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How To Defend Capitalism?

Summary:
1.0 Summary of Defense Last month, Mike Munger purports to "summarize the basic argument for capitalism" (emphasis added). He acknowledges his argument is superficial. I find it excessively so. Munger argues that capitalism: Supports the division of labor Provides price signals so as to direct production appropriately Promotes economies to scale Ultimately, this defense is that capitalism delivers the goods. Here's a well-expressed, simple defense that, partially, argues along these lines: It is possible to defend our economic system on the ground that, patched up with Keynesian correctives, it is, as he put it, the 'best in sight'. Or at any rate that it is not too bad, and change is painful. In short, that our system is the best system that we have got. Or it is possible to

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1.0 Summary of Defense

Last month, Mike Munger purports to "summarize the basic argument for capitalism" (emphasis added). He acknowledges his argument is superficial. I find it excessively so. Munger argues that capitalism:

  • Supports the division of labor
  • Provides price signals so as to direct production appropriately
  • Promotes economies to scale

Ultimately, this defense is that capitalism delivers the goods. Here's a well-expressed, simple defense that, partially, argues along these lines:

It is possible to defend our economic system on the ground that, patched up with Keynesian correctives, it is, as he put it, the 'best in sight'. Or at any rate that it is not too bad, and change is painful. In short, that our system is the best system that we have got.

Or it is possible to take the tough-minded line that Schumpeter derived from Marx. The system is cruel, unjust, turbulent, but it does deliver the goods, and, damn it all, it's the goods that you want.

Or, conceding its defects, to defend it on political grounds - that democracy as we know it could not have grown up under any other system and cannot survive without it.

What is not possible, at this time of day, is to defend it, in the neoclassical style, as a delicate self-regulating mechanism, that has only to be left to itself to produce the greatest satisfaction for all.

But none of the alternative defences really sound very well. Nowadays, to support the status quo, the best course is just to leave all these awkward problems alone." -- Joan Robinson (1962). Economic Philosophy, p. 130

2.0 Division of Labor and Efficiencies of Scale

I am not sure that Munger has three principles. I think of the division of labor and efficiencies of scale as closely related. But are either specific to capitalism, as opposed to any society with large scale production? In some sense, Munger is not necessarily attacking a strawperson. Here's an expression of a wish for a post-capitalist society that is arguably not consistent with large-scale production:

"...in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." -- Karl Marx, The German Ideology.

But, maybe with enough automation, such a society would be possible.

I find it of interest that Marx, in The Communist Manifesto and in Capital describes how capitalism brought about a remarkable increase in productivity. I find Marx, on the division of labor, much more concrete and extensive than Adam Smith, even though he is writing about the abstraction of capital in general. How much has been written about what Marx took from Charles Babbage's On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures? This book has a lot to say about what would now be called Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence (C3I)?

Anyways, questions arise when a defense of capitalism echoes capitalism's greatest critic.

3.0 Price Signals Consistent with Market Socialism

Munger's second principle, about price signals, draws, I assume, on Friedrich Hayek. I do not see how this is a defense of capitalism, as opposed to markets. Whatever you think of it, a large literature on market socialism exists. Private ownership of capitalist enterprises is not necessary for the existence of price signals. I suppose one could argue about incentives in this context, which I do not think Munger does.

4.0 Other Arguments

I think interesting that Munger does not say anything about the efficient static allocation of resources or the first and second welfare theorems. In some sense, he is correct to put these ideas aside, since a good apologetic argument for capitalism cannot be fashioned in these terms.

On the other hand, Munger avoids all of the issues that John Quiggin brings up in his recent Economics in Two Lessons. Issues with unregulated capitalism include externalities, the assignment and distribution of property rights, and periodic bouts of widespread unemployment. (I find unpersuasive talk of "government failure" as a response to the demonstration that unregulated capitalism is bound to misallocate resources. Is a claim being made that anybody can calculate a closed-form optimal allocation at any point in time?)

5.0 What is Capitalism?

I suspect that Munger supports a fairly hierarchical version of capitalism, with widespread private, brutal, and authoritarian institutions (for example, corporations). Inspired by Chapter 9, "Security and Freedom", of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, I would ask what is compatible with Munger's apologetics for capitalism? Widespread co-operative, syndicates, and and factory councils? Co-determination, in which union representatives are on corpation boards? Sovereign Wealth Funds, Employee Stock Ownership Plans, Universal basic income, government insurance, and social security?

So Munger's three principles do not seem to rule out either an extensive social democracy or even democratic socialism.

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