As I get older, I am getting more truculent. Probably my friends have noticed. So I have made a list of the twelve opinions of mine that most often lead into arguments. These views would not raise many eyebrows among social scientists, but they do seem to offend my friends. Hence it may be useful for me to justify my views and send them around so you can each decide whether to reply or simply avoid the topic whenever we get together. I will present these opinions in bite-sized chunks, starting with the first three topics today, and working my way through the list during the next week.
Evidently my most controversial opinions are the following twelve:
1. Social equality is not a desirable goal.
2. It is harder to change hearts and minds than to change crucial social institutions.
3. Capitalism is mainly a blessing and markets are essential. They can be improved without great disruption.
4. Globalization is more a blessing than a problem, especially to less developed countries.
5. Technology is more a blessing than a problem. Our future depends on encouraging and managing technological development.
6. Global warming cannot be stopped solely by reducing individual consumption but requires mainly structural, especially technological, innovations.
7. Economic development is good, and need not use up the earth’s natural resources.
8. The economy is increasingly a matter of creating and selling knowledge, and less and less a matter of producing material stuff.
9. The best way to reduce the birth rate is by economic development.
10. War is an institution that has little to do with the quality of one’s personality or relationships.
11. Our Western civilization is not inferior to all other cultures previously known.
12. Democracy is good for peace and for economic development, though the political decisions made in democracies are not necessarily better than those made in other systems.
Social equality is not a desirable goal.
Instead, I favor a “floor” below which the poor and disadvantaged will not be allowed to fall. Yes, it will indirectly amount to redistributing money and privileges from the well-off to those lower in socio-economic status, which will increase equality. However, I don’t believe it’s a good idea to encourage invidious comparisons. Instead, we should all be thinking in terms of whether we have enough — where "enough" is finite.
As Marx put it, one can live comfortably in a small house until someone builds a mansion next door. Then the little house suddenly seems to be only a miserable shack. It is a bad (but widespread) habit to compare oneself to others to decide how well off one is.
Here’s a fact: The people who were nominated for an Oscar but did not win it have a FIVE-YEAR shorter life expectancy than those who did win Oscars. They are successful people in every respect except by comparison to those who won. We’d all be happier if we judged our own well-being in terms of our unique personal goals and needs, not those of other people. Satisfaction should come from having enough, not from being equal to anyone else.
There are many acceptable ways of guaranteeing that every member of society has access to a decent standard of living. I don’t have any preference, so long as we all have our basic needs met. If nobody is seriously deprived, I don’t care how unequally the remainder is distributed.
It is harder to change others’ hearts and minds than to change crucial social institutions.
The world is full of smart social reformers who make excellent suggestions about the lifestyle of others. Unfortunately, the others don’t usually accept these recommendations, even when they should know better. For example, we all know better than to fly around the world enjoying vacations and visiting relatives, for the planes' CO2 emissions are destroying our planet – but we do it anyhow. (Try talking someone out of it, and see how far you get.)
Alternatively, it is often easy to get big political decisions made for a whole society. Right now, I’m going to work to promote a carbon tax and give up my futile practice of criticizing other persons’ consumption habits. Remember when John Kennedy announced that the US would send men to the moon? Citizens were not asked to give their hearts and minds to the cause; Congress just decided to do it and so it happened — apparently without regard to whether voters liked the idea. Governments can do the same today with climate change: just announce some changes and make them happen. Thus, switching our taxation system from income tax to a carbon tax over a period of, say, ten years, will objectively make it too costly for us to mindlessly generate greenhouse gas. Social institutions are far easier to fix than human shortcomings.
Capitalism is a blessing and markets are essential. But they can, and should, be improved without great disruption.
It is so easy for leftists to slam capitalism! But what would you put in its place? Slavery? Feudalism? A command economy? Pick one, if you insist on abolishing capitalism. (No, you’re not allowed to choose the Scandinavian welfare state, which is actually a highly successful version of capitalism.)
It amazes me that, when economists have reached a virtual consensus as to how to lift a population out of poverty, I am surrounded by friends who would like to abolish that very system. (Admittedly, Easterley, Sachs, Stiglitz, and others have some details to resolve, but they are all in favor of capitalism.) Even China is capitalist now, whatever they may call the party that’s in power. Every developing country now is trying to follow the examples of Japan and the “Little Tiger” economies. Recently North Korea has instructed its people to go into business. Long ago, even Andre Gunder Frank and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the “founding fathers of dependency theory” stopped defending their previous anti-capitalistic approach. When Cardoso became the president of Brazil he said he was not going to follow any of the recommendations he had promoted in his books. I don’t think a single economist in the whole world today would favor abolishing a market system — but many of my friends would, for they claim that capitalist societies are crassly materialistic and greedy. Be careful what you wish for, friends.
I know very few crassly materialistic, greedy people but they weren't brought up as capitalists. Most of those people live in formerly socialist societies, or have left those countries to come West. I also know a few shallow people here in North America, but they are not primarily materialistic, but merely overly-focused on their families instead of on societal problems. Their limitations did not arise from a belief in capitalism, but we can't expect them to grow much. Changing to a different kind of economy would not help them or anyone else, and fortunately, it’s not going to happen anyway. It can't be done.
What has capitalism done for our life expectancy? When the Industrial Revolution and capitalism began in Britain in 1750, life expectancy at birth for males was 31 years and for females, 33 years. By 1900, it had increased to 45 for males and 48 for females. Today it is nearly 77 for males and 82 for females. Even the world-wide average life expectancy at birth has increased to 65 for males and 70 for females.
These advantages are strongly connected with capitalism. Swaziland, apparently the shortest-lived country in the world, has an overall life expectancy at birth of 39.6 years, whereas in 15 countries (all capitalist) it exceeds 80 years. (Cuba and the United States are tied, with an overall life expectancy at birth of 78 years, each being the “over-achiever” and the “under-achiever” in its respective socialist or capitalist category.)
Moreover, as a report by Statistics Canada announced,
“In 1996, Canada’s infant mortality rate dropped below six infant deaths per 1,000 live births for the first time. These improvements in health, coupled with greater economic prosperity and environmental conservation have resulted in an overall enhancement in quality of life for Canadians.”
Who wants to give that up?
Still, I concur with the prevailing misgivings about corporate capitalism. Indisputably, some business firms do harm society in countless ways. Big oil, for example, is largely responsible for climate change. Some firms (e.g. tobacco and munitions manufacturers) are inherently unethical and probably should not be accepted at all.
Nevertheless, it is easy to think of innovations to regulate these organizations. Rabbi Michael Lerner has suggested one approach, which is now endorsed by the Network of Spiritual Progressives. They favor issuing charters to corporations that last only ten years. At the end of that period, a jury of ordinary citizens will review the company’s practices and plans. Only if it is deemed socially responsible will its charter be extended for another ten years. This procedure will enable civil society groups to collect and present evidence bearing upon this decision. At present, the directors of a corporation are legally bound to promote the interests of their shareholders, but we need a far more extensive kind of social accountability, which Lerner’s proposal will accomplish. It will barely disrupt the workings of our capitalist economy.
Next time I will take up globalization, a process that seems to me mainly beneficial in the less developed countries.