I Love Capitalism. Really!

How much love do I have to declare for capitalism before it’s possible to point out that it isn’t the only active or worthy principle in human affairs, so that I won’t be pounced on by libertarians? I love capitalism this much! (He stretches his arms out wide.) As I’ve said in this discussion and elsewhere, I can’t imagine that I, for one, would survive, much less thrive in any other system. The free market is triumphant, although it faces interesting challenges in the coming years as many countries age, the energy cycle will be forced to shift, and the biggest capitalist economy might still be run by a communist party. Even so, capitalism has more than earned it’s stripes well enough to not need defending at every turn.

To respond in a little bit more detail, I agree with Reynolds that capitalism in the broadest sense is at the very least an enabler of community. Actually “community” is one of those words I try to avoid. Out here in the Bay Area everything is about community. The corner Pizza joint is a collective that serves the community. Does that phrase mean anything? Why do they keep on saying it? So as one member of the punditry community to another, I declare that the rise of the pre-business web I was talking about wasn’t an example of community, exactly. The people putting up web sites didn’t do much to build trust, make commitments, get to know one another, or do any of the other things that might distinguish a community from other groupings of people. That came later. My claim is that the initial big push was driven by the joy of volunteerism, a bit of braggadocio, the sense the web was a good idea, and by a kind of optimism that didn’t yet understand a profit motive.

Once again, that’s not a criticism of capitalism. Why can’t you libertarians revel in how well capitalism works? How much success do you need to feel assured? My own view is that capitalism’s future will be brighter if people learn to think of it as a great tool rather than as a universal life philosophy.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In our techno-Utopian dreams, the advance of the internet is “a little like a cross between Adam Smith and Albert Einstein; the Invisible Hand accelerating toward the speed of light,” says tech visionary Jaron Lanier in this month’s big-thinking lead essay. Yet, according to Lanier, we chug along saddled by the illusion that the Internet is mainly a technological rather than a cultural phenomenon. Software, Lanier argues, is “brittle” and can continue to function only when backed by what he calls “Antigoras”– “privately owned digital meeting arenas made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor … tweaking the global system of digital devices so that the bits in the various pieces of software remain functional and meaningful.” Antigoras are indispensable, but “if software stays brittle,” Lanier says, “there will be a huge dampening effect on any hyper-speed takeoff plans of the digital elite.” Takeoff velocity requires a reorientation that acknowledges that the “the Net is precisely the generosity and warmth of humanity connecting with itself.”

Response Essays

  • Open source software guru Eric S. Raymond takes issue with Lanier’s characterization of “lock-in,” his antipathy to the command line, and his discussion of ambiguity. Raymond claims that if Lanier’s point was just that the Internet is “a conduit of expression between people,” then he would stop in agreement. But, he writes, “the actual point seems to be to maintain an opposition between capitalism and (gift) culture that I think is … mistaken.”

  • Glenn Reynolds — taking pieces from both Lanier and Raymond — argues that small proprietary zones within the big open Internet — “semigoras” in Lanier’s terms — might prove “very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet” with the potential to empower individuals and small groups to “achieve the worker’s paradise” through technology and markets.

  • Ten years after his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow insists that “the Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” A liberating future is still ahead, Barlow argues, but we must be on guard against a deep fact of both biology and markets: “New success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.”