And Another Thing

This sorta kinda ties in to the last couple of posts — “Why Limited Government?” and “Another Rightie Who Can’t Read.”

John Hawkins of Right Wing News
objects to something he read at Smirking Chimp.

“American Capitalism is a malignancy that permeates our economic, social, and political systems and institutions. This untreated cancer ravaging the body of civilization is spreading like an unchecked conflagration in a munitions factory. Feudalism didn’t die; it simply evolved. Corporatism, Consumerism, wage slavery, debt slavery, free trade agreements, deregulation, and privatization condemn most of the global population to varying degrees of slavery, serfdom or indentured servitude.” — Jason Miller at the popular liberal blog, The Smirking Chimp

For the record, I don’t think capitalism in itself is to blame for the bad stuff Jason Miller attributes to it. I think any way you choose to run an economy can lead to “slavery, serfdom or indentured servitude” if ordinary people have no protections from powerful people. Sooner or later the wealthy and powerful will find a way to game the system, whatever it is, to their advantage. Capitalism may be a little easier to game than some other systems, but none are foolproof. Certainly communism, which is capitalism’s polar opposite in most respects, has been found to lead to “slavery, serfdom or indentured servitude” wherever it’s been tried.

Anyway, Mr. Hawkins comments,

Because Mr. Miller and his many comrades in the Democratic Party don’t understand human nature, they don’t understand capitalism.

First off, Mr. Miller didn’t say anything about being a comrade of the Democratic Party, and Smirking Chimp (which is not a blog, but which contains many blogs, including Jason Miller’s) is not an instrument of the Democratic Party. Greens and Naderites are free to blog there also, I believe. I’ve met the proprietor of Smirking Chimp, and he doesn’t strike me as the sort who demands loyalty oaths. Hawkins needs to relieve his knee from its tendency to jerk.

Capitalism is designed to take advantage of one of the most basic truths about human beings: people are selfish.

People will work very hard for themselves and their families, but, they are not automations and very few of them are going to work hard to line someone else’s pocket or for “society,” if they don’t think their efforts are being properly rewarded.

With capitalism, that selfishness leads businessmen to hire more workers to increase their profits, to earn more money which they pay taxes on, and to create products and services that the rest of society can use — not out of the goodness of their heart, but because they benefit from it. Take away the benefits that people can earn from themselves, then they won’t go the extra mile and society won’t be able to profit from their efforts.

Let’s take a look back at the Golden Age of Laissez Faire in the United States

1820-1880: The Seamstress Impoverished

Seamstresses were familiar figures in early 19th-century American cities, filling the needs of an expanding garment industry. Working at home, they stitched bundles of pre-cut fabric into clothing worn by Southern slaves, Western miners, and New England gentlemen. Dressmakers were responsible for producing an entire garment and could earn a decent wage. Seamstresses, however, were poorly compensated for work that was both physically demanding and unpredictable. Paid by the piece, seamstresses worked 16 hours a day during the busiest seasons, but their income rarely exceeding bare subsistence. Making matters worse was, shop owners were notorious for finding fault with the finished garments and withholding payment. Consequently, seamstresses often relied on charity for their own and their families’ survival.

Yeah, capitalism worked like a charm for those women. Oh, wait …

Here’s another little blast from the past:

History In 1888, New York state factory inspectors provided the following description of sweat-shops: “In New York city, in the tenement house districts where clothing is manufactured, there exists a system of labor which is nearly akin to slavery as it is possible to get. The work is done under the eyes of task-masters, who rent a small room or two in the rear part of an upper floor of a high building, put in a few sewing machines, a stove suitable for heating irons, and then hire a number of men and women to work for them.” Explicit in the inspectors’ definition of a sweatshop is the exploitation of garment workers by contractors, who forced their workers to labor for long hours only to be paid insufficient wages. In addition to physically sweating as a result of their toil, workers were also “sweated” in the same manner an animal would be milked or bled.

By the 1880s, for the most part, seamstresses no longer negotiated work on an individual basis but were subsumed into a system of contracting. Contractors received components of garments that they in turn assembled according to designs. These finished products were returned to the manufacturers and marketed under the company’s label. As a result, manufacturers distanced themselves from the hiring and equipping of a labor force, which became the responsibility of the contractor. Manufacturers paid a set price for each finished garment they received from the contractor, which was considerably lower then they would then charge retail. Consequently, contractors, in order to make any profit, forced longer hours and lower wages on their workers.

Capitalism didn’t put a stop to these practices. Free markets didn’t put a stop to these practices. It was government regulation and labor laws that, finally, provided some protection for workers.

