In this hour of social unrest, let me take a moment to trumpet free-market capitalism as the answer to most of the big vexing questions.
Capitalism is the practical expression of freedom. It is also fertile soil for cooperation. Cooperation is the universal solvent for unrest. People who are cooperating are not at war with one another. They may still harbor unfriendly thoughts about each other, but the practical benefits of commerce have a wonderful way of overpowering pig-headed prejudice, given enough time. And let’s be honest, it does take time. But top-down government-imposed solutions only pretend they can work quickly.
Cooperation is, by definition, a voluntary act, so it requires freedom. Bigger government means a smaller private sector, which means less freedom. We are told this contraction of the private sector is necessary, because only the wise ruling class can see what is best for us, and they must have the power to force us to comply. I challenge both the veracity and morality of that belief. When people are constantly told what they must do, they grow resentful, and fearful that hostile voting blocs will subjugate them through winner-take-all electoral victory. To accept the dominance of ostensibly compassionate government, they must accept the inferiority of free people making their own decisions.
That’s a bitter notion, and when the State fails to live up to its promises, people are left with no recourse to devise their own solutions, so they slip into despair. They can do nothing but hope the next election might usher in a smarter team of central planners. Actually, in the modern political environment, they’re more likely to settle for merely electing people who claim to care about them more. They passively digest slogans of “hope and change” – victims passively awaiting a rescue that never comes.
Politicians profit handsomely from discord and hatred. Their game is to pit some Americans against others, and cobble together a 51 percent winning majority from the scrum. The successful free-market capitalist has little use for manufactured hatred. It’s bad for business. Nervous people don’t spend money. Alienated markets don’t buy products from vendors they hate.
The vital ingredient of a health society is high employment. Nothing else counts for much, in the final analysis. Other social goods can be seen as factors to boosting wealth and employment. For example, a prosperous society can afford some full-time academics, but for most citizens, education is a means toward obtaining superior employment. When a nation has fabulously expensive education and grinding unemployment, as America does now, something is horribly wrong. For most citizens, incurring titanic debt to purchase a diploma that doesn’t lead to a decent job is a devil’s bargain, a wish on the monkey’s paw.
Of course life is better when you can work at a steady job and bring home a decent salary. Busy people have less time for despair and resentment. It’s just plain human nature to feel better about life when you know you are useful. Come to think of it, there are fabulously rich people who are tormented by the nagging fear that they’re not truly useful. But for most of us, money and purpose can only be found through jobs. It is an awful thing to go through months, and then years, without one, even if social welfare payments cover the bare necessities of life.
Work nourishes the soul, even when the work is not pleasant. Early socialist philosophers believed that true emotional freedom could only be found through the collective ownership and distribution of life’s necessities, freeing citizens from the humiliating necessity of subjecting themselves to the demands of work. They could not have been more wrong. Their grievous errors have destroyed millions of lives around the world.
Understanding the importance of work, beyond its monetary value, is an important part of the transition from adolescence to adulthood. But we’re all about arrested adolescence in America today, aren’t we? Everyone seeks immediate gratification with minimal effort, in all things. The virtues essential to a productive adult society are viewed as an uncool drag by people who think they should never have to grow up. Such people expect to be indulged. They are obsessed with demanding respect, instead of earning it. How much of our social dysfunction is now driven by such demands?
How can society create enough jobs to keep everyone productively engaged in mutual cooperation? The one and only answer is the pursuit of profit. Everything else is a monstrous lie, usually told by people who damn well know better, but assume you don’t.
The government cannot use compulsive force to create stable jobs. It might spend a pile of money in a splashy effort to hire people for public employment, or pump “stimulus” into politically favored areas of the private sector, but the results are ephemeral. Jobs created by decree fade quickly. Only demand sustains employment, and nobody has to order free people to pursue profitable opportunities. Make it easy for millions of individuals to find and exploit opportunity, remove the barriers to voluntary cooperation, allow the lessons of success and failure to be taught, and wealth will flow. It’s not a perfect “system,” or a guarantee of perpetual boom times. But it has a way of making people into assets instead of liabilities. Customers, investors, and employees are more valuable, and happier, than dependents.
Nothing brings a greater sense of social participation and ownership than employment. Nothing else makes people feel like stakeholders in the fate of the nation. We speak often of the need to assimilate immigrants. Employment is the most powerful force for assimilation – even linguistic compatibility can be viewed as a prerequisite for healthy employment. (How many opportunities are available for someone who doesn’t speak the language of his prospective employers, or customers?) Well, native-born citizens need to be assimilated too. Sometimes they aren’t. There are entire communities filled with alienated and dispossessed people. No better medicine than employment exists to cure these social ills.
It’s not enough to have businesses offering jobs. You need workers with a desire to accept them. Not everyone is equally motivated to seek employment. Everyone wants a good job, but there are bad jobs that need doing. Prosperity cannot depend only on the efforts of the highly motivated and selfless. Conditions that prompt marginal workers to make a rational decision to enter the workforce must exist. Some people require only the lure of opportunity to provide maximum effort; others require incentives to generate the minimum. A successful society finds places for all who are capable of work, sending none of them to the sidelines. You will never find a system of political command that comes anywhere near that goal.
Of course, everyone wants to do better for themselves. Ambition is a powerful motivator, and its fulfillment is a potent source of positive energy. Not many people would be happy if they were marched off to unending tedious drudgery, and rewarded with an unchanging minimum allowance of food and shelter. Even a far better working life is unsatisfying if there is no possibility of career advancement or salary increase. Everyone understands this. It’s simple common sense. So why are we so willing to accept political judgment of personal ambition? If the ruling class can decide what we “deserve,” and what we may aspire to, we have lost both the north and south frontiers of liberty. In a prosperous and free nation, the lawful ambitions of all people are respected, and success is honored. We should never let ourselves be talked into compromising on that, in exchange for a mess of “social justice” porridge. Respect and honor are valuable resources. Don’t be too quick to take them away from those you envy… or those you pity.
Commerce is communication. Choke it off, and the result is sullen silence. Desperate people without jobs spend their days looking for oppressors to blame for their predicament. People who build nothing tend to become destroyers. When they have no ownership stake in society, they grow contemptuous of its rules. Outsiders become enemies. Success is resented as theft from the deserving poor, who think about ways to reclaim their “stolen” property. Despair makes them easy marks for those who sow envy and reap votes. Decades go by, and nothing gets better… but the desperate sons of despairing fathers fall for the same old tricks.
On the other hand, nothing brings people together quite like the promise of building something worthwhile. “Worthwhile” is a synonym for profitable. Capitalism is the pursuit of profit. Jobs are the fruit of capitalism. Persuade each other, sell to each other, make contracts together, work together, and you’ll find little room for blind hatred. Everything gets better when everyone is working.