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Global Opportunity, Capitalism and Greed

19 May 2009 59 Comments

Capitalism has a bad rap.  Say the word and imagery of gross excess floods the senses.  Read the word “capitalism” and picture:  People driving gas guzzling SUVs to a mega-store to buy their third wide screen TV, while wearing thousand dollar sunglasses that shield them from noticing that people a world away- or even two city blocks away- are suffering in poverty.

Chinese philosophers believe in Yin Yang- the concept that opposing forces are inter-related and interdependent, and give rise to one another in turn.  On the face of it, the Yin Yang would seem this:  Capitalism gives rise to opportunity.  Capitalism gives rise to greed.

But Capitalism?  Not a bad thing of itself.  Capitalism is an economic system where property is privately owned.  The individual has the power to make his or her own decisions with respect to that property.   Decisions regarding privately held personal property, whether land or other possessions, are voluntary.   Belief in the right of ownership of one’s own labor is a critical component of capitalism, too.  An individual has the right to elect the employer to whom he or she will provide their labor- and the right to stop working at will.  In a capitalist economic system, rule of law protects the property rights and labor rights of the individual.

Our lives are all interconnected.  Accordingly, there must be some public role to ensure that the rights of one do not interfere with the rights of another.  It may occasionally be necessary for the good of the community to require a land owner to allow access to his property for the purpose of a common good.  Examples include cases where property access is necessary to enable access a hospital, or to facilitate the flow of electricity or water to a community.

In the United States, much of the distinction between the Democratic and Republican parties is based in disagreement over the extent to which the government, elected by the people, should be allowed to “interfere” with the commerce rights of the individual for the betterment of the whole of society.  The key question is this:  Should government interrupt the natural course of varying “supply and demand” that yields a continuous source of opportunity?

Given unchecked supply and demand economics, an auto buff in Montana may identify an  opportunity to develop a better rear-view mirror- and in capitalizing on the opportunity, productively provide for his family and for the larger community at once.   Recently, Indian entrepreneurs have capitalized on new opportunities for the export of silk, in the wake of reduced exports of silk by China.  Variances in supply and demand= opportunity.

The belief that supply and demand should proceed unaltered by government is known as “laissez-faire capitalism.”  In simple terms, laissez-faire capitalism requires allowing some to fail, so that others may have opportunity.  All men are free to succeed or fail according to their effort, merits, and some degree of chance.  Proponents of laissez-faire capitalism believe that government must not “bail out” failing businesses, because the end result is the infringement of the opportunity of others.   Bail out of a failing auto manufacturer with an infusion of cash insulates  that business from failure, but eliminates opportunity for the new entrepreneur who may bring fresh ideas  and a more effective business approach to better meet needs.   That auto mechanic in Montana may have no entree into a market where a competitor is entrenched and even financially buoyed, despite a lesser product.

On the face of it, it seems government interference with supply and demand should be avoided, lest opportunities for others be lost.   And I do contend that “Opportunity” is a human right- that infringement of opportunity is a violation of human rights.  Yet it is not that simple.  When hundreds of thousands of individuals feed their families by working for a company that is on the verge of failing, the only humane course of action may be to artificially support the company.  The beauty of a capitalist economic system and a democratic form of governance is that discussion and determination of which is best is the right of the people.

The ugliest capitalism I ever saw was in West Africa, thirty years ago- before advent of the Internet- before global connectivity.    Working with American and African students as a volunteer for Crossroads Africa, to help build a water cistern to provide a village in Togo with running water, I was proud to bring the advantages of my country to them.  The potentials of capitalism had only just found way across the seas from the West to the small village of thatched huts built on clay-like sand.  One day, framed by a magnificent natural plain, back-dropped by  grand mountains, cresting at crystal azure sea, in a land impoverished in food but plentiful in joy, spirit and communal living, women in colorful clothes squatted selling trays of the smallest fish ever seen.  Barely bird food.   Yet in sum, an exquisitely beautiful vista on both the spiritual and material planes.   Their commerce was ageless, natural.  There was serene beauty, even in the poverty.  What my eyes turned to next assaulted my soul:  An African man in a raincoat, hoisting his sleeves to display gold wristwatches wrapped around his arms like coils of a snake, aggressively hawking his wares.  The bared teeth of greed and contrast of excess violated the serenity.  I wondered for years,  “In trying to help, have we misguidedly delivered the ugliness of Capitalism to a place that did not know it?  Would these beautiful people be better off not knowing what they did not have?”

But I was wrong.  The offensive blaspheme to the natural beauty of the African culture and environment was not and is not Capitalism.  Capitalism is simply an economic system that respects individual rights of ownership, individual rights to decision making, and individual rights to opportunity- with a rule of law formed to achieve consensus and justice where the rights of one may interfere with the rights of another.   No, the problem is not capitalism.    Capitalism, with the opportunities and protections of individual rights it affords is in fact an economic system to be desired.  The problem is greed:  the seeking and stockpiling of excess while ignoring the needs of others.

As we engage in an interconnected world where we countries and peoples can now share the wealth of our individual experiences and cumulative cultural wisdom, let us not confuse economic systems with human values.  As we grow together as a world, ever more interdependent, let us find trust in each other and achieve betterment of the human condition by achieving clear understanding of the root causes of problems, and targeting interventions to mitigate the root causes rather than the effects.  As we engage in global debate and global decision making, (for example, in discussion of reasonable extent of government involvement in the affairs of the people), let us also focus on discerning and overcoming the source of associated root problems- which, like weeds, may be grounded in another area altogether despite the appearance of simultaneous growth.

Opportunity?  Yes, for all people in all nations.  Capitalism?  Yes, by vote of the people.  Greed and Excess?  No.   These things do not spring from the shoots of capitalism.  Such things are in the realm of the choices made by man, directly winding back to the values of a man (or woman).    It is in focus on values where the keys to overcoming greed and proclivity to excess will be found.   Fortunately, in this newly interconnected and inexorably interdependent world, we may all- each and every one of us- access the opportunity to share our individual experience and collective societal wisdom to influence such things.  Thereby, we are empowered to create a better world.

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