The notion that unfettered selfishness and deregulation benefits everybody has been disproved by history time and time again, yet ideologues refuse to learn that lesson. Capitalism needs watchdogs to keep it honest, or it corrupts into plutocracy and, eventually, corporatism. That’s a plain fact. Selfishness may inspire people to better their lives, but it also inspires people to lie, cheat, steal, hoard, and exploit.

One of the biggest atrocities of human history — the death by starvation of more than one million Irish during the Famine — was made worse by “free market” ideology. Free markets didn’t cause the blight, but the ideology prevented the English from providing relief when it easily could have.

In deciding their course of action during the Famine, British government officials and administrators rigidly adhered to the popular theory of the day, known as laissez-faire (meaning let it be), which advocated a hands-off policy in the belief that all problems would eventually be solved on their own through ‘natural means.’

Great efforts were thus made to sidestep social problems and avoid any interference with private enterprise or the rights of property owners. Throughout the entire Famine period, the British government would never provide massive food aid to Ireland under the assumption that English landowners and private businesses would have been unfairly harmed by resulting food price fluctuations.

In adhering to laissez-faire, the British government also did not interfere with the English-controlled export business in Irish-grown grains. Throughout the Famine years, large quantities of native-grown wheat, barley, oats and oatmeal sailed out of places such as Limerick and Waterford for England, even though local Irish were dying of starvation. Irish farmers, desperate for cash, routinely sold the grain to the British in order to pay the rent on their farms and thus avoid eviction.

In the first year of the Hunger, the British Prime Minister arranged for some shipments of corn to Ireland that helped a little. But then the government changed hands, and a new Prime Minister took over.

Once he had firmly taken control, Trevelyan ordered the closing of the food depots in Ireland that had been selling Peel’s Indian corn. He also rejected another boatload of Indian corn already headed for Ireland. His reasoning, as he explained in a letter, was to prevent the Irish from becoming “habitually dependent” on the British government. His openly stated desire was to make “Irish property support Irish poverty.”

As a devout advocate of laissez-faire, Trevelyan also claimed that aiding the Irish brought “the risk of paralyzing all private enterprise.” Thus he ruled out providing any more government food, despite early reports the potato blight had already been spotted amid the next harvest in the west of Ireland. Trevelyan believed Peel’s policy of providing cheap Indian corn meal to the Irish had been a mistake because it undercut market prices and had discouraged private food dealers from importing the needed food. This year, the British government would do nothing. The food depots would be closed on schedule and the Irish fed via the free market, reducing their dependence on the government while at the same time maintaining the rights of private enterprise.

And at least a million Irish starved, and about another million left Ireland on “coffin ships” in which many more died of disease. This is the nonsense that the “free market” devotees want to go back to. Like it worked so well the first time.

Almost a century ago Theodore Roosevelt quoted Abraham Lincoln:

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

“If that remark was original with me, I should be even more strongly denounced as a communist agitator than I shall be anyhow. It is Lincoln’s. I am only quoting it; and that is one side; that is the side the capitalist should hear. Now, let the workingman hear his side.

“Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights… Nor should this lead to a war upon the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor;… property is desirable; is a positive good in the world.”

And then comes a thoroughly Lincolnlike sentence: —

“Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”

It seems to me that, in these words, Lincoln took substantially the attitude that we ought to take; he showed the proper sense of proportion in his relative estimates of capital and labor, of human rights and property rights. Above all, in this speech, as in many others, he taught a lesson in wise kindliness and charity; an indispensable lesson to us of today. … The issue is joined, and we must fight or fail.

Do read the whole speech, if you haven’t already. TR laid out the essential foundations of modern American liberalism in this speech and gives “deregulation” of business a resounding bitch slap. “The right to regulate the use of wealth in the public interest is universally admitted,” he said. He said that in 1910. We need to do some universal re-admitting.

27 thoughts on “And Another Thing

  1. Maha, thanks so much for writing in an informed way about the Great Famine. As an Irishman I constantly encounter appalling levels of ignorance among Merkins on the subject. People think the Irish would only eat potatoes because of some superstitious taboo, and when the potatoes rotted, they refused to eat anything else and starved to death. Even a PBS documentary that I watched some time ago disseminated similar ignorance. It even called the Irish “the potato people” and harped on and on about their poverty without a word about the reason for it – colonial exploitation – as if their poverty proved they were racially inferior. As you point out, huge amounts of food were shipped out of Ireland all through the famine. There was a shortage of agricultural workers in England during the mid 19th century due to industrialization, so Ireland was forced to become England’s breadbasket.

