Monday, September 14, 2009

What is capitalism?

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?... Has it ever occurred to your, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?... The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."

--George Orwell, "Nineteen Eighty-Four"

As a libertarian, I need never fear a shortage of frustration. The government is assured to do something I will disapprove of tomorrow. The newspapers are sure to publish all sorts of asinine commentary that ignores the logic of Austrian [free market] economics and the ethics of libertarianism. But I generally don't mind being part of the minority. What is terribly frustrating however, is the great difficulty that I have even attempting to communicate ideas with non-libertarians.

Many years before even knowing what a libertarian was, I read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and became fascinated with the ideas expressed in the story. Most compelling was his attention to the language 'newspeak', that ideas could be suppressed by manipulating the language with which they are expressed. Now I fully appreciate newspeak, not as a literary term but as a reality.

What is capitalism? The term has taken on a full load, used to define any economic order from a pure free market to one on the brink of socialism. And we all lose as a result. As the analysts attempt to unravel the current economic crisis, the need for articulate language is paramount. A free-marketer like myself can scarcely use the term 'capitalism' in any assessment of the economy without likening myself (in the eyes of others) to Conservatives, Republicans and other groups of people who are not only terrible advocates of the free market, but in fact the most dangerous enemies of my 'capitalism'.

Eight years of George Bush calling himself "a free market guy', a fiscal conservative and a capitalist is a problem for those like me--coincidentally, a free market guy, a fiscal conservative and a capitalist, though i practically never found myself agreeing with Bush's economic policies. Conservatives pay lip service to capitalism, while they adopt corporatist policies that enrage the socialist crowds. This is a perfect dichotomy: capitalism vs. socialism, where capitalism is a system that serves the special interests and enrages the socialists, and where socialism is a system that serves the special interests and enrages capitalists. Beautiful! This was one of the many prescient points made by FA Hayek in Road to Serfdom, that government can control the people by representing an opposition to one unfavourable option in order to garner support for some policy that serves its own interests. A left-right political dichotomy serves to bolster this tactic. Once one policy has bilked the people for long enough, support will turn against it and the opposition ideology can be adopted in the same manner.

The moral of the story is, I suppose, that next time you see someone complain about capitalism, pay a little attention to which capitalism they are railing against and don't let that sour you to other capitalisms, such as my free market brand which certainly cannot be blamed for the current crisis given the fact that it was not being practiced. And while you're at it, be on guard for other politically-charged words that maybe don't mean anything, or at least any one thing, anymore.

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