Friday, December 12, 2008

Capitalism and Distrust

Right now, I am reading a book called The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why, which is a really interesting book written by Time reporter Amanda Ripley on (surprise!) what kind of person survives a disaster and why he or she does. In chapter 2, Risk: Gambling in New Orleans, the author makes the point that sometimes disasters turn out worse than they have to because those in danger don't trust the government. She says that our current system of political economy engenders suspicion.

I agree with her that it does, but then we diverge as to why. On page 46, she writes, "A capitalist society with a free press has many things to recommend it. But it is not a place where citizens have overwhelming confidence in authority figures." This is a case of mistaken identity: it is not because of the capitalist elements of our government that we distrust the powers-that-be. Rather, it is in spite of capitalism that citizens are wary.

Today, corrupt politicians receive the most rewards. They are able to steal the most money because they don't control themselves and no one else is apparently going to. I frankly haven't seen how having a free press has kept corrupt politicians from being elected and then reelected.

In a truly capitalist society, if there was any regulation at all, it would be to protect property rights, and no one would be able to use force for anything else. As Hayek once wrote, "It is not who governs but what government is allowed to do that seems to me the essential problem." No matter who is in charge, if they have more power, they are more likely to abuse it, and thus the populous becomes more distrustful. People mistrust the government today not because of capitalism, where people are free, but because we live in a society where those who govern take advantage of their power - and we know it.

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