    “Laissez faire” was and continues to be bandied about as an excuse for Britain allowing a million of its subjects to starve to death in what was supposedly an integral part of the world’s richest country, but it’s not the whole story. The principle of laissez faire never got in the way of cronyism and special treatment, e.g. there were the corn laws and the navigation laws designed to protect English industries from competition from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, even though they were all supposedly part of Britain. Many people whose ancestors left Ireland during the 19th century wonder why the ancestors had to take a ship from Sligo to Liverpool or Cork to Southampton etc. before sailing to the US or Canada. Why couldn’t they sail there directly? Answer: the navigation laws prevented ships from sailing directly to or from a third country except through English ports. The idea was to give English ports an advantage over Scottish and Irish ones.

    In my opinion, “laissez faire” was often a convenient excuse to mask the real motive: the English landlords simply wanted the Irish to die out. They wanted to switch over from crop farming to pasturage and wanted something akin to the Highland Clearances, so the famine was a godsend to them. The London Times exulted: “An Irishman will soon be as rare as a red man on the banks of Manhattan, and papism as defunct as the worship of Astarte.” Read the parliamentary records of the time and you will see many similarly ill-concealed expressions of glee at the imminent extinction of the Irish.

    Sorry for harping on at length but my point is that when people accumulate wealth and power, they tend to be driven almost insane by avarice, and the suffering of their fellow humans becomes nothing but an inconvenience to them, or perhaps even an opportunity for further profit. All the high-sounding rhetoric about the nobility of capitalism is too often just a fig leaf for naked greed.

  2. American Capitalism is a malignancy that permeates our economic, social, and political systems and institutions..

    One of the key ideas in that sentence is the notion that capitalism, as practiced is rarely pure, that there are variations of it everywhere. American capitalism is quite different from Canadian capitalism for example. There is always tension between the rights of the individual vs those of the group, and different societies balance these two competing demands differently.

    Because Mr. Miller and his many comrades in the Democratic Party don’t understand human nature, they don’t understand capitalism.

    What a snot. Whenever I hear some condescending rightard trying to lecture me on some subject they are so obviously out of their depth on, I want to punch the fool in the face. These empathically challenged people are in absolutely no position to lecture the rest of us about human nature. Because Mr Hawkins and his many comrades on the right believe so strongly in their own self righteous fantasies, their sneering attitude makes me tune out whatever puerile argument they utter next. They fail Communication 101.

  3. Ray Dobson offers some important additional information about the Irish Famine: it was a racist land-grab, for the most part.

    As for capitalism, I do understand it, because I understand human nature: to wit, I’ve got mine so screw you.

    In order to be successful, capitalism requires the largest profit for the least outlay. This leads to dangerous and shoddy products, dangerous waste materials swept under the rug, cooked books and inflated stock prices. It also leads to the Republican belief that a commercial entity should have the same rights, or greater, under the Constitution as an individual citizen. In order to keep from killing us all eventually, capitalism needs a muzzle and a short leash, at all times.

  4. On the one hand, “free-market” ideologues are always appealing to human nature and, in a massive switch from the recent past, historical inevitability. (Isaiah Berlin, you had a good run. So long now.) On the other hand, they are ceaselessly trying to lock in “free-market” solutions with supermajority laws, overbearing trade agreements and other antidemocratic shenanigans. They don’t put any trust in democracy, human nature, or the course of history–that’s all window dressing.

  5. I don’t recall who first said it, but “in my lifetime, I have seen capitalism destroy both communism and democracy”.

  6. The story of the Famine in Ireland illustrates the great fiction that is labelled ‘laissez-faire’. There is no ‘free market’ that exists outside of a context of laws and governmental structure, and these laws, which are determined politically, inevitably determine how the market functions. ‘Laissez-faire’ doesn’t allow for some Invisible Hand to operate in its celestial purity, it’s merely a way of ratifying existing power relationships and economic distribution patterns, which are not ‘natural’, merely previously established by existing power elites.

  7. The invention of the corporation further exacerbates the problems with capitalism. It has been defined as an entity that has the right to act as an individual, yet it has no conscience like an individual would. It exists only to make money for its stockholders while at the same time shielding them from any liability that might arise from actions of that corporation.

    There is nothing in the basic definition of Capitalism that requires such an entity to exist, and there is nothing that plays so well to the downsides of Capitalism as that entity does.

  8. Functioning societies regulate all over the place – from the beginnings of human existence and wherever people decided to live as a group. Human behavior is regulated by laws. Governments are regulated by constitutions and the like. The idea that economies don’t need regulating is absurd.

    Capitalism has to be regulated given the principles of its system.. It needs cheap labor and resources and impoverished workers needing jobs. Therefore, it functions the best when it is able to exploit the most.

