Socialist myths vs Capitalism
Gerard JacksonBrookesNews.ComMonday 14 January 2008
I am forever getting emails from ignorant socialists accusing capitalism of all manner of heinous crimes. Clearly the socialist view of economic history is deeply rooted in Western society, a view based on facts that turn out to be nothing but socialist myths derived from political prejudices deeply hostile to the classical liberal order. This, I believe, accounts for the staggering ignorance of leftwing critics. The contents of one particularly stupid email immediately brought to mind an especially bigoted anti-capitalist tirade by Bryan Patterson that he wrote some years ago.
Patterson is the Herald Sun's religious writer. Now you might wonder what a religious writer would know about economics, economic history or the history of economic thought. In the case of Patterson, the answer is absolutely nothing. He made his ignorance abundantly clear by trotting out a number of socialist calumnies (Herald Sun 22 February 1998). Using his paper as a secular pulpit he attacked as vulgar the advice of eighteenth and nineteenth century ministers to their congregations "to work hard and be thrifty," making the absurd assertion that this advice drove the "poor into hands of greedy monopolists and financiers."
Exposing the unrepentant Patterson's phony critique is to expose leftist ignorance. According to Patterson's left-wing thinking, the advice was fallacious if not actually callous because it assumed that work is something done for money or power, rather than being an expression of man's creativity etc.
This is the thinking [asserted Patterson] that allows fruit and wheat to be burnt by the tonne, and fish to be used as manure while whole populations stand in need of food. [All of which allows] consumerism and the violence of militarism to dominate the world.
Needless to say, Patterson did not provide a skerrick of historical evidence to support what was nothing more than left-wing propaganda. It would have been clear to any reasonably educated person that given the economic circumstances of the time, the advice of work hard and be thrifty was basically sound (though there is no virtue in hard work per se but only in work done with a purpose.) Those were hard times — the times that preceded them were even harder — and mass poverty was the natural order of things, as it had been throughout history.
Urging people to be thrifty was the same as advising them to prepare for hard times, to try and provide for an uncertain future, not to spend what little they had on gambling gin and thus avoid the poorhouse. (This is the kind of "vulgar advice," incidentally, that lifted millions of Asians out of poverty in a comparatively short time). The growth of friendly societies, cooperative societies, self-help organisations, though slow in the eighteenth century, demonstrates that many among the masses had a far better understanding of the benefits of thrift than Bryan Patterson. (Incidentally, I am still at loss to understand how saving can make one a victim of monopoly.)
Now these ministers were not making any assumptions about work, power or creativity. They knew, as did everyone else at the time, that work for the mass of people was their only means to acquire goods, the rest was secondary. Only a comfortable middle class intellectual could suggest that work as a 'creative' activity could have any meaning in such societies. Where labour's productivity is low so are living standards. Extremely long hours engaged in monotonous labour have to be endured to obtain, by our consumerist standards, even the most meagre of goods. This is how the nineteenth century reformer Francis Place described conditions:
I know not how to describe the sickening aversion which at times steals over the working man and utterly disables him, for a longer or shorter period, from following his usual occupation, and compels him to indulge in idleness. I have felt it, [he was once a breeches-maker] resisted it to the utmost of my power, but have been obliged to submit and run away from my work. This is the case of every workman I have ever known. . . . (Dorothy George, England in Transition, Penguin Books, 1962, pp. 60-61).
Patterson's assertions about "greedy monopolists and financiers" are just left-wing hogwash. Monopolies exist where the state owns the firm or protects a firm or industry from competition. The same goes for financiers. Patterson completely ignored the fact — as do most socialists — that the nineteenth century saw an unprecedented rise in living standards. (Something not unrelated to genuine liberalism that was totally opposed to monopoly, tariffs or state granted privileges).
This was a period in which real wages quadrupled, even though the workforce grew by 400 per cent, and the output of consumer goods expanded by 1600 per cent. However nineteenth century conditions compare with today's, they became an incredible improvement on anything that had previously prevailed. For the first time in history production was for the masses and not an aristocratic elite.
The stupidity of his assertion that eighteenth and nineteenth century advice to people to save and work hard created the kind of thinking that wilfully destroys food while others starve is so bizarre that I reread it several times to make sure it was not my reading of his material that was at fault. (And to think he and those like him get paid for this nonsense.) Every single instance of food being wilfully destroyed has been on the instructions of the state.
This has been entirely due to the politicisation of food production, which in turn created surplus stocks that were later destroyed to maintain agricultural incomes. The market did not do this, Mr Patterson, politicians and bureaucrats did it because they defied the market. One of those politicians was the Sainted F.D. Roosevelt. (Amity Shlaes The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Harper-Collins, 2007, pp. 270, 275-77).
