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How Capitalism Saved the World

02/16/2015 01:56 EST | Updated 04/17/2015 05:59 EDT
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Bloody Dollar sign on Paper Stack

In a recent column from a Toronto journalist on communism and capitalism, the writer made an astonishing claim: While "millions have been the tragic victims of communism," he wrote, "that number pales, surely, in comparison with the victims of capitalism."

Surely, it does not.

The columnist attempted to link communism and capitalism as mere ideological flipsides of the same economic coin. But few claims could be more errant than to equate a theoretical, utopian theory given new life by a nineteenth century German academic on how people should behave (pretend incentives don't matter, equality of result is desirable) with observable human reality (people always buy, sell and trade -- the prerequisites to widespread prosperity).

It is unclear how the Toronto writer defines communism and capitalism. But we have a hint. In the case of capitalism, he writes of "crimes" that "extend back beyond the Crusades and the spice wars to the very first deal that went badly sour."

To conflate the existence of religious and commercial wars with a concurrent open system of buying, bartering and selling, mistakes the existence of freedom with abuses committed in its' sphere. It's akin to blaming a mugging in Central Park on the park itself.

Capitalism, courtesy of one useful definition, assumes this basic premise: that "subject to certain [justifiable] restrictions, individuals (alone or with others) are free to decide where to invest, what to produce or sell, and what prices to charge."

Such activity, from the earliest Babylonian fishermen to bankers in Boston, has existed forever when not forcibly prevented by rulers.

Capitalism and markets, akin to a park allowing a multitude of freely-chosen activities, have been massively beneficial.

Some years ago, the late British economist Angus Maddison catalogued the last 1,000 years of the world economy in a landmark OECD study. He noted how the wider adoption of free trade (one aspect of capitalism) was first beneficial to Western Europe, then the Americas and more recently, East Asian countries. Every society in history that participates in capitalism prospers. (Today, see South Korea and compare to communist North Korea.)

My colleagues at the Fraser Institute have found similar results. Consider economic freedom, which occurs within a framework of property rights, sound money, the rule of law, and sensible regulation and taxation. Economic freedom allows people (including the very poor) to create wealth; it also correlates with increased life expectancy and greater civil liberties and increased political rights.

Contrast that with communism, briefly defined as "economic systems in which the government owns the means of production."

Space does not permit a full cataloguing of all of communism's failures. Communism, when practiced in fact (China before Deng Xiaoping's reforms as one example) requires the abolition of individual choice and complete subjugation to the ruling elite -- precisely because choice otherwise undermines forced collectivism. One result has always been economic shortages of every conceivable good; another is endemic repression as governments seek to smother a basic human impulse: to openly barter with others and buy goods and services at an agreed-upon price.

As Jeanne Kirkpatrick famously wrote in 1979, unlike traditional dictatorships, which abused direct opponents but felt no need to control every aspect of every citizen's life, revolutionary communist regimes created refugees by the millions. Kirkpatrick, later a U.S. ambassador the United Nations, argued that was because such governments "claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee."

Those that did not flee suffered even more: In 1999, a number of French authors catalogued communism's death toll: nearly 100 million people.

Unlike the iron fist of communism, capitalism's incidents of harm (recall the mugging in Central Park) result not from government oppression but from the nature of freedom itself. Misguided newspaper columns notwithstanding, in theory, practice and historical record, between capitalism and communism, there's no comparison.

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