A Modest Proposal to Settle a Difference of Opinion

There is, at the present time in the United States, a polemical and highly divisive debate taking place between the defenders and the critics of the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism. Regardless of the merits of the arguments for or against this doctrine, there is an important point that is being overlooked by both sides. By the admission of its supporters, the system of laissez-faire capitalism has never been implemented anywhere during the long history of humanity, which means the belief that it is the best of all possible economic systems has never been tested, and is therefore completely unproven, except in the brains of its addled supporters.

If a pharmaceutical company were to market a miraculous drug that it claimed would make everyone healthy and cure all diseases before it had undertaken clinical studies both to verify the drug’s purported benefits and to ensure that there are no unpleasant or harmful side effects, most people would concur that the company was behaving in a reckless, irrational, and highly irresponsible manner. Drug companies are required by law to test new drugs in rigorous clinical trials before they are allowed to sell them in order to protect consumers from harmful or ineffective drugs, as well as from the false or misleading claims that individuals and companies are wont to make about them.

When we consider how much more vast, complex, and numerous are the consequences, whether good or bad, that would result from the adoption of the system of laissez-faire capitalism – not to mention the very large number of human lives that would be affected – it is incredible that its advocates do not show more caution and humility in their approach. If, as they firmly believe, their doctrine is correct, and the benefits to be reaped by implementing this system are indeed great, then, conversely, if their doctrine is wrong – a possibility that seems never to have occurred to these fanatical worshippers of the free market – the harm that would result is equally great. For the radical changes which laissez-faire or free-market capitalists are advocating represent a huge experiment that would refashion society according to their beliefs.

In the course of the tumultuous twentieth century, the human world witnessed the example of another economic doctrine that, like laissez-faire capitalism, was believed by many people to be a panacea that would solve humanity’s material and social problems. That doctrine was called communism. Today, because of its tragic failures, we know the many mistakes, horrors, excesses, blindness, lies, denials, and upheavals it produced, for the simple reason that, contrary to what its zealous advocates believed, the doctrine of communism is wrong.

Therefore, in the name of caution, good sense, and the well-being of all those who would be affected by this precipitous course, I propose that, before the system of laissez-faire capitalism is adopted on a wider scale, it should first be tested in a limited situation where its effects, whether good or bad, can be verified to everyone’s satisfaction. In other words, like a new and untested drug, the system of laissez-faire capitalism must first be tested rigorously before it is adopted by entire countries. For surely, if its proponents are as rational as they claim and believe themselves to be, they will readily agree to such a sensible course of action. If they care as much as they claim about the well-being of other people, they will first take the precaution of trying their unproven theory on a limited scale before they attempt to impose it on a nation of more than 300 million inhabitants.

The communists had neither the humility nor the good sense to consider the possibility that their theory of society and human behaviour might be wrong, and therefore, before attempting to impose it on others, they should have first tested it on a smaller scale. After all, this is what all good scientists and researchers do before they trumpet their findings to the world. But it seems that, in the realm of economics, this sensible, moderate, cautious, and safe course is generally not followed by the many zealous fanatics who, convinced by mere argument and logical deduction of the truth of their theory or beliefs, rashly proceed to put them into practice without first going through the trouble of testing them in order to separate what is true from what is false.

The communists were guilty of committing an unpardonable sin against humanity that resulted from their arrogance and their fanatical conviction in the truth of their ideology. The proponents of laissez-faire capitalism are presently committing the same sin due to the very same blind conviction in their beliefs. The arrogance that these free-market fanatics exhibit in their desire to impose their unproven beliefs on all their fellow citizens is just as monstrous as the arrogance of the communists, who imposed their mistaken ideology on more than a billion unfortunate individuals in countries like Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, and the many countries that came under Soviet domination. By their zealous attempts to impose an unproven and possibly false theory on all the inhabitants of a vast and populous country, these self-professed disciples of reason demonstrate how foolish their behaviour is, since what they are trying to do is completely irrational, in addition to being extremely dangerous for the lives and well-being of many of their fellow citizens.

There is, of course, one important difference between communism and laissez-faire capitalism: whereas the doctrine of communism is wholly mistaken, the doctrine of capitalism has some validity. That free markets and free societies create greater material wealth and a steady increase in the material well-being of its inhabitants is a truth that most people would readily admit. But it does not follow from this fact – that a regulated market economy is good – that a completely unregulated market economy is therefore even better. In simplified form, this is the basic argument advanced by the advocates of laissez-faire capitalism.

In his work on ethics, the philosopher Aristotle concluded that the best guide to life is to follow a moderate course while avoiding extremes in all aspects of our lives, whether in work, pleasure, eating and drinking, our relationships with others, sports, and recreations. This advice is eminently sensible. In economics, the extremes are represented by the opposing doctrines of communism and laissez-faire capitalism, which represent the Scylla and Charybdis of economics. Thus, the moderate course would be to avoid these extremes. This is what the great majority of mature democratic countries have done, by adopting mixed economies which harness the productive power of free markets while keeping them under the guiding hand of government in order to prevent the fiery, powerful steeds of capitalism from running amok and leading entire societies astray.

To resolve this contentious dispute, I shall make the following proposal: let the free-market capitalists set up their social and economic utopia somewhere in the world and try to make it work. In other words, they should be given a fair opportunity to put their beliefs into practice. There are enough wealthy supporters of this doctrine who could finance the venture I am proposing in a city or region of the country in which they live.

