When Capitalism Mattered

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A recent conversation had me thinking about what my ideal existence would be. Strangely enough, my thoughts went to a video game named Privateer; the premise of the game is that you live on your own spaceship which you can trick out to perform a number of tasks. It really boiled down to a choice of two occupations in the game: you could be a “privateer” and buy and sell merchandise all over the galaxy and hunt pirates for bounty or you could be a pirate and rob said privateers.

My frequent readers may be thinking “so how did that piracy thing work out?”. My answer:

It didn’t. I loved playing as a privateer.

Yep, I loved buying and selling cargo (and hunting pirates). There was something kind of peaceful about going from planet to planet trading goods. Yeah, I got attacked by pirates and the game became absurdly difficult as I leveled up. But, for awhile, the feeling of being in open space and traveling to different places to sell commodities and equipment for profit was pretty fun.

To my dismay, what I realized is that, in that game, I was a Capitalist. And I enjoyed it.

Needless to say, I had to figure this out. What was so appealing about Capitalism in the game that sucked so hard in real life? Modern Capitalism is about as exciting or appealing to me as getting kicked in the jewels with spiked Louboutins. Why did I like it so much as a “privateer”?

Coming to that answer helped me understand more viscerally why I think civilization has outgrown Capitalism. The key word is “risk.” Let me set the scene for you:

Consider what the world was like throughout most of history. To put it in two words it was “ridiculously dangerous.” Whether traveling over land or sea, the chances of dying were pretty significant. Between hostile natives, highwaymen, disease, starvation, the occupations of exploration and trade were about as risky as it could get. We read about all of the famous tradesmen and explorers who helped us gain a better understanding of our world by traveling and selling stuff but we don’t read about the guys that died from dysentery or having their heads stoved in by angry Aztecs. In other words, exploration and trade were extremely risky.

In my post What is Capitalism?, I made the case that the essence of the concept was the commitment of “capital” to a venture that may either succeed or fail. Now think of the risk that was involved in the accumulation of wealth back in the day. Almost every venture had the potential to end in death. The only way anyone would have been crazy enough to take on that risk is if the payoff was worth it.

Hence, Capitalism.

Now, think of the conditions that exist today. Somali pirates notwithstanding, exactly how “risky” is travel and commerce now? What are the chances of dying or, even for that matter, experiencing serious loss when engaged in global commerce? Let’s not even talk about exploration; any place we haven’t been is someplace we know we aren’t interested in going.

You see, people, modern technology has made risk, at least in its most significant forms, obsolete. Capitalism rose as a means of incentivizing people to risk their lives for wealth. In a world of adventure, it made total sense to build an economic system around incentivizing people to do what no sane person would normally willingly do: wander off into the great unknown (or dangerous known) to find things of value.

But, in our globalized world, where is the risk now? It’s all almost entirely mathematical. Investments now primarily involve making bets against stupidity. The risk is almost entirely in people being stupid. Other than that, there is almost no real risk in our current Capitalist system. Indeed, the term “late Capitalism” is apropos. It’s a solution to a problem that no longer exists.

So, where do we go from here? You know my answer. We find a way to not only provide for people materially, we start to seriously address the matter of human dignity. We find a way to invest everyone in the success of Humanity as a species. We find a way to create “antifragile” systems, laws, and institutions that value the preservation and sustenance of social trust above all else.

Capitalism? It’s obsolete. Maybe in the void of space, where the distances are vast and the pirates have big guns, it still makes sense. But, here on Earth, the pirates are mostly gone and modern technology has made the world much, much smaller and far less dangerous.

The world of the privateer is gone. What is going to take its place?

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