Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Genie: Capitalism & Human Values by Frank S. Robinson

Fellow blogger Frank Robinson has posted a link to a spirited and well-argued defense of capitalism that he published (link above). Robinson makes what I consider a Churchillian argument. As Churchill is reported to have said about democracy--"it's the worst form of government, except when compared to all of the others"--so Robinson seems to be arguing for capitalism. (Side note: I prefer the term "market economy" to "capitalism" because of the strong emotional valance "capitalism" holds in some quarters, left and right, but this is a small quibble.) Robinson readily admits the shortcomings of capitalism, but it has brought us untold wealth. It has not brought us heaven on earth, but we should not expect it to do so. By the way, neither has any other form of economy, socialism, mercantilism, or the agricultural society that dominated humankind up until about 225 years ago. Compare yourself the the most powerful and wealthiest persons in history and it's likely that you enjoy a higher standard of life than any such person. A Vanderbilt, a Rothschild (19th century version), not to mention a Napoleon, any king, a caesar: all pale compared to the standard of life and wealth that the average American enjoys today, albeit without all of the social prestige. Do you want social prestige or a medical system that can treat you and a car or jet to travel rather than a horse and buggy?

So is there anything to further to ponder? The genie of capitalism, or more broadly the fruits of capitalism, economic growth, has given us a whole new way of life, full of opportunities and brave new worlds. But can we control this genie? Having unleashed the genie of unprecedented economic growth in the last 225 years or so, can we continue to live with it? As Ian Morris discusses in The Why the West Rules, we can imagine at least two very different scenarios of the future that might play out: one "nightfall" and the other, "the singularity". Which scenario will likely play out? Or will we continue to muddle through? I question whether we can continue to dump growing amounts of carbon into our atmosphere with impunity. I'd begun to think that nuclear energy might be an answer, but now the catastrophe in Japan demonstrates how the best laid plans can not anticipate all of the threats. (Fire, by the way, posed similar threats and wrecked havoc on earlier civilizations on a huge scale, but not on a scale for area and duration that compares to nuclear catastrophes.) As I'm of an age to recall Three Mile Island (not really so bad), Chernobyl (really bad), and "The China Syndrome" (scary and kind of relevant to what's happening here), I can't rest easy with this situation.

Considering the perspectives of Thomas Homer-Dixon, I wonder if we've developed an ingenuity gap that we may not prove able to bridge, or that our energy needs, the lifeblood of any human group, have grown too large and chaotic to manage and continue. During the the first 40 or so years of my life, I feared the genie of atomic weaponry, which seems to be back in the bottle, but really it's only resting in silos--we hope. Can we control the fruits of modernity and capitalism, such as atomic energy? The problem stems from the fact that we as a species haven't changed all that much since leaving the savannas of Africa about 100,000 years ago. We still have most of the same instincts and biases, the same perspectives and limitations. We've come a long way, but have we come far enough?

Can we continue to grow in knowledge and power? Can we continue to grow something that we call "the economy"? I hope so, but we should be considering how we can tame this genie lest it get the better of us.

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