You write columns, you get e-mails, and what some tell you is that capitalism is a failure, that people are suffering and what we need is Obama-style socialism — virtually unfettered government taking over everything that moves and spending at a rate that could add something like $9 trillion to our debt over the next decade.
The first response has to be that we are now facing is essentially a blip, an exception, not the rule, and that yes it is painful but not nearly as painful as socialist societies are practically all of the time and for just about everyone, except for the authoritarians running things.
Free enterprise economies have transformed the world, as the scholar Michael Novak observed in "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism."
"Of all the systems of political economy which have shaped our history," he wrote, "none has so revolutionized ordinary expectations of human life — lengthened the life span, made the elimination of poverty and famine thinkable, enlarged the range of human choice — as democratic capitalism."
To him, a vital point is not just that the market economy as it evolved in Great Britain and the United States some 200-plus years ago vastly increased our wealth, but that this way of doing things shoved dictatorial government aside and emerged as the only economic system "compatible in practice" with political democracy. You can’t pretend to have a rights-respecting, free society if in one huge, very important arena of that society, you strangle rights and freedom.
I’ve used the word "system" here, but free enterprise is less a system than simply saying to people they can engage in material transactions with each other under certain rules of the game. "Give me that which I want, and you shall have this that you want," is the way the 18th century’s Adam Smith summed it up, as an economist named Thomas DiLorenzo has reminded us. He reminds us, too, that the nation’s founders believed in this principle, and fought the Revolutionary Way in part to achieve it.
Socialism rarely solves much of anything, except possibly in the short term. India and China have discovered as much and — despite the moment’s troubles — are prospering in ways unachievable under a command economy. To save themselves from destinies ordained by their semi-socialist proclivities, France and Germany chose relatively conservative leaders the last time out. Contrast this with socialist dictator of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who has stripped away basic rights while further afflicting the poor.
A better example, some say, is the socialism of Scandinavia, which has given the countries there oh so much bliss. The fact is that the Scandinavian countries are not strictly speaking socialist. They keep corporate taxes lower than ours, don’t regulate much, believe in free trade. They do have a massive welfare state with unbelievably high taxes, and the consequence can be pretty gruesome, as is shown by statistics about relatively low productivity and by personal testimony.
"In Oslo," wrote Bruce Bawer of Norway’s capital in a New York Times piece a couple of years ago, "library collections are woefully outdated, and public swimming pools are in desperate need of maintenance. News reports describe serious shortages of police officers and school supplies. When my mother-in-law went to an emergency room recently, the hospital was out of cough medicine."
We could get that way, too, if we expand a welfare state in which the federal government already provides "significant income" to 52.6 percent of Americans through jobs, subsidized housing, food stamps, Social Security and other means, according to a news account of findings by economist Gary Shilling.
Obama has big, big plans along those lines, on top of now dictating how the auto industry should operate, figuring out ways to seize companies, devising extensive regulatory schemes and spending extraordinary sums as the only possible means of relief from our current economic travails.
Some of this may be temporary. Much of it may not be.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)