  9. Damn tootin’ Barb! It’s about time the IRS got rid of preferential tax treatment for capital gains.

  10. You have Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt in that post. Which brings to mind McCain’s constant talking about “returning the Republican party to being the party of Lincoln, T Roosevelt and Reagan”. Can you image those 3 in a room? After Abe delivers Ronnie a polite but very firm and angry lecture on Ronnie’s divisiveness, racial baiting, class warfare and imperialism, Teddy seriously kicks his ass while screaming about the environment and corporations.

    And I love the look on people faces when I tell them that my ancestors came to this country because as Highland Scots they considered subhuman, and so couldn’t get work in the lowland factories after the Brits had confiscated their homelands.

  11. Capitalism is designed to take advantage of one of the most basic truths about human beings: people are selfish.

    I’m sick of hearing this canard from both supporters and opponents of “capitalism” – esp. supporters since they should know better.

    The “basic truth” is NOT that “people are selfish” – its that “people are different” and even if everyone was unselfish we would still find ourselves at odds, and fight, over how best to be unselfish.

    The idea that capitalism depends on he inherent selfishness of humans is intellectually lazy crap. Furthermore it perpetuates the equally incorrect and intellectually lazy counter-proposition : that all that is needed for a collective economic system to work is for people to stop being selfish and to agree to work for the “breater good”. Its bullshit. What keeps them from working isn’t that we dont work for the greater good – its that there is no large-scale agreement on what the greater good EVEN IS.

  12. Wal-Mart is a good example of how free markets fail workers. The fact that the very people Wal-Mart keeps in poverty are the ones most likely to shop there proves that the workers can’t just be selfish and get better lives. If you’re making minimum wage and are being treated badly but your other options are getting evicted from your apartment or getting a similarly bad minimum wage job, well… those aren’t really options, are they?

    New York sweat shops in the late 19th/early 20th centuries had a similar system going: a lot of the women employed at those seamstress jobs — be they working at home in their cramped tenements or working in a factory — were (legal) immigrants who had few other options. And most of them weren’t taken seriously because they were women, so when they did complain and make demands for better conditions, they were ignored or laughed at. There was a whole series of disasters — fires, machines exploding, etc. — at American factories, most of them due to overcrowding or unsafe conditions, so that is the great triumph of the free market.

  13. There is no ‘free market’ that exists outside of a context of laws and governmental structure,

    Damn, biggerbox, you are one smart dude. You are welcome to comment here anytime.

    I’d also like to point out that there’s no such thing as “private property” except where government exists to protect it.

    This has been another episode of “stuff that libertarians never think of.”

  14. There is a good example of the kind of damage unregulated, free-market capitalism can do to a community within a few miles of the capital building where some of those smug “laissez-faire” types write their de-regulation laws.

    Just across the interstate highway from Quantico, Va. is a very nice little forest park where I used to go camping whenever I would come to D.C. to do research at the National Archives. I stayed there for $10 a night in preference to those frightfully expensive (although convenient) downtown hotels. All I had to do was cross the highway to Quantico and take a commuter train into Washington for the day.

    Anyway, on Sundays, when the Archives was closed, I would have little else to do, so I read up on the history of the area. It turns out that many years ago there was a thriving little agrarian community where the forest park now is. Local farmers would truck their produce a short distance to an inlet off of the Potomac River where a port town was located (I forgot its name for the moment). This arrangement worked well for a while until the farmers started clearing more and more land for agriculture and the runoff from all that indiscriminate land clearance did exactly what anyone might have expected it would do — it silted up the harbor so thoroughly that the port closed. The farmers wound up having to pick up and move elsewhere, having by their own actions sabotaged the very good thing they had going.

    The point is easy to see: one or two regulatory statutes, voluntarily voted on by the community at large, to restrict land clearance in the interest of the entire community, would have prevented this from happening. The community had the potential to become a thriving small city. Instead, all that remains today are about 40 or so tiny cemeteries and burial plots in the woods.

    But they did what free-market capitalists insist is the “natural” and therefore “right” thing to do: they acted in their own selfish interests instead of the interests of the entire community, which included them.

  15. Jeff r, comment 15, your story is an example of a problem type known as The Tragedy of the Commons. It’s the fastest way I know to take the air out of a Libertarian’s arguments. Without some kind of social compact (regulation), there is no incentive to protect a common resource, and every incentive for individuals to exploit and ruin it.

  16. Fantastic. Thanks, Moonbat, for directing me to this resource. I did not know there was actually a name for what I was describing, since it seemed so perfectly obvious to me, anyway.

  17. “An Irishman will soon be as rare as a red man on the banks of Manhattan…”

    Let it never be said that the British couldn’t learn from their former colonies.

