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"Capitalism" Forever

Tags Free MarketsEntrepreneurshipPrivate PropertySubjectivism

04/07/2010Walter BlockJackson Reeves

Previously, I, Walter Block, published an article on the use of the word "capitalism." I defended the employment of this nomenclature in the promotion of libertarianism, criticizing the formation of a group, lead by my old and good friend, Sheldon Richman, called Libertarians Against Capitalism. I am now coauthoring this reply to Sheldon with Jackson, who wrote me a letter very supportive of my side of this debate; I have edited this letter of his and included it in this response.

In due course, Sheldon published a rejoinder to my article. As is his wont, it was thoughtful and knowledgeable. So much so, that it almost convinced me. But, not quite. However, he might well have made one good point, about which I was, I confess, ignorant. I had stated that the bad guys were trying to steal the word "libertarian" from us; but Sheldon, perhaps a better historian than me, has pointed out that we free enterprisers were the initial "thieves." (I place scare quotes around "thieves" to indicate that poaching of language is not akin to stealing real property. As Stephan Kinsella begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting has so masterfully shown,Download PDF there can be no such thing as intellectual property in the libertarian law code; thus, there can be no theft of it, either.) It was my supposition that Spooner and Tucker were the first to use this word in the modern (political economic) manner, but, alas, I may well have been mistaken in this.

I did some (belated) research on this question; see here, here, and here. The first two links still seem ambiguous to me; the latter clearly supports Sheldon's position. As well, I have been told that a forthcoming book of Murray Rothbard's letters, edited by David Gordon, buttresses Sheldon's interpretation. On the other hand, this essay would tend in the other direction, and I am not historian enough to come to a definitive conclusion. So, let me stipulate, arguendo, that I was wrong in my contention, and Sheldon correct. I nevertheless persist in thinking that this error of mine, and thus Sheldon's correction of me, if that is what it indeed is, is really irrelevant to the point I was initially making: that it would be a grievous mistake to jettison the word "capitalism" from our libertarian lexicon. I think Sheldon agrees with me as to the relative unimportance of the (well nigh possible) error of mine, as he says, "But let that pass."

Now we come to the crux of his rejection of "capitalism." Sheldon says, in response to my request that he disband this initiative of his:

Sorry, can't do it, old friend. It's not worth the candle. The word was tainted from the start — free-market radicals uses [sic] it disparagingly – and it has never lost its taint, despite the efforts of Mises and Rand. It creates confusion not clarity. We have perfectly good words for what we want: the free market and laissez faire, voluntarism and market anarchism. We don't need the poisonous word capitalism.

But the most widely understood meaning of "anarchism" is, surely, "chaos," or, maybe, "bomb throwing" (against innocent people). Libertarian anarchists, of course, mean by this word, absence of archy; that is, no arbitrary unjustified rule of one man by another. Should we therefore give up on the word anarchy because it is misunderstood?

A similar challenge to Sheldon's position emanates from the word "individualism." In our camp, this certainly evokes a positive reaction. Some libertarians go so far as to equate our libertarian philosophy with individualism, and to denigrate what they see as "collectivism" as its polar opposite. I don't go out that far on the limb at all (it is not for nothing that I am widely known, at least within the libertarian community, as Walter "Moderate" Block). For this would put us in opposition to voluntary collectives, such as the kibbutz, the monastery, the nunnery, the convent, even the typical nuclear family which lives according the doctrine of "from each in according to ability, to each according to need." It would also denigrate team sports (football, soccer, baseball, basketball) as collectivist, and unduly elevate individual sports (swimming, track, handball, tennis) as a matter of libertarian principle. Further, "individualism," too, is under dispute; it is also claimed by our political enemies. It would be a sad day if we ever had to give up on this word, but that, as I see it, is the logical implication of Sheldon's perspective.

"Free market" is a wonderful banner. I would not jettison it for all the tea in China, so to speak. However, it really doesn't do all the work we need it to do. As far as I am concerned, there is not one but rather three arenas in which we contend against our competitors on the political spectrum: not only economics, but also personal liberties and foreign policy. Someone who favors freedom only in the commercial field is not really one of us, if he is "weak" on the other two. For example, he favors economic liberties, but wants to put people in jail for prostitution, pornography, gambling, drug use, and supports US imperialism. There are plenty of "free-market" advocates like that; they are not one of us. They are, rather, conservatives, and are just as much the enemies of libertarianism as are the left liberals. If you ask a typical lefty what "free market" means to him, undoubtedly, he will associate it with exploitation of the poor. If you ask this of the modal mainstream economist, you will hear a litany of "market failure," and economic inefficiency.

