Friday, November 20, 2009

Back in Black

A funny thing occurred to me earlier this week when I was listening to some give and take on a radio talk-show. The host, whom I admire more for his candor and presentation than for his actual views, was arguing with a few callers about the efficacy of capitalism as a socio-economic system. A couple of the frustrated callers were insisting that the host was being too stubborn in his defense of capitalism. They claimed that although capitalism seemed to be a decent system, that we, as we seem to do in so many fields, will devise something more perfect in the future. The host, in retaliatory fashion, then made the blanket claim that capitalism is the end-all-be-all system and that no system could or should replace it. It may shock anyone who reads my blog to know that I actually don't particularly agree with him.

My views are generally Austro-libertarian. But to that extent, I would also consider myself what people refer to as an "anarcho-capitalist" or "free-market anarchist." Both terms, of course, seem to imply a very real advocacy of capitalism. And I similarly wouldn't deny my very real advocacy of capitalism in that regard. But I believe the nature of my advocacy is a bit more subtle than that of many of my fellow travelers. By that I mean I don't believe that my "support" of the free market even has the same implication as the support that others seem to offer. When I say that I support free markets economically, I'm generally not engaging in a point about greater social utility or even general pragmatism. What I mean is that I think classical free-market economics accurately explains how people behave and how value and price is affected by the free actions of individuals. This is why I feel a strong affinity for the Austrian view of economics: a view not adopted by self-proclaimed portents of economic trends, but rather those who wish to understand human interaction and its consequences.

In that way, my economic position is not a reflection of what I think should be but what I feel actually happens. But what's more interesting is that I don't feel that belief is really the corner-stone of the anarcho-capitalist movement although it's certainly at the fore-front in conversation. I believe anarcho-capitalism is actually about ethics and a more complete socio-political view of justice. The whole core of that particular belief system is the insistence that freedom is the only appropriate condition for individuals. All other beliefs, even the prominent economic ones, are largely tangential when it comes down to it. At the end of the day, most anarcho-capitalists, even the most dire defenders, will tell you that their support of capitalism has nothing to do with how well capitalism works or to what purpose it serves but rather that their support of that system is a pure reflection of their belief in freedom. We support free markets because it represents the economic dimension of freedom to many of us. Ah, but what makes this point interesting is that it only holds true in the context of the state and imposed economic systems.

For instance, if you asked one of us what we felt about a group of people starting up a commune and living in their own self-proclaimed communistic society, we would gladly tell you how happy we would be to oblige them. Even though we so often get caught up in touting the virtues of capitalism, our belief, and the free-market system itself, allows for any kind of dissent and the presence of any kind of system, so long as said individuals do not keep others from being able to make similar decisions for themselves. And I think that points to something I find really interesting about free-market ideologies. The system of "capitalism", in that sense, really isn't a system at all. The "system" we are really talking about is freedom, and capitalism is simply the economic realization of what typically happens when people are left to be free: they develop specialized trades, barter, borrow, and invest. And in that sense, my support for capitalism is really simply my support for freedom, coupled with an understanding of how humans interact. And I think in that way, "capitalism" stands alone in that it's the only economic system that is talked about as if it is just that; an economic system...even though clearly it really isn't.

Any real socio-political system, economic or otherwise, implies an imposed structure. Take any system a government may endorse, from socialism to communism to fascism. In order for any of these systems to exist, government must subtract from your personal freedoms. You are told either what you can make, what you can sell, what you can sell it for, whom you can sell it to, or in what way you can conduct such business at all. And that only begins to touch the scope of any given system's implications to personal liberty. But in all of those systems, what is constant is that you are robbed of choice. If that government, whether through a dictator or a democratic majority, decides to adopt a system, it applies to all. You can't opt out of such systems; they are forced coercively upon you. But what's interesting is that "capitalism", or rather true free markets, aren't forced upon anyone.

Now, some people who are more left-leaning will dispute the idea that capitalism is not forced. They will claim that you really have no "choice" when you have to eat and have no education; if you have to flip burgers you will. But even that is a choice and an exertion of your free will. It's only a lack of choice in so much as you have no "real choice" as to whether you would pick up a hundred dollar bill off the ground as opposed to leaving it. You're not talking about the abolition of actual choice in that case, you're talking about the compelling quality of certain options. You are certainly free, in the most pure sense, to not pick up that hundred dollars, but it will make your life harder. In the same way, you are certainly free to not flip burgers, but you might starve if that's the extent of your productive capacity and you choose not to engage in it.

Does that negate the idea of choice though? Absolutely not. Your circumstantial needs do not circumvent free will. And if you were obliged to conclude that it did, then you can take that complaint to God himself. You were born a creature of this earth, with the biological need for food, water, and shelter. You may arrive at the conclusion that you have few ways to obtain such needs and you may also conclude that others obtain those needs much easier than you seem to be able to, but that has little to do with the presence of force and coercion on the part of other human beings. It's a shame that we carry biological processes that are beyond our control, but its not realistic to go around talking about slavery and coercion in the context of how short our legs or arms might be. The attempt to carry the discussion of freedom outside of the context of free will has become on embarrassing trend taken up by some of my political counterparts. Then again, shame and humility has never been their brightest star.

In any case, I feel that capitalism stands out in that no government structure is really required for it. In fact, capitalism is simply what happens when there is NO SYSTEM IN PLACE. I took Michael Moore to task on this as well when his movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, came out and he had been making the rounds of TV talk shows. He claimed that capitalism was invented in the 16th century. Well, no, actually capitalism wasn't invented. If so, who invented it? What did government force people to do? The answers, oddly enough, are "no one" and "nothing." Capitalism happened when feudal governments started falling apart in Europe and people began to live without a governing structure. No one has to force people to specialize in a field or to trade or barter. People do it of their own volition. They actually decide, freely, that the best way to improve their lot in life is to make something that other people want and trade it away for what they want in return. Isn't that amazing? Not that people can figure that out but that it is simply what tends to happen in the absence of force and coercion?

All of these thoughts came to mind when I was listening to the callers on this particular talk show. And it just made me think of an odd analogy concerning a general misunderstanding about colors (oddly enough). If you've ever heard people ask what different peoples' favorite colors are, you'll often hear an interesting response when someone offers black as their favorite. People will sometimes retort, "Black isn't a color." Some people understand it but a lot of people are confused by it. Disregarding pigmentation, which is kind of a different conversation altogether, black, in terms of the light spectrum, really isn't a color. All true colors derive from white, the color of pure light, as anyone who has played around with a prism can attest to. Every single color in every imaginable variation is simply some part of that spectrum of light...all except black. Black, by definition, is actually the absence of light. People often have the same misconception about "cold" which is really just an absence of heat, but that is for another conversation perhaps.

My point is that in the same way that black is really just an absence of light, free markets are really just an absence of an imposed economic system. All colors on a pinwheel share the fact that they are derived from light, with the exception of black. In that same way, all imposed economic systems are derived from some form of authoritarianism, with the exception of free markets which are simply an absence of any authoritarianism at all. Maybe that analogy really isn't as clever I thought it was when it occurred to me. But I wish that, in the same way that people so often make the "witty" retort that black isn't a color, maybe free-marketers should get in the habit of retorting that "capitalism" really isn't an economic system in the context of state imposition either. I don't think it's a point that many people have pondered.

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