Political debate often takes a binary form. We cast the left and right as two belligerent armies, fighting for the control of the political and economic apparatus of government and we dehumanise those who disagree or object to our values as part of an amorphous mass of evil. If you oppose aspects capitalism, then those on the right will cast you in the light of a statist, Stalinist, pseudo-intellectual and if you mention any benefits of the system then the most diehard socialists will dress you down with all the fervour of a zealous priest, preaching platitudes and quotes from Das Kapital. This is not something we should necessarily take the blame for, as much research suggests that it is a borderline insuppressible instinct, in fact I do it several times in this article, but I open with this because I’m about to attempt to defend believers in the global free market economy.
Capitalism is an economic system that feeds off of inequality and, as such, is anathema to many on the left. However, it is beyond dispute that the capitalist system has brought some good to the world. World Health Organisation statistics show sharp increases in life expectancy worldwide because of medical innovation, we have progressed technologically to a point where we can communicate instantaneously with people across the planet and can treat diseases that once guaranteed death with ease. Capitalism and competition are inextricably linked and there are few greater incentives for innovation than competition.
Some estimates say that global resources can feed, clothe and house 12 billion people – almost twice as many than currently live on this planet
Yet, if it is such a great system, then why does the world often seem like an irreparably unjust place? War, famine and systematic exploitation abound in the parts of the world that find themselves on the lower end of the global income ladder and, if we are to offer gratitude to the capitalists for the technological wonder of our modern earth, then they must also accept responsibility for its ills. Some estimates say that global resources can feed, clothe and house 12 billion people – almost twice as many than currently live on this planet – but those who profit from competition live in opulence, while those who are victimised by it languish in dispossession.
This is not the fault of competition per se, but the result of an artificially imposed scarcity. Without a doubt there are some on the right who believe the violent, heartless scramble for resources upon which our capitalism is based is both natural and desirable, but it does not take a belief that property is theft to realise that resource hoarding is both a systemic drain on human progress and an institutionalised violation of dignity. Rousseau wrote that ‘the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’; when you begin to look at society from this foundation, global capitalism begins to look like a huge problem.
However, there might be a way to retain the innovation of capitalism, whilst removing its nefarious grip on the lives of the poor. There’s an argument for statism, the abolition of private property and the imposition of communism, but there’s an argument heard much more rarely that uses liberty as its starting principle and encourages strategic use of the state, rather than the dichotomous divide between laissez-faire and the five year plan.
We provide free healthcare for every citizen because we believe it is a fundamental right
Political theorists like Phillipe Van Parijs have written about and advocated the idea of a universal basic income. That is to say, a state-guaranteed wage for every citizen that entitles them to food, housing and clothing. It is a policy that would, undoubtedly, require a high rate of redistributive tax, but it is one that would bring real liberation to every person in society.
Arguments for security are not new. The Beveridge Report created the modern welfare state from a liberal perspective, on the grounds that economic and bodily security were requirements of productivity in every citizen. We provide free healthcare for every citizen because we believe it is a fundamental right; it does not take too much of a stretch to realise the logic in bringing housing and nutrition under that category as well.
The basic income ensures liberty for all because it removes the artificial fight for survival imposed by unregulated capitalism. Rather than working under the threat of dispossession, disenfranchisement and death – a form of wage slavery – every citizen of the state would be working for either luxuries or passion, or both. The human race consists of 7 billion people; 7 billion brains and bodies that all have the potential to cure diseases, create great art and expand the limits of human knowledge. Capitalists believe in the invisible hand of the market; that resource allocation will always be determined by supply and demand, yet we impose career paths on people who have other skills for the simple reason of survival. We are the greatest supercomputer in the world, imagine what we could do if we engaged every cell.
The minuscule amount of welfare tourism that exists would vanish once the welfare state becomes a state-guarantee of security for citizens of the country, rather than a way to subsidise low wages.
This is not just an argument for the left to embrace either, several of the issues those on the right are concerned with would be almost eradicated by this kind of society. Crime might still exist, but remove destitution from the equation and the young and poor who find themselves drawn to it as the only escape from their circumstances would be secure and would have time and space to discover their real potential. The minuscule amount of welfare tourism that exists would vanish once the welfare state becomes a state-guarantee of security for citizens of the country, rather than a way to subsidise low wages. Small businesses would greatly expand in number and the competition between them would become more efficient as people no longer need to fear for their livelihood if their firms fail.
That’s not to say this would be easy to implement, or a panacea for society’s ills, and I’m sure there are people on the right that would react viscerally to the idea of taxing the rich more harshly in order the pay for an unconditional wage for all especially if, as I firmly believe it should, that funding comes substantially from inherited wealth. But equality of opportunity means nothing unless we understand that no-one should be punished for the mistakes of their parents, nor unjustly rewarded for their success.
- Avakov, Aleksandr V.. Two thousand years of economic statistics world population, GDP and PPP. New York: Algora Pub., 2010.
- Baumol, William J.. The free-market innovation machine: analyzing the growth miracle of capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
- Beveridge, William Henry Beveridge. Social insurance and allied services: report. American ed. New York: Macmillan Co., 1942.
- Elbow, Peter. “The Uses of Binary Thinking.” Journal of Advanced Composition 13: 51-78.
- Parijs, Philippe van. Real freedom for all: what (if anything) can justify capitalism?. Oxford: Clarendon Press ;, 1995.
- Rousseau, Jean, and Maurice Cranston. A discourse on inequality. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1984.
- “The Earth Can Feed, Clothe, and House 12 Billion People.” True Progress RSS. http://true-progress.com/the-earth-can-feed-clothe-and-house-12-billion-people-306.htm (accessed June 5, 2014).