Capitalism has been under assault in recent years, with many on the left advocating that it be replaced by democratic socialism. In this coronavirus epidemic, we’ve gotten a nasty preview, on a temporary basis of what we’d experience permanently under socialism: empty shelves, limits on purchases, economic meltdown and an alarming degree of government control over our lives and curtailment of our basic civil liberties, such as our freedom of assembly and our right to worship.
Yet surely champions of socialism like Nathan Robinson and others would insist that this is not the socialism they have in mind. What they really want is free college, free healthcare, free universal basic income and free retirement benefits. Since none of this is truly freeprofessors and doctors, for example, don’t work for free, and university and hospital buildings cost money to maintainwhat socialists mean is that someone else should pay. Socialism, viewed this way, is robbing Peter to pay Paul. It seems to be a form of theft.
Theft may be legal, but how can it be moral? For American socialists today, the moral thrust of their ideology comes from the idea of democracy. “To me, socialism means everyone has a seat at the table and everybody gets a slice of the piece,” Michael Moore recently said. “We have to believe that if it’s a democracy.” The socialist writer Irving Howe has written, “We believe that the democracy more or less prevailing in our political life should also be extended deeply into economic life.”
The basic idea here is that socialism is vindicated through its roots in popular consent. If a majority of people, working through their elected representatives, declares this or that to be a public entitlement, then they are justified in extracting resources from the rich or the productive class in order to pay for it. As Nathan Robinson argues, both in his book Why You Should Be a Socialist and in his Newsweek article, the moral imperative is to place the economy under the control of “the people.”
This seems problematic on many fronts. First, what direct control do “the people” have over any government institution? What say do the British people have over the National Health Service? What say do Americans have over their local Department of Motor Vehicles, or perhaps the U.S. Postal Service? None. Genuine popular control over government institutions is a mirage.
Second, what if 51 percent of Americans vote to confiscate the resources of a single personsay, Bill Gates? Is this right? No more so than if one person invaded his property and robbed him. In authoritarian socialism, a single dictator seizes the fruit of your labor; in democratic socialism, a majority does. The latter would seem to differ from the former in the same manner that gang rape differs from individual rape. In both cases, the victim is violated.
The fundamental problem with democratic socialism, however, is its underlying assumption. The assumption is that in a free market system, the economy is not under the control of the people. I contend, on the contrary, that under capitalism, it is more under the people’s control than in any replacement system the socialists could institute. My argument, if valid, would refute the socialists on their own terms.
Let’s begin by recognizing that we are, each of us, not only citizens but also consumers. These are overlapping categories: every citizen is a consumer, and with the exception of legal aliens and those here illegally, every consumer is also a citizen. The consumer, like the citizen, is also a voter. In this respect, we are all voters in a dual sense. As citizens, we vote once every two or four years; as consumers, we vote many times a day.
The citizen votes with a ballot on which he expresses a preference; the vote costs him nothing, except the inconvenience of going to the polls or mailing it in. The consumer votes with his dollar bills, which are his hard-earned money and represent the underlying time and effort he has put in.
Only a fraction of the citizenry is eligible to vote at the ballot box, but every consumer votes in the marketplaceeven felons, children and immigrants here illegally. They may not be able to vote at the ballot box, but they all vote with their dollar bills. And while citizens participate in a system of representative democracytheir views are filtered through the politicians who represent themconsumers vote in a system of direct democracy.
If you prefer an Audi to a Lexus, or Fox News to MSNBC, or the Apple iPhone to the Samsung Galaxy, you don’t have to elect some other guy to exercise these preferences; you do it directly yourself, by paying for them. Here we see the secret of how those billionaires like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg got so rich. We made them rich! The inequality that socialists complain about is the result of popular mandate. Entrepreneurs didn’t create it; we did.
Free markets work not through “greed” or “exploitation,” but by satisfying our wantsand the most successful entrepreneurs are those who anticipate our wants even before we have them. No one wrote Steve Jobs beforehand to implore him to make a phone that could email, take photos and stream movies. He conceived it and built it before we knew we couldn’t live without it.
Market economies involve a level of popular participation and democratic consent that politics can only envy. We don’t need to extend democracy from the political to the economic sphere; we already have it. And the moral grounding of free markets, just like that of our constitutional system, is in the will of the people; in the latter case, a will expressed only on election day, but in the former case, a will expressed deliberately, emphatically and constantly.
“If we are not competent to rule ourselves, then let us misrule ourselves.” Barack Obama Sr., the former president’s father, said that in 1959, making the case against colonial rule in his native Kenya. His point is obvious. Let the Kenyan people decide their own fate, even if they decide badly.
So it is with capitalism. It makes no sense to deplore the choices that consumers make; they have the right to vote for the products they want and, in this sense, to enrich the entrepreneurs who make those products. If they make foolish choices, that’s regrettable but it is their prerogative. Capitalism, like democracy, is rooted in popular will and popular consent. Thus capitalism, like democracy, is itself a form of social justice.
Dinesh D’Souza’s new book United States of Socialism is published by St. Martin’s Press.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.