Here is my edited version of my coauthor's brilliant letter to me (I agree with every word of it, or I would not have invited Jackson to coauthor this rejoinder with me):

I find the attempt to popularize phrases like "laissez-faire" or "market anarchism" so as to avoid the negative connotations of "capitalism" more than a little silly.

For those of us who are anarchocapitalists, the phrases are interchangeable; clarity is not an issue. I doubt there has ever been any confusion when one Mises Institute Senior Scholar says "capitalism" and another says "laissez-faire." The only reason I can find as to why one would attempt to change the vocabulary of our message would be to appeal to people who do not share our economic views. I cannot see this little ploy as anything but a waste of time.

The first reason I believe this to be foolish is that if anyone is under the impression that "laissez-faire" or "market anarchism" will be an easier pill for the general public to swallow, they need to do a bit of thinking.

"Laissez-faire" will make the average Soccer-Mom-Mandi think of Dickensian orphans having to beg for pennies on a muddy street (in the rain) because they lost one or more limbs in a coal mining accident and their mustached robber-baron employer threw them out into the wilderness because of their reduced productivity. She will be overcome with a fear for the safety of not only her tow-headed children, but of all tow-headed children in the Good Ol' USA. As fearing for children makes her feel unpleasant, and as the phrase "laissez-faire" was used disparagingly by both her matronly 11th grade social studies teacher who inspired her and her EN 211 American Lit. professor who she had a crush on, she will not like it.

I also do not believe that "market anarchism" will accurately communicate the message of liberty and win the hearts and minds of the masses. If we were to take Teamster Union Randy the Welder from Local 102 and do a bit of word association, I would imagine we would end up with something like this: "Market"; "Wall Street." "Market"; "Exploitation." "Anarchism"; "Chaos." "Anarchism"; "Arson." "Market"; "Madoff." "Anarchism"; "Africa." "Market Anarchy"; "Workers of the World Unite." To the average American whose reason is constructed by either The Daily Show, pop music, or whatever blockbuster is playing at the cinema, the phrase "market anarchy" would lead one to think of a Hollywood-envisioned dystopian future in which a large pharmaceutical company controls every aspect of our lives so that a few privileged crooks at the top can live in ivory towers. I cannot see people flocking to this phrase.

If you want to proselytize to the masses, "capitalism" is your best bet. It's not threatening to most people as both Republicans and Democrats generally speak of it as a kind of good thing. It is what made "us" great and all that blather. The fact that it is commonly used and commonly misused is its best quality. Every time someone incorrectly equates capitalism to corporatism, mercantilism, bailouts, price fixing, subsidies, natural monopolies, central banking, etc. we are given an excellent opportunity to say "Well, that's not exactly what capitalism is … " We have the perfect icebreaker which enables us to wax poetic about how you agree that these things are unjust but are really examples of interventionist policies and state reallocation of resources not intrinsic qualities of capitalism. And then we can smoothly transition the conversation into free market solutions and extol the virtues of economic liberty.

But now to the second reason I think this is pointless: the ideas of absolute liberty will never, ever, ever be popular to the masses. The values that have led us to our vision of rights, justice, and liberty are less popular than the values that lead others elsewhere. There is something within many people that finds a calming satisfaction in dependence. Depending upon the state does offer a lot of stability to many people who would rather not be bothered with trying to steer a course through the "tumultuous sea of liberty." Trying to put a pretty bow on our ideas by abjuring all words with negative connotations will not help promote liberty. If anything, we should focus on bracing the remnant, as it were. The people who will find the message of liberty appealing will do so because of the philosophy, not because of the label, indeed, in spite of the label.

I have a hunch that making a big ado about not supporting "capitalism" because the word is misused and preferring to support whatever alternative word its critics agree upon will further alienate proponents of economic liberty, on the part of both like-minded individuals and potential converts. People who do this will just look pedantic, as if they are trimming their sails to be agreeable. "Um … yeah, I like supported Capitalism before it was cool … then everyone else started digging it. But they didn't really get it, ya know? So now I'm into Anti-Capitalist-Market-Anarchy. It's really rare, I doubt you've heard of it."

Now, back to me. This is Walter Block writing again. While my coauthor and I are taking on Sheldon Richman on this issue, we might as well widen the debate and consider the mistaken views of some others.

According to one contributor to Sheldon's web: Since "leftists like Noam Chomsky and right-wingers like Glenn Beck keep calling themselves 'libertarian,' let's ditch that moniker, too, and reclaim 'liberal' to mean both personal and economic liberty." (By the way, Milton Friedman is another who promiscuously used the word "libertarian" to apply to himself. On this, see here,Download PDF here,Download PDF and here.Download PDF) But, if we are losing "libertarian" what makes us think we can re-attain "liberal"? Why not play defense as well as offense? Try to keep both. The more words we can use to express ourselves the better. We already have "capitalism." Sheldon is willing to jettison it even when no one else is trying to seize it from us.

