If you don’t lock your food in bear canisters in the backcountry of the Sierras, chances are you’ll wake in the middle of the night to the grunting, scratching sounds of an ursus americanus sifting through your foodstuffs.
If you ignore the rangers’ warnings and make the mistake of keeping food in your tent with you—or even something that smells like it might be food, like, say, a cherry-flavored Chap Stick—you might find that the thin nylon wall that keeps out mosquitoes does very little against a couple of inches of bear claw (the non-pastry kind).
And that’s what capitalism is like.
In its purest state, capitalism is voracious. And it’s merciless. Its end is dominance even if it has to exclude fairness and pity, like a bear just out of hibernation whose only thought is putting on weight with whatever sustenance it can find.
Don’t get me wrong. Capitalism the best system there is. It motivates innovation. It rewards the right risks and excellence. It leads to creation, production and development. It forces profitability or extinction.
And it supports society. The best way to seed productivity is by rewarding effort, and without productivity society itself will fail for lack of nourishment.
But don’t expect a capitalistic system to act in a way that benefits anything other than profits. The only time capitalism behaves altruistically is if it’s good for the bottom line.
Here are some examples that I’m hearing frequently that are disconnected from capitalism’s omnivorous nature:
1. Companies are profiting, so they should hire people because so many are unemployed.
A company hires people for one of two reasons. Either (1) The company determines that the individual will generate production that will exceed the hired individual’s overhead and thereby contribute to profits (eventually if not immediately), or (2) The company can’t meet the demand for its products or services at current staffing levels, and would generate more profit if it had more workers. If you know of another reason, I’d like to hear it.
2. Companies should pay their fair share of taxes, not take advantage of tax shelters.
I’m as angry as the next taxpayer when I find out a company born and raised in the US pays less in taxes than I do because they’re using an offshore tax haven. But if the company’s tax strategies are legal, maximizing after-tax profit is what they’re supposed to do. A company shouldn’t be blamed for using a tax strategy any more than I should be blamed for claiming a home mortgage interest deduction. Capitalism seeks the maximum profit, not the benefit of the government.
Look, we want the bears to prosper. Because the bears have cubs and fertilize the ground and keep the wild berry population in check and weed out the weak and infirm. In their proper state, they contribute to the balance of the ecosystem.
We just don’t want them to rip our tents apart.
You see my point. Capitalism needs governors. I didn’t say it needs meddling or stifling or punishing. But if we give it complete autonomy its appetite will compel it to stretch and grow and absorb and eat anything in its path without regard for the greater good.
So we try to manage this with laws. Anti-trust. Fair practices. Consumer protection. If capitalism didn’t have such an appetite, these wouldn’t be necessary.
But laws aren’t enough when an entire economy is at stake. And laws can’t anticipate the infinite ingenuities and permutations the capitalist ecosystem evolves. Legal solutions always seem to be too late, too limited, and ineffective in forestalling catastrophic outcomes. If my premise about omnivorous capitalism is accurate, we can’t rely on whistle-blowers or appeals to conscience. Laws will have to be augmented by something that impacts the appetite for profit or we’ll have more problems like the ones that have gotten us into this recession.
What’s bothering you about this issue? Have our ethics have failed us, and if so, where? Is a failure of ethics responsible for the recession—in part or in whole? What can we do better to grow our economy in a way that benefits more than just a few? What governors can we apply to promote fair play and protect the disadvantaged without stifling the capitalist system that’s the engine keeping our streets paved and our children educated and our families defended? That’s possible, isn’t it?
I know you aren’t satisfied with things the way they are. Are you?