic, claiming to be able to read the future and warning, like Old Testament prophets, of looming catastrophe if we do not change our ways. And both are utopian, holding out the promise of redemption through a new social order based on a more enlightened humanity. All of this is irresistibly appealing to romantics.

Both socialism and environmentalism also share an unshakeable belief in their own infallibility, which further ramps up their attractiveness. Both dismiss their opponents as either ignorant (‘falsely conscious’) or in bad faith, and they are both reluctant to allow counter-arguments, evidence, or logic to deflect them from the urgent pursuit of their proffered solutions. Although they both ground their claims in ‘science,’ their appeal is as much emotional as rational, and both take themselves so seriously that they lose any sense of irony. Rockstars fly around the world in private jets to perform at sellout stadium concerts demanding action on global warming, and indignant youths coordinate anti-globalisation protests using global communication networks.
And the intellectuals that harp on the benefits of socialism?
But the best explanation for the intellectuals’ distaste for capitalism was offered by Friedrich Hayek in The Fatal Conceit. Hayek understood that capitalism offends intellectual pride, while socialism flatters it. Humans like to believe they can design better systems than those that tradition or evolution have bequeathed. We distrust evolved systems, like markets, which seem to work without intelligent direction according to laws and dynamics that no one fully understands.

Nobody planned the global capitalist system, nobody runs it, and nobody really comprehends it. This particularly offends intellectuals, for capitalism renders them redundant. It gets on perfectly well without them. It does not need them to make it run, to coordinate it, or to redesign it. The intellectual critics of capitalism believe they know what is good for us, but millions of people interacting in the marketplace keep rebuffing them. This, ultimately, is why they believe capitalism is ‘bad for the soul’: it fulfils human needs without first seeking their moral approval.

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