The Limits of Free-Market Capitalism

Karl Marx was dead wrong on communism, but he was spot on about the pitfalls of capitalism.

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Until a few years ago, my spiritual devotions were limited to the free market and the music of Patsy Cline. I’m sorry to say it’s just me and Patsy now.

Karl Marx may have been wrong where it really mattered—communism, to paraphrase Churchill, is government “of the duds, by the duds, and for the duds”—but he was spot on about the pitfalls of capitalism, particularly when it came to the entrenchment of social classes, the fetish of consumption, the frequency of recession, and the concentration of industry. Yet, like trained seals, we continue to leap through the flaming rings of a system that is contemptuous of the public good while rewarding those who feed off “free” markets and the politicians who rig them. Nearly three years after the global economy almost collapsed under the weight of a corrupt and inbred financial order, Washington is still mired between the false choice of the state or private enterprise as the proper steward of the general welfare.

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the economy.]

It should be clear to anyone who has lost a cell phone signal in our nation’s capital or been denied health coverage because of a pre-existing ailment that capitalism’s endgame is not freedom of choice and efficiency, but oligarchy. Many of America’s top industries—agriculture, airlines, media, medical care, banking, defense, auto production, telecommunications—are controlled by a handful of corporations who fix prices like cartels. As Marx predicted, the natural inclination of players in a market-driven economy is not to compete but to collude.

Reporting in Asia and the Middle East for many years, I prayed to the same kitchen gods of untrammeled commerce that now bewitch the Republican Party faithful and the neoliberals who inhabit the Obama White House. In Asia more than a decade ago, I covered the liquidation of state assets as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, perhaps the largest-ever transfer of wealth from public to private hands, as if it were a new religion that would transform economies from the Korean peninsula to the Indian subcontinent. Laissez-faireism, I wrote, would liberate consumers and domesticate once overweening state-owned enterprises.

In fact, privatization merely shifted economic control from corrupt apparatchiks to their allies in business, a transaction lubricated with kick-backs and sweetheart deals. That’s what happened in the Middle East, and it became the spore that engendered the Arab uprising. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Middle East unrest.]

The corruption of capitalism in America is all the more appalling for its legality. With the economy still struggling to recover from a housing crisis fomented largely by Wall Street’s craving for mortgage-backed securities, prosecution of those responsible has been confined to a single lawsuit filed by the Securities Exchange Commission against a lone financier. The system is still lousy with loopholes, and the Republican Party, which demographically as well as ideologically is becoming a gated community for white, southern males, is calling for more deregulation, not less.

Which brings us to the central failure of American capitalism: the excoriation of the state.

So deep is the mythology of the free market that we ignore the consequences of starving our schools, libraries, public media, and roads and railways. We expect our teachers to assume the burdens of parenthood and then blame them for failing education. We lament our dependence on foreign oil and the aviation cartels, but we refuse to underwrite a passenger-rail equivalent of the interstate highway system. We disparage the coarse reductionism of corporate-owned news outlets while neglecting public broadcasting, an isolated archipelago of smart, responsible journalism.

Our hostility to the public sector—fountainhead of the Hoover Dam, Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Los Angeles Coliseum, our national parks, and countless other public utilities and services in addition to the federal highway system—is inversely proportional to our reverence for private consumption. As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his 1958 book The Affluent Society, “Vacuum cleaners to ensure clean houses are praiseworthy and essential in our standard of living. Street cleaners to ensure clean streets are an unfortunate expense. Partly as a result, our houses are generally clean and our streets are generally filthy.” Galbraith also noted the uniquely American conceit of sanctioning debt when households and private investors hold it but condemning it when governments do. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

Should the feds nationalize banks and appropriate soy fields? Certainly not. At its essence, there is probably no more efficient way of establishing the price of a particular good or service than market economics. Not all transactions are so simple, however, and there are some services—healthcare, for example, or transportation—that often fare better more as public goods than as private commodities. In order to save American capitalism, we must appreciate its limits even as we struggle to harness its power.

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