  18. A particular kind of libertarian ideology has permeated virtually all levels of public discourse in the US: the notion that Capitalism rather than representative self-government is our founding principle. That is, libertarians and other economic “conservatives” exalt Capitalism as if it were a system of government, complete in itself rather than an economic system that can be constrained by popular will.

    To be sure, it’s the rare figure who makes that argument directly, but the assumption underpins not only these false “constitutional” arguments libertarians make (and that you’ve illuminated so well in these recent posts), but also, frankly, the entire thrust of US foreign policy. When we hear the president talk about “Freedom,” does anyone doubt that the principal freedom under consideration is freedom of the markets for western investment? I suppose the (somewhat) intellectually honest version of the foreign policy argument is something along the lines of, economic freedom is a “gateway” freedom: let people earn money and pretty soon the other freedoms will follow apace. You know, like they have in China and Chechnya. And like they did in the US: it took us, like, practically no time at all to achieve total freedom and equality for everyone as soon as we established Capitalism as our economic system. Right?

    Well, I digress. Here’s the thing: it should be obvious that democracy and capitalism are two different things, yet in our rhetoric (generally speaking) we treat them as the same in the US. And in our policies, we actively subordinate democracy to capitalism. If we care about Freedom (other than, say, Wal-Mart’s freedom to do whatever it wants to its employees), maybe it’s worth making this point that should be a no-brainer over and over again, until it actually becomes a no-brainer.

  19. “Sooner or later the rich and powerful will find a way to game they system, whatever it is, to their advantage.”

    Under conservative philosophy, the cost of labor is supposed to float; wages should rise when economic conditions are good, because as production increases, labor becomes more scarce. The economic recovery we are in has been great for Wall Street, but has been pathetic for the worker. One way the system is being ‘gamed’ is with cheap illegal labor.

    Wages in the construction industry through the building boom were flat, largely because it was take it – or leave it; we can hire and build with ‘undocumented’ labor. Wages in the meatpacking industry have fallen over the last 20 years from $20 per hr to $12 per hour, and many companies are accused of actively working with recruiters to flood the workplace with illegals, diluting any bargaining power the union had.

    The situation has a correlary in skilled labor; big business is seeking to expand, to an almost unimited level, the ability to hire foreign skilled workers to wotk in the US in software and engineering since they will work for LESS than an American college grad (who has 100K in college debt). Significant campaign contributions to BOTH parties buys support for these programs.

    Welcome to the sweatshop.. it’s the future for America regardless of who’s in DC. They have ALL sold us out.

  20. Mr. Hawkins doesn’t seem to really understand human nature or capitalism very well…

    Selfishness doesn’t lead businessmen to hire more workers to increase their profits. Selfishness leads them increase their profits by exploiting / overworking their existing employees to the greatest possible / legal extent before paying additional wages.

    Selfishness doesn’t lead businessmen to earn more money to pay taxes, it leads them to utilize every available legal loophole to avoid paying taxes in wartime.

    Selfishness doesn’t lead businessmen to create products or services that people and society will use. Innovation and imagination do that. Selfishness is what leads them to create useless, wasteful novelties that will generate a profit regardless of any further or subsequent benfit to anyone.

    Selfishness leads businessmen to maximize profits by minimizing the benefits that their employees can earn, thereby reducing motivation to “go the extra mile”.

    Selfishness is precisely what sensible business regulations should exist to regulate.

  21. Capitalism isn’t the real issue. We can fight hunger and poverty through non-governmental organization and voluntary solidarity, which can happen in both non-capitalist and capitalist environments.

    I agree that capitalism per se isn’t the real issue, but if you think hunger and poverty can be effectively addressed without involvement of government — on what planet, sir?

  22. Pingback: The Mahablog » Let Them Eat Gold-Plated Cake

  23. Pingback: The Mahablog » The Road to Serfdom

  24. I remember reading a letter Lincoln wrote in 1864 where he stated that he felt confident the North would win but there was something worse on the horizon. Lincoln saw how corporations had grown more powerful (and wealthy) during the war while for the most part providing shoddy equipment and supplies to the Union Army. He worried that corporations would get enthroned with no way out for the rest of us.

    Of course he was proven right with the Gilded Age. It took two Roosevelts and a Wilson to at least bring a timeout to that 19th century madness. But the corporations live on. Always saying they are the only ones who can save democracy – which they’ve always hated- while doing everything in their power to destroy it.

    This partly explains the media’s obsession with Di, Charles, William, Liz II and whoever happens to be staying at the Montbatten Manor. They really do want a monarchy.

Comments are closed.