It would not be fair to the proponents of laissez-faire capitalism to make them create their ideal society from scratch in an uninhabited or sparsely inhabited region, for this would tilt the balance too much against them, and, moreover, it would take too much time. Instead, for the sake of fairness, I propose that they be allowed to take over a city or region, or several cities or regions, of the country in which they live. They could do so without coercion by buying the properties and businesses of those who presently live there but do not support their doctrine. Many of these inhabitants could be persuaded to move elsewhere if they were offered enough money.

However, there will be some people who will refuse to leave regardless of how much money they are offered. The manner in which these people – who want to remain in the society but don’t agree with its radical tenets – are treated will be the first test of the ideologues’ principles. For if they force them to leave or tell them, “If you want to remain in our free-market, libertarian utopia, then you must agree to live by the principles on which our new society is founded,” then they will be guilty of using the same coercion which they presently denounce the government for using to achieve its ends. And this raises an important point about the manner in which the fanatics of individual and economic freedom are trying to create the society which they believe is the best of all possible worlds: to impose your beliefs on people who do not agree with you means you have violated the fundamental principle of individual freedom on which your whole philosophy is based. For individual freedom, if it means anything, also means the freedom to reject or refuse to live in a society that is founded on the supposed inviolability of this principle.

The method that I am proposing to test the validity of the claims made by the advocates of laissez-faire capitalism is the best way to show that these ideas are just as mistaken as communism. For communism was discredited only after it was tried and failed abjectly to fulfill its lofty promises. It will take no less to discredit this dangerous and unproven ideology that is continually gaining more and more adherents, just as, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the doctrine of communism was able to gain more and more adherents.

In my opinion, there are two possible outcomes to the proposed free-market experiment: either the inhabitants stick rigidly to their principles, in which case the experiment will fail and, due both to ignorance and the harmful effects of unrestrained human selfishness, come to a nasty, brutish end, or they will recognize the need for more and more laws and regulations to check, balance, and correct these and other negative effects, in which case their society will abandon the rigid principles on which it was founded and, with the passage of time, will come increasingly to resemble more moderate existing societies.

To all those who want to eliminate most government powers, functions, and programs in order to create a laissez-faire state, I declare, Instead of trying to force your ideology on everyone, why don’t you go somewhere and create your free-market utopia? Since you are continually preaching the virtues of independence, self-reliance, and individual initiative, this is an obvious opportunity to demonstrate your faith in your principles by putting them into practice. Then, when you have demonstrated the superiority of your system to us – the skeptical, the hesitant, and the unpersuaded – we will admit that we were wrong and join you while extolling your superior wisdom.

But the truth is that you are too lazy or too frightened to take such a radical step. For instead of creating this ideal society of yours by following your cherished principle of individual initiative, you want to take the easy way by taking control of an existing society and imposing your views on everyone, including the many who don’t agree with you. In this regard, you are no different from the communists and all the other utopians who have plagued humanity with their false systems, ideologies, and their misguided desire radically to remake society according to their ideas, in the arrogant but mistaken belief that they knew better than everyone else how societies should be ordered and organised.

Even if the theory of free-market capitalism turns out to be true, its advocates should still be willing to test it on a smaller scale before it is more widely adopted, for such a demonstration of its superiority over the mixed economic systems which exist in most countries and which they so vehemently denounce, would be the best, most persuasive argument in its favour. This is the only rational course to follow in this matter. And if the numerous Randophiles and other laissez-faire fanatics are unwilling to undertake this test before they attempt to impose their theory on the entire country of more than 300 million inhabitants in which they live, then they cannot claim, by any stretch of the meaning of the word, that their behaviour is rational.

4 comments

  1. Most discoveries are accidental and it’s only after the first awareness that the situation is examined and revealed. It’s evaluated and the conditions and pattern for its reproduction is determined.
    Capitalism was a system that emerged from serfs fleeing to the cities in medieval Europe. They were hired to provide labor for capitalists in exchange for capital and this was a revolutionary idea at the time. All that capitalism meant originally was work in exchange for money. The evolution of the meaning now has expanded.
    It’s all been a self assembling process and the consequences of unregulated enterprise and government are only going become obvious in retrospect.
    I’m all in favor of meaningful regulations because it is a societies duty to prevent harm to itself. But there is little hope for this right now because the capital interests are in control of the governments and themselves writing the phony laws that are supposed to be regulating them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you observe, much human knowledge is the result of trial and error, to see what works and what doesn’t work, or what effects an idea has when it is applied in real life. Problems can arise when people are gripped by an ideology in which they believe without question, despite the harm it causes. Although the situation may look bleak in the United States presently, I believe it is possible to rectify it. But this will only happen if the root causes are first addressed and then modified or eradicated, as the case may be. Similarly, in treating a disease, one first has to know what the causes are before one can treat it and help the sick person to become well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes and that’s why the modern development of representative democracy has been such an important triumph in our species’ history, where leaders are both accountable to, respectful of, and govern for the majority of people in their country. Prior to that, it was common for leaders to use their power for their own ends and purposes, rather than for the good of their people. Unfortunately there are many countries where the government, even if it is democratic in form, is in reality corrupt, venal, and ineffective. Whereas the United States formerly belonged in the category of successful democracies, it has, starting with the administration of Ronald Reagan, increasingly belonged in the category of less successful or failed democracies.

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