Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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There is no capitalist god

“So, what’s wrong with your god?”

In any context, it’s a strange question. After all, your god of choice is, as you most certainly know, some sort of omnipotent, infallible entity. Religious texts don’t tend to reflect much on the failings of their particular deity, and it’s not often the quarterback of the losing team will remark in his post-game interview, “Well, I guess God let us down.”

So what’s wrong with your god? The typical response is, “Nothing. How could there be?”

While this week’s column is about blind faith, it is not about traditional religion. Rather, it is about capitalism; in particular, it is about those who view capitalism as nothing less than a god.

First, let me say that I am a cautious advocate of globalization and free trade, and I am by no means an opponent of the free market. Capitalism as an economic theory, or as an economic system or philosophy, is a pretty good thing. But there are many fine people who have dropped the qualifier “economic.” The dollar, in their minds, is just as capable an arbiter of ethics and social progress as it is of economics.

And this, these folks will say, is nothing less than an American ideal. In fact, the defenders of the dollar are quick to offer their formulaic response to any social issue:

If it were a problem, the forces of capitalism would have remedied it. If they have not, it is clearly not a problem.

Simple enough. Concerned about the environment or your health? Don’t be. If consumers were truly worried about the degradation of our natural world (read, if there were a reason to be worried), this would be reflected in our spending patterns, companies would have shaped up and the rain forests would have already grown back.

Troubled by huge wealth disparities that result more from circumstance than from ambition? Don’t be. The free market pays people exactly what they’re worth. The minimum wage, in fact, is nothing more than a barrier to greater economic efficiency.

Capitalism has the answers, and blind faith means you don’t even have to go through the trouble of joining a protest or writing your representative or otherwise actively working toward a better world. Just sign the check, punch in your PIN and open your wallet — you’ve done your part.

Capitalism offers comfort. According to economic theory, the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and the collapse of a small business are far from regrettable occurrences. On the contrary, they are wholly good reallocations of inefficiently directed resources. And as long as employers can still find a pool of willing labor, outrageous working conditions aren’t at all objectionable.

If it were a problem, the free market would have solved it.

Economic power trumps public power, these folks will say, and government meddling is therefore a clear affront to capitalism. They cling to this faith through every historical example to the contrary. The public perceptions of today came about only through the public policy changes of yesterday, but the good capitalists have no problem applying present attitudes to past circumstances.

Segregation? Ignoring the failure of the so-called colorblind dollar in the century since the Civil War, these fine folks insist it was only a matter of time before a savvy businessman opened up a non-segregated lunch counter and brought the walls of discrimination crashing down with capitalist fury.

Seatbelts? Since today’s car owners value safety, surely automakers of the 60s and 70s would have worked to save hundreds of thousands of lives without a swift kick from Congress.

While correctly ridiculing the notion that government offers all the answers, capitalism’s cheerleaders boast there is nothing the free market cannot accomplish.

Just like the well-intentioned missionaries before them, the capitalists are eager to export their god to other lands. International development groups will pay for schools and hospitals, but only as a companion to their primary goal of economic indoctrination: What worked for America a century ago must surely work today for Russia, Turkey and the bulk of Africa.

Low intensity farming is dismissed as obsolete and inefficient. Europeans are ridiculed for their shorter workweeks and longer vacations. Argentina is lectured on economic theory as its citizens suffer and grow disillusioned. Natural and cultural environments be damned — the free market is the one true path, and capitalism works, even when it doesn’t.

I am not an economics major, and I won’t claim expertise where I don’t have it. But the vigorous proponents of capitalism, including many who choose to study it, possess such love for their economic theory that they cannot step back and ask themselves, “What’s wrong with my god?”

Capitalism is not a god, and it is not the answer to all of our problems.

Yet many champions of capitalism clearly believe otherwise, and they are far too eager to apply economic theory blindly and universally to issues and situations where it just doesn’t belong.

For those fine folks, capitalism is not the means to a better life. It is the end in itself.

Bryant Walker Smith ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in civil engineering.

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