The suicidal nature of capitalism has been predicted by several authors, both supporters and enemies of capitalism. By suicidal we mean a process through which capitalism would weave its own destruction.
Among the most influential theories we found Karl Marx’s surplus value theory of capital accumulation, Schumpeter’s claim that the success of capitalism would lead to a form of corporatism fostering values hostile to capitalism, especially among intellectuals, Milton Friedman’s theory on the suicidal nature of capitalists and Solzhenitsyn's attack on the commercialized nature of Western culture. In this post we will examine why Marx’s and Friedman’s predictions are wrong.
Marx’s prediction derives from his theory of capital accumulation presented in Chapter XXV of his book The Capital. In a nutshell Marx breaks down capital into fixed costs (the value of fixed capital) and variable costs (the sum of wages) and assumes that as the accumulation of capital proceeds the ratio between the two would increase resulting in a growing number of unemployed (the so-called industrial army reserve). This system would implode through over-production, over-population and misery.
It is easy to see why his model is wrong. First, not all technical progress is labor saving (on the contrary). Second, his Malthusian assumption of an ever growing population is wrong because fertility rates diminish with increasing incomes. Finally, and most importantly, he failed to see that workers would become capitalist and now hold a large part of a nation’s capital through pension funds and personal holdings. This was his most clamorous failure. Instead of his prediction that we would all become proletarians we all became capitalists. His motto “workers of the world unite” should have been “capitalists of the world unite”.
Friedman’s theory on the doom of capitalism was given in a Lecture at the Cato Institute entitled “The Suicidal Impulse of the Business Community”. His main contention was that when faced with policy issues business people tend to be very short-sighted. This leads them to seek government protection for their own industry, to favor public education which tends to be socialist-oriented, to lobby for the transformation of anti-trust laws into regulatory controls and to give more political contributions to nonprofit left wing organizations (three times more) than to non-profit right wing institutions.
He admits that he has not a good explanation for this suicidal behavior but advances three possible reasons. These include the presumption among business people that everyone is an expert in economics, the Schumpeterian argument that within large organizations people develop essentially bureaucratic-socialist attitudes and that there is a general propensity to look out for government action as an all-purpose cure for every ill. He dismisses the first two and retains the last.
By doing so, Friedman makes four mistakes. First, he ignores that like everybody else, given the chance, business people will be free riders on Government money. Second, payments to left wing organizations are made as insurance or protection against those from where they see more danger. Third, he fails to make a distinction between the different types of capitalism (managerial capitalism, state capitalism and market capitalism). Finally, as Adam Smith noted long ago, capitalists and conservatives are not necessarily the great defenders of capitalism. The true defenders of capitalism are consumers and investors without a controlling stake in their companies.
It is one of the great ironies of history that the capitalistic economic system, the greatest wealth creation machine ever invented, has so many enemies and critics among its beneficiaries (ranging from the church, government, academia to the business community). Yet, the supreme proof of its superiority is the fact that despite so many enemies and without an army of supporters it has nevertheless conquered the world.