In the view of one over-the-transom remark: "Since the word "capitalism" does not have the meaning we intend, (we should) cease using it incorrectly. From its historical roots and etymological derivation it does not and has not meant 'free markets.'" Yes, but the meanings of words change according to usage. There is no intrinsic meaning of a word. For example, black people have been called the N word, negroes, Negroes, African-Americans, blacks. The same object, different appellations. Even the objection mentioned just above takes cognizance of the malleability of language, as this one does not.

"I'm as much in favor of 'lucid discourse' as is the next fellow, I suppose. But there is something I rank even higher: promoting liberty."

The next objection comes from Clarence B. Carson who published "Capitalism: Yes and No" some 25 years ago in the Freeman. He praises "lucid discourse" and on this ground prefers "free enterprise" to "capitalism" as a description of our perspective. Well, I'm as much in favor of "lucid discourse" as is the next fellow, I suppose. But there is something I rank even higher: promoting liberty. And when the two diverge, as I claim they do in this case, my way forward is clear. Yes, "capitalism" may be more "in your face" than the "free enterprise" that was criticized above. And, some people may be put off by it, preferring more gentle terminology. But if there is anything I have learned from the methodological individualism taught by Mises, it is that people are different. Other people may need the "slap in the face" that, on this supposition, only "capitalism" can supply.

In Carson's view, there is a commonly accepted understanding of "free market" and it is a pretty good one: "A free market is a market open to all peaceful traders." This sounds good, but, I fear, Carson is living in a dream world, at least based on the common understanding of this word, in terms of exploitation. In contrast, he avers, "capitalism … does not have a commonly accepted meaning." Well, yes, but, it has been used effectively, and neither does his favorite appellation, "free enterprise."

I don't really regard the debate over nomenclature as a substantive one. It merely concerns strategy, branding, labeling. And, as with all such issues, it is difficult to say which side is definitively correct. If we win, and economic freedom is maximized, will it be because of, or in spite of, our positions on this question? I think it will be difficult to ever know for sure. However, my "instinct" is that we should keep for ourselves as many words as we can.

The most powerful argument on this score I save for last. Sheldon Richman states: "(Capitalism) has never lost its taint, despite the efforts of Mises and Rand." Yes, yes, but as my coauthor and I have shown above, every other word we use is also "tainted," or problematic on other grounds. What is "tainted" in the minds of the people is not the word. Once they even partially understand the concept, the booboisie doesn't much like it.

"What are you, crazy?" they would say. "Turning back the clock and getting rid of welfare, unemployment insurance, the central bank, the minimum-wage law, social security, protective tariffs? We'd have mass starvation. Not make war all over the place? How else can we protect ourselves? You people are insane."

So, I ask, who have been the people in the recent past who have done the most to promote our movement, whatever we call it? And, surely, it cannot be denied that Rand has converted the most ordinary people to our movement, and that Mises, along with Rothbard have made the most serious inroads amongst professional scholars. So, here we have Richman, who has had, oh, I don't know, an impact of one millionth of a per cent of Rand plus Mises, criticizing them for poor word usage. (I am not trying to denigrate Sheldon here; my own impact has been much more like his than these two GIANTS of our movement.) I hope and trust no one thinks me guilty of an ad hominem argument here. I am not saying Richman is wrong, and Rand and Mises are right because they are more famous than him. What I am saying, instead, is that one of the vehicles used by Rand and Mises in their successful promotion of liberty is the word "capitalism." Surely, this must count importantly in our debate.

Ayn Rand converted more people to libertarianism than anyone else, and she used that word often, and with great effect. Indeed, if there was any one word associated with her, it was "capitalism." Are we really to believe that she would have converted even more people without the ceaseless and unrelenting use of this nomenclature? Although it is difficult to draw certain conclusions from contrary-to-fact history, it is difficult to see how this could have been the case then, or, indeed, is at present. If there is one description of Ayn Rand that strikes to the core of her being, it is "in your face." She was no shrinking violet. She made the case for the freedom philosophy in the most aggressive manner possible, bless her. And, "capitalism" was a crucial element of that effort. It makes far more sense to follow her in this regard than to jettison this word in an attempt to be historically "accurate," or indeed, for any other reason — that is, if we really want to promote liberty efficaciously.


Contact Walter Block

Walter Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at Loyola University, senior fellow of the Mises Institute, and regular columnist for LewRockwell.com.

Click here to see an extensive online compendium of Dr. Block's publications.

Click here for a complete list of Dr. Block's books.

Contact Jackson Reeves

Jackson Reeves is a graduate of the University of Alabama. Currently he is residing in Edmonton, Canada, and is a member of the Edmonton Liberty Society and an active member in many online libertarian, anarchocapitalist, and free-market communities.