Like many critics of capitalism, Bryan Patterson accused it of "consumerism" without making the slightest effort to define it. If by consumerism he meant materialism he should have said so and left it at that. But materialism means to value material things in themselves rather than for the services they provide. Why capitalism should be more materialistic than any other society beats me.
Consumerism is an invidious concept used to attack capitalism, the most productive economic order ever known to man, something even Marx cheerfully admitted and welcomed. Despite its emptiness as a concept, consumerism conveys to the impressionable and the unthinking the vague feeling that capitalism is not quite moral, that there is something in it that is profane and hostile to basic human values.
As Ebenezer Scrooge once said: "Bah, humbug!" But this, unfortunately, is what we have come to expect from our intelligentsia. Only arrogant intellectuals would condemn an economic order that showered society with an unprecedented abundance of material goods and services, sanctimoniously condemning it as "consumerism". As I do not feel particularly charitable toward socialists, I shall call this attitude by its proper name — rank hypocrisy.
This brought Patterson to the charge that these ministers' advice could result in militarism. Once again, not bothering to define his terms. A militaristic state is one in which the armed forces are supreme; it is they who dominate political life. In such a society it is expected that the citizens obey the government just as troops obey their officers. There is no real freedom only discipline and obedience. Prussia and pre-war Japan stand out as typical examples of militaristic societies. To even hint that capitalism gives birth to these types of societies is completely absurd and reveals a lamentable lack of historical knowledge. Capitalism, as the military elites of these societies well knew, is subversive of militarism. They are deadly foes. As Keynes said of capitalism:
. . . dangerous human proclivities can be canalised into comparatively harmless channels by the existence of opportunities for money-making and private wealth, which, if they cannot be satisfied in this way, may find their outlet in cruelty, the reckless pursuit of personal power and authority, and other forms of self-aggrandisement. It is better that a man should tyrannise over his bank balance than over his fellow-citizens (italics added). (John Maynard Keynes The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Macmillan, St Martin’s Press for the Royal Economic Society, 1973, p. 374).
This observation was amply confirmed by the tyrannical history of communist states. But that never stopped anti-capitalist critics like Patterson. Quoting Dorothy Sayers we were told that lawyers now work for money instead of justice. Do this pair think it was once otherwise. What do they think paid for pro bono cases? He then approvingly quoted ex-priest Matthew Fox's silly suggestion that catholic schools should try to reconnect mysticism with science. (Yes, it got worse.)
Patterson finished his sanctimonious left-wing sermon with the assertion "that some people consider fulfilling work and ethics more important than profits". The fallacy here is the left-wing assumption that profits are unethical and never involve self-fulfilling work. This is typical self-righteous socialist drivel. Like all socialists he obviously has no understanding at all of the vital role that profits play in raising living standards and allocating resources. As for fulfilling work, this is something that only seems to obsess left-wing intellectuals.
Virtually the whole of human history has been one of lengthy backbreaking toil. It was capitalism that finally freed masses of people from this tyranny, not intellectuals. It was capitalism that generated economic growth and created unprecedented opportunities and wealth for the masses. And it was capitalism, unfortunately, that created masses of intellectuals like Patterson whose activities, to judge from their writings, appear to be totally superfluous to society's needs. Yet affluent left-wing intellectuals have got the bloody nerve to treat capitalism's achievements with contempt.
What is capitalism? It is not an ideology and it is not a system. It is a process the heart of which is voluntary exchange based on the principle of private property and the inalienable rights of the individual. Eliminate capitalism and you get tyranny: Mussolini understood this and this is why he stated: "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state ".
Like the vast majority of leftists Patterson is extremely soft on Marxist thugs. Back in 1997 he wrote a generous piece on Hanoi's murderous regime. Readers can determine for themselves what kind of journalist Patterson is by the fact that he refused to condemn the 1968 Hue communist massacre in which thousands of South Vietnamese civilians were murdered by an occupying force of North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong terrorists.
But readers must bear in mind that to socialists Marxist regimes can be excused their atrocities because they only commit mass murder and torture in pursuit of social justice and equality. If you think this is an outrageous exaggeration, allow me to draw your attention to the economic historian and committed Marxist-Leninist Eric Hobsbawm. He was interviewed by Michael Ignatieff for The Times Literary Supplement, 28 October 1994. The following is an extract:
Mr. Ignatieff: "What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow [a successful Soviet Union] actually been created, the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?"
No wonder Martin Amis was moved to call Hobsbawm a "disgrace". (Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, Talk Miramax Books, 2002, p. 274).