Monday, September 09, 2013

Everything Is Capitalism

It was nice to see a rather sunny Bono noting capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid.  The only troubling thing about this statement is it's considered--certainly in his social circle--controversial, even though it's obvious.  The more common stance among rock stars (according to both song lyrics and interviews) is that capitalism despoils the world, unleashes the worst in us while hurting the poor, minorities, women, etc.

I'm reminded of that whenever I hear yet another artist or entertainer explaining how this work or that, where people are tearing each other apart, is a metaphor for capitalism.  I suppose the most famous example in our era is The GodfatherFrancis Ford Coppola stated that's what the film is about, and a lot of movies and TV since have tried to get into the act.

But do these people really understand what capitalism means?  In general, it's simply people being free to make contracts with others for what they believe is their mutual benefit, and these same people being allowed to dispose of their property as they see fit. It requires government as well. How sizable is an open question, but at least one big enough to have a basic rule of law where the state can objectively decide the meaning of these contracts (since parties will inevitably disagree) and also deal with those who don't follow the rules by committing fraud, theft, etc.  The system may be modified in various ways, but that's the basics.

The thing is, freedom and open, legal operation is essential. But if you don't have that, people will still try to make trades and deals as best they can.  When you declare something illegal, you get a black market in the item (and when private property itself is banned you get a black market in almost everything).  And people who break the law are also trying to make themselves better off, just not through contracts, and thus often without the cooperation of the other party.  So what these situations amount to is a funhouse version of capitalism.  Yes, drug dealing, to pick an obvious example, does exhibit traits of capitalism, but because it's not legal and thus the state won't back it--and yet there's a demand for the product--what happens is people have their own enforcement, which often involves threats and violence.

So The Godfather, or The Wire, or whatever else you can think of, don't show us in any meaningful way what capitalism is about, but what happens when the system is deformed.  As an artistic metaphor, it's a fairly dopey idea, but then, dopey ideas make a lot of entertainers believe their work has more depth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are they attacking capitalism or things done in the name of capitalism? Its a thing and a way of harnessing a great deal of innovation and progress but also promotes some less wonderful traits.

You could make the same arguments about religion (any one). They are about more than pogroms and crusades but that's not always appreciated by the sufferers of that

7:13 AM, September 09, 2013  

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