At Columbia, capitalism has a pretty bad reputation. The discourse surrounding capitalism is, for the most part, decidedly negative, and a simple glance through the Spectator opinion section should persuade those in doubt that our university, idealistically, aligns itself with the fiscal left.
And yet, the crises that we are facing are not the fault of pure capitalism, but of late capitalism.
At its most basic, late capitalism is simply the latest stage in capitalism, but cultural shifts in the usage of the term have helped to create an implicit understanding. My own definition of “late capitalism”—inspired by that of Annie Lowrey—would be “the cruel irony that arises through the misuse of capitalism.” This is the rise of the pumpkin spice everything and the extension of Christmas to November, the yachts inside bigger yachts that you see on Instagram, the fact that your seven-year-old cousin got an iPhone X for their birthday, and the swarm of unpaid internships that take over Handshake every semester.
Pure capitalism is the enactment of the simple ideal that skill plus hard work equals reward. The chief economic driver of our society should be meritocratic, for the sake of encouraging human development and rewarding progress fairly, and the freedom of markets for which capitalism allows helps make sure that meritocracy is its core tenet.
The argument that I have heard many times over—which seems to most strongly resonate with Columbia students—is that my definition of capitalism is reductive. Real capitalism, they say, does not function like pure capitalism. According to them, in real capitalism, monopolies develop and the strong exploit the weak; systemic inequalities make it impossible for the oppressed to fight back, no matter how hard they work.
But no matter how much one insists that capitalism is practically impossible, in looking to practical examples of how socialism actually works, we see demonstrably worse results. If capitalism is a failure in practice, then socialism is a flaming pit of misery and destruction. It falls short of the mark both in theory and in real life and always functions on the principle that some other entity (be it the government or your neighbor) has a right to your hard work. I reject that idea not just for its blatant nonsense, but for its frankly repulsive sentiment. The reason why I find the prevalence of this sentiment at Columbia so baffling is because of our university’s staggering wealth. Columbia’s campus is as beautiful as it is because of the potential to thrive fiscally with which free markets provide alumni. Thus, the rejection of a system which has so clearly profited those rejecting it is nonsensical.
Practically, when there is constant competition for wealth and property, it is impossible for any single entity to completely control others. In pure capitalism, where individuals’ and corporations’ wealth are in no way at all controlled by the state, all parties have complete freedom to compete. A lack of interference in markets and personal wealth is what permits the fluctuation of different corporations’ success, and makes true the prophecy that no company—in pure capitalism—will ever rule as a monopoly.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a video on Facebook in which paragon of Toryism Jacob Rees-Mogg gives a surprisingly erudite defense of capitalism. Although some of Rees-Mogg’s points were weak and unjustified, what stuck with me over the past few weeks—every time I stumbled across another columbia buy sell memes post criticizing America’s economic system—was the argument referenced in the title of this very article.
Yes, I concede: In socialism most people will undoubtedly get a bigger slice of the pie that is a country’s GDP. Because that wealth is (supposedly) shared equally, the bottom 1 percent becomes the average 1 percent, suddenly earning as much money as everyone else. In capitalism, the proportion of the pie which they are given is far smaller but—and this is the crucial, unavoidable, wildly important “but”—the pie of capitalism is far bigger.
The fact remains that 100 percent of zero is still zero, and no matter how hard socialists try to make lazy, faux moral arguments about the importance of the 99 percent, they fail to recognise that under capitalism, even the least wealthy profit more than they would under socialism. Capitalism is not just the best bad solution, it is the best solution, period. It is the embodiment of freedom, the driver of opportunity, and the way in which we can bake the biggest pie possible. Not only for the fact that socialism is an abject, reprobate failure, but for the inherent merit of capitalism do I advocate for the free market.
America in 2017 is plagued by excessive red tape for small businesses, reduced incentive to work for individuals, and the kind of disenchantment that would be crippling for any society. During both pre-orientation and orientation programs this year, I heard the word “capitalistic” spoken like the name of a disease, and even when writing this column I was warned that I would be “flamed” for daring to speak in favor of it; Columbia is beyond disenchanted with our system. To remedy those problems, the state must step back from the market, and the people must place their trust in their hard work and skill
For Columbia students, the most positive reaction to late capitalism is to be the intellectual guardians of more hopeful policy, to advocate in their writing and their professions for stories that are symbols of meritocratic success, to fight against the corporations and laws that allow late capitalism to thrive and hard work to be quashed under the weight of modern life.
Greg Humphries is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in math and English. He’d be pleasantly surprised if you were actually reading this, and even more pleasantly surprised if you decided to engage with him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Things Worth Arguing Over runs alternate Fridays.
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