Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Capitalism as a Thought Experiment

A “society” of Capitalists could quickly resemble a psychological race to the bottom.

Capitalists say that the most productive times in human history were, apart from the last two hundred years of the industrial revolution, the period of Renaissance Italy. This is because, they say, people were (for medieval times) free to earn money and experiment with ideas. Capitalism encourages human progress because people are encouraged to improve themselves; and, by extension, human society as a whole. On the face of things, this may well be true.

But this misses some basic points. If everyone is only ever rationally interested in their own fate, why would people reproduce, raise families, live communally? What would the point be, if selflessness is the highest evil? If these things were also true, “humanity” as a species would never see the point in surrendering control to another human being. “Humanity” could easily die out in a matter of a few generations as fewer and fewer “rational” Capitalists see the point of human families.
Even if you consider this an indulgent exaggeration, in any case, people would become quickly distrustful of people’s motives in any human relationship. People’s relationships would be seen in the same way as commodities and resources to be used. There would be no such thing as “genuine” friendships; or people would no longer believe that such a thing were possible or rationally desirable. All human connections would be reduced to the status of some form of transaction. By extension, people’s influence could be “bought”; companies’ loyalty could be “bought”.
Furthermore, distrust could easily breed further distrust. If a person, as a Capitalist, believes that people are only interested in them for what they can get out of them, then there would be a natural temptation (even rationalisation) to exploit that person before they exploit you.
As said earlier, Capitalists believe that “social norms” are an artificial construct of a medievalist, irrational and selfless mind. There would be no such thing as “established behaviour”; in a true Capitalist society, so long as they followed the few laws necessary to prevent lawless anarchy, people were free to behave as they liked. In other words, there would be no incentive towards “good behaviour”. For example, if a person A insulted person B in a public place, and person B beat them up, person B would be punished for the beating; person A’s behaviour would be of no concern to a Capitalist legal system, as it was person B who imposed force on person A. (However, if person A had insulted person B on B’s property, person B could be within his rights to respond as he liked; as a Capitalist legal system may well have less, or no, jurisdiction on a person’s private property)
“Social responsibility” would cease to exist: in a Capitalist society, there is only “Individual responsibility”. Who would take care of the environmental status of public areas (such as refuse collection and disposal, to think of just one example)? In theory, these services would be carried out by private companies, though if public areas are not, by definition, “private property”, why would a company or “rational” individual care about them? If an individual or company decided to care about public areas, then they would, by definition, be acting selflessly i.e. irrationally. Even if a group of individuals came together to pay a company to collect their refuse and dispose of it safely and cleanly, this seem close to breaking the most basic Capitalist principle of not depending on others. But even forgetting this point for a moment, how would having a “free market” in refuse collection actually work in practice? Would private companies be willing to pay for the extra fuel and time costs of driving to each individual customer’s house to collect their rubbish? And then there is the issue of industrial waste disposal.
Apart from these potential social and legal absurdities, there is the effect that Capitalism has on the general livelihood of the population. As the state does not, in a real sense, exist (except to provide and implement law and order and security), the Capitalist population survives, thrives or dies by their own hand. Capitalists are free to do as they please; they are as free as every other animal on the planet is free in nature. As Capitalists are rationally unable to justify intruding into or caring about the fate of others, those that are the least successful Capitalists will eventually die. There would be a number of stages before this eventual outcome that could be witnessed by the general population: sickness, malnutrition, homelessness, substance abuse and so on. All these will be openly on view in a Capitalist society, as the government has no role to regulate these matters; the less successful Capitalists may well see these victims as an incentive to work harder, and they may seek to emulate the more successful members of society. Alternatively, fuelled by natural fear of failure, they may do their most within the law (as they are not constrained by social rules) to take the place of their superiors through deception and fraud. It would depend on the individual.

Of course, not all people in human society are bound to be successful, but that is not the concern of the government or individuals. In nature, there is always success and failure. What matters in a Capitalist society is success, as that is what spurs the society forward. Using the term “society”, though, is misleading: a “sea of individuals” would be a more appropriate phrase.

The next part of this article can be found here

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