This vicious world

I was recently contacted by a French media outlet who wanted me to comment on the “vices” of capitalism. They were a bit nervous about what I might say, so they ran a pre-interview to check whether my views were palatable to them. In fact they called twice to run such a pre-interview. I made clear to them that my position was in many respects critical of the general contempt in which most commentators and intellectuals in France hold capitalism. This does not seem to have pleased them, because they never got back to me to do the actual interview.

The incident is emblematic of a number of interesting phenomena.

First, you do not say something good about capitalism in the French media. Indeed, in an earlier episode with a French newspaper, I tried to pour some cold water on the hysteria against excess executive compensation and excess bonuses for traders. There was no way I could get the piece published.

Capitalism is deemed immoral even by the capitalists themselves. Unlike socialism, a label claimed by many political parties and states throughout the world and throughout history — including the Nazis and the Soviets — no entity on earth says it is capitalist. There is no capitalist party, nor is there any capitalist republic. No ruler ever decreed that his country will operate under a capitalist system. Conversely, I do not expect any French media outlet to run a piece on the “vices” of socialism. Socialism may fail, but it is generally considered as virtuous, unlike capitalism which works but is immoral. The general opinion is that the Soviets were good guys who failed, while the Nazis called themselves socialists just for fun, they were not really serious about it.

Of course, a key problem is that if there is no place on earth which claims to have a capitalist system, it is difficult to find out what capitalism really is and why it is so evil. Take France, for example. Many people call it a capitalist country, but that is a confusion due to the fact that it was in the Western block during the cold war. France may be a market economy, but is certainly not a capitalist economy. For one thing, 57 % of GDP is confiscated by the State. Also, private ownership of means of production is largely an empty notion. Firms are mostly in the business of implementing the myriads of regulations that specify their modus operandi–and they have to write a number of reports for the administration, to prove their compliance with the administration’s policy agenda. They are best viewed as semi-autonomous branches of the State. From an ideological point of view, no French businessman would publicly state that his business is about maximizing profits. Nor would he ever call himself a capitalist. Instead he says that he is in some sort of public service, and fully endorses the government’s ideological goals concerning sustainable development, the promotion of women in the workplace, the socially responsible enterprise, and so on. By doing so the businessman is slowly renouncing his rights to operate his business and is converting himself into a bureaucrat. But this is fine because, after all, the life of a bureaucrat is less stressful than that of a businessman, and we all hate capitalism.

I suppose some would say that capitalism is like pornography. They cannot define it, but they recognize it when they see it. For example, how about a firm laying off workers despite that it is not making losses? Isn’t that immoral? They do not have to do it, so it must be out of selfishness and greed. Isn’t this ugly, capitalist, and indefensible?

In fact, this is not more indefensible than a consumer switching from an expensive brand to a cheap one, or from a bad bakery to a good bakery. Presumably the bad bakery needs your money more than the good one. And eating bad  bread is not the end of the world. Why don’t you buy your bread at the bad bakery instead of the good one, so as to preserve the bad baker’s job? That is, just like pornography is other people’s eroticism, capitalism is other people’s self-interest.

More importantly, not only selfishness and greed are presumably the reason why those workers were hired in the first place, they are not going to disappear by magic under a socialist system. These are not properties of a system, but human traits. Under a capitalist system, one can give in to these instincts while making other people better-off through voluntary exchange. This is actually fascinating: imagine the number of people, working at Apple, Vuitton, Toshiba or BMW, who are paid to figure out what your neeeds and desires are? Instead, under socialism, where resources are allocated by the government, one plays a zero-sum game trying to extract resources from others through political mobilization, lobbying or corruption. Which situation is more immoral?

The second lesson from the episode is about how the media make use of “experts” so as to promote their own view. It is virtually impossible to read an article that does not interview some sociologist or economist. One could naively believe that the journalists have an utmost respect for those experts and are genuinely interested in finding out the scientific truth about contemporary issues…Of course this is not the way it works; the experts are just there to validate the editorial line. The journalists cherry-pick them and then cherry-pick the statements that they need from the interview. I remember having spent 45 mn on the phone with a journalist from “Le Monde” who was desperately trying to make me say that Sarkozy’s immigration policy was wrong. This was so obvious that I, somewhat sadically, carefully avoided any clear derogatory comment about that policy. Not hearing what she wanted to hear, she did not bother to use the interview or mention my name in her article.



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