Is Capitalism Creating a Better World?

There are many people, particularly economists and technologists, who are making the claim that the world is becoming a much better place and that Capitalism is the reason why. Is that true? Well, a few have been able to make some pretty compelling cases based on quantification that the answer is a resounding “yes.”

As for me, I look at the data and think, “This can’t be right.” Now why would I think that? Even I can see that, in many instances, the numbers make a pretty good case. In terms of the more gruesome aspects of life, life has probably never been better, particularly for humans. So why am I not more enthusiastic about the progress that has been made under Capitalism? For that matter, why do millions, if not billions, of people see the world through the same lens through which I do? Why aren’t people more optimistic about both our present and our future under a system that has obviously done so much good?

The simple answer, at least in my case, is “overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

If I shop for an item or purchase something, I’ll encounter a retail salesperson or barista or greeter or some other person in a low level service job. Some are pleasant, some are not, but most are people who are just routinely getting through their day. If I asked any of them if they were satisfied with their jobs or their lives, my guess is that the overwhelming answer would be “no.” I could be wrong about that but I’ve been in similar positions over the course of my life and that would have been my answer.

In the developed world, we have it pretty good but, if you look around, you’ll see a reality in which most people are doing what they have to do to survive. It’s rare for me to come across a person who truly loves what they do. I don’t envy them. To the contrary, I think it’s amazing when a person discovers their niche and finds complete satisfaction in a way that also allows them to comfortably make ends meet. To paraphrase the saying: when you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

But I’d venture that, for the overwhelming number of people in the world, their work doesn’t provide them with a great deal of fulfillment. In fact, I’d make an educated guess that the work of millions, if not billions, of people ranges from boring to tedious to dangerous. You could also add involuntary; there are still millions of slaves as well as others who work in viciously exploitive situations. And, for most people, it is not really a matter of choice; there’s a large body of research that supports the premise that the place you start in life is most likely the place in which you’ll end.

Considering how important quantitative analysis has become, I think it’s somewhat hypocritical that the same economists who parade around numbers extolling the virtue of Capitalism are more reluctant to provide honest statistics regarding any one person’s chances of becoming financially successful. I, myself, don’t have any, but, if 10% of the population can be said to be financially prosperous, then each person at least starts with a 1 in 10 chance. I bet that the odds are actually a great deal worse when you factor in external circumstances.

So, I’m surrounded every day by people who are surviving but who are not finding fulfillment in their lives. Capitalism really doesn’t care about that, it only cares if the trains run on time. However, when you get past the numbers and look at the reality, life still isn’t very pleasant for the most part. Sure, we may not have the threats of plague or roving bandits anymore (at least in most parts of the world). Odds that you’ll be raped or murdered by a pillaging band are now mercifully low and a great many people no longer face the daily threat of starvation (though many millions still do).

But, when it comes to work, the world is still full of a tremendous amount of tedium and drudgery. Whether its endless meetings, office politics, racism, sexism, customers with terrible attitudes, mean bosses, etc., there’s still much in life to make the common person unhappy. It’s a bit patronizing to tell a person they should be happy they no longer have to be subsistence farmers. Many of them could be called “subsistence workers,” enduring the day-to-day challenge of trying to support themselves in a world that is constantly attempting to commoditize their efforts.

In many regards, life is much better now than it has ever been. But when it comes to human fulfillment, I’d posit that we haven’t made anywhere near as much progress as we have materially. Many people went from having to scrabble a living out of the dirt to having to scrabble a living out of the concrete. Now we have to overcome a lot of noise only to be locked in a global competition with one another. We live much longer lives but often spend a big part of our newfound time just trying to get to the next great moment, such as the weekend, a vacation, happy hour etc. Life is the moments we live before and after work rather than our work being a meaningful part of our lives.

Now this isn’t the case for everyone and I strongly suspect this isn’t the case for those who have found success, happiness or fulfillment under Capitalism. If you’re great at a game and also enjoy it, you’ll want to play it all of the time and try to get your friends and associates to play as well. It takes a great deal of both luck and skill to gain financial success under Capitalism; those who beat the odds tend to be very proud of their achievements.

Now, from the flip side, would such people want the rules of their game to change, especially if they are exceptionally gifted at playing it? What NBA basketball player would want to hear that his league has merged with the NHL and now he’s going have to re-learn how to play the game skating on ice? Winning at Capitalism means never wanting to play a new game. While that’s understandable, what happens when enough people decide they don’t want to play anymore?

What I think many Capitalists miss is that, in the end, it is the quality of life that matters to most people. While some people may be pleased or sated with new, high-quality, inexpensive possessions, some people judge their lives by more qualitative measures. Do they enjoy what they do or at least feel empowered or appreciated? Are they respected for their efforts and compensated in a relatively generous fashion? Can they be assured that, given that their efforts are productive, they will be treated fairly and have some reasonable level of income security? While the jobs have changed, the feelings mostly haven’t. We may not have to be subsistence farmers anymore but much of the work is still pretty unsatisfying. And that’s when you can find it.

I suspect that those who champion Capitalism have mostly found their niche and many have experienced levels of success which have provided personal fulfillment. Maybe they simply don’t understand that the game doesn’t work the same way for everyone. Or maybe they simply don’t care. However, I doubt it is an imbalance that will be able to be sustained forever. Capitalism is a game that has been shown to be stacked in the winner’s favor. Their children gain resources and connections which give them an indelible advantage. At some point, people are going to understand fundamentally that the game is rigged.

I think things may get quite a bit worse before they truly start to get better.


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