Sunday, November 1, 2009

Capitalism and Democracy (a revised response)

The Capitalist defense, to my mind, is that of a form of capitalism that is ultimately incompatible with democracy. For what if our current capitalism-of-the-few can only negatively impact the stability required to maintain, for the many, both economic opportunity and its concomitant self-determination and independence? In that case, wouldn’t capitalism be clearly adverse to the realization of a self-governing, harmonious citizenry that inherently checks, limits and defines the power of its political overseers to that of an ideal democracy – one that is in fact socialist-free?

The unfortunate reality is that dependency and the consequent expansion of government is the direct result of concentrated capitalism; a capitalism of the few requires more and more the hand of “Big-Brother”, namely, of Brother Keynes. That being the case, there’s no irony, to my mind, that distributists protest capitalism and uphold democracy. To be clear, we believe in capital ownership, we believe in democracy, we believe in a market that is truly free; and yes, we also decry socialism, thus we decry that form of capitalism which has not the vital spirit to support society and must inevitably conjure forth, as it has done in true Fabian fashion, the specter of socialism to work its black magic - and like all black magic, eventually it will exact a heavy toll.

For those seeking an alternative, then, we’re naturally forced to ask, can the private ownership in the means of production, that is, of capital instruments in an industrial society support true democracy? The answer, so I believe, is yes, but only when it aligns with the principles of justice and liberty (this alignment, for the record, is what I would call not pure capitalism but distributism, or distributist capitalism; it is, to adapt a line from Mortimer Adler, “capitalism perfected in the line of [the principles of justice and liberty], and without any admixture of socialism”).

It is, therefore, not a question of “imposing one’s vision of ‘the good life’”, but of tweaking the political context so that it fully subordinates economics to the common good, to a just society. Indeed, for if we take as our guide the classic liberal definition of freedom popularized by J.S. Mill, and which is well put by M. Stanton Evans, that “Liberty to act on one’s behalf must be fenced off by the equal liberty of others, so that freedom for one individual doesn’t become oppression for a second”, and if concentrated ownership in the means of production leads to the exclusion of opportunity for the many to earn a viable income through participation in ownership, and thus to a form of government which works as a default corrective through socialistic means that are ultimately destructive of liberty; and, moreover, if it’s the purpose of government to do, in Mill’s sense, the fencing off, then its relatively clear that for those who believe in freedom from oppression there is, politically, (as Adler put it in the Capitalist Manifesto) a “justifiable limitation on individual liberty to acquire wealth in the form of capital goods.”

I’ll quickly summarize. My point is a basic rephrasing of the distributist vs. capitalist question. For I’m asking, somewhat rhetorically, which type of capitalism best achieves the ideal of liberty (both distributists and capitalists, at least nominally, oppose State capitalism)? Is the distributist type of capitalism, which conceives individuals or households accumulating wealth to some extent by taking part in ownership, with its consequent provisions of independence for self-government and motives for limiting the scope of state power – very Jeffersonian – more agreeable to the ideal of liberty? Or does a capitalism concentrated into the hand of a few, which increasingly upsets economic equilibrium, works to erode the family unit, and perpetually requires the aid of a growingly intrusive government offer “the greatest breadth of opportunity to its citizens”?

You may argue that these are not fair questions, and I admit there’s certainly more to it all; but this, in general, is how I’ve come to view the debate. Given this perspective, I see no contradiction in being a distributist who accepts true progress and at the same time opposes an inherent flaw, which has accompanied it - that is, who opposes a mixed capitalism that many (among which I was one) defend but do not quite understand.