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Mar-01-2013 17:17printcomments

Capitalism, The Most Efficient Economic System, But Not an End in Itself

It is the growing spiritual vacuum in our society which should be the focus of our attention as we proceed into the 21st century


(WASHINGTON DC) - Capitalism, it should now be clear, is the most efficient form of economic organization. This, of course is not true of the corrupted "crony capitalism" we often endure----with corporate welfare, bank bailouts, agricultural subsidies and a host of other interventions meant to reward particular special interest groups. But looking at the world, there can be little doubt that those societies which have embraced free enterprise have thrived, and those which have followed various forms of socialism have impoverished themselves.

That so many intellectuals in the West failed to see the virtues of the free market and the false promises of Marxism remains difficult to understand. How, for example, do we explain individuals such as John Kenneth Galbraith who wrote in a 1984 NEW YORKER article that people in the Soviet Union were enjoying "great material progress?" Incredibly, Mr. Galbraith declared that the secret of communist economic success was that "...the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial model, it makes full use of its manpower."

For many years---and some even today---students at American universities have studied economics from textbooks written by authors who failed to see the reality of economic success and failure around the world. In the 10th edition of his textbook, "Economics," Paul Samuelson wrote: "It is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable." Looking at Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other former satellite states of the Soviet Union we can see how erroneous that assessment was.

Capitalism, however, is not an end in itself. Understanding that free enterprise is the most efficient form of economic organization, and recognizing that the free market is the only economic system which is consistent with other freedoms, we have tended to over-estimate its place in the lives of men and women----and of nations.

The purpose of life is not the amassing of material goods, and the purpose of a society is not simply to provide the atmosphere in which greed is given full sway. Our own society has provided its citizens with the most advanced standard of living in the world, yet serious social problems proliferate-----our educational system is in decline, drug use proliferates, many families are in a state of collapse and we witness a proliferation of tragic events such as the mass shooting of children in Newtown, Connecticut.

Conservatives, in particular, have often betrayed their larger calling by embracing crass materialism which, in the end, is not radically different from that which Marxists embrace. To the extent that one believes that man is simply a material being and his purpose in this world is to increase his material wealth, the twin philosophies of Marxism and, say, the extreme libertarianism of the followers of Ayn Rand, tend to merge.

Discussing similar trends in England, where crass materialism accompanied the Thacherite revolution. Peregrine Worsthorne, when he was editor of the SUNDAY TELEGRAPH, noted that, "A healthy society needs both custodians and innovators. It needs custodians--oh dear, does one really have to explain to a Tory audience why a society needs custodians? It needs them because without people who feel an obligation to pass things on to the next generation, society falls apart, loses all its savor, all its beauty, all its charm, all its virtue."

Simply because we believe that economic freedom is the best way to organize our economy does not mean that the amassing of wealth is the appropriate goal for individual lives. In his book "The Everlasting Man," G.K. Chesterton provides this assessment of the materialist view of history: "The materialist theory of history, that all politics and ethics are the expression of economics, is a very simple fallacy indeed. It consists simply of confusing the necessary conditions of life with the normal preoccupations of life, that are quite a different thing. It is like saying that because a man can only walk about on two legs, therefore he never walks about except to buy shoes and stockings."

Chesterton points out that, "Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing grounds; and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading. Sheep and goats may be pure economists in their external action at least; but that is why the sheep has hardly been a hero of epic wars and empires thought worthy of detailed narration; and even the more active quadruped has not inspired a book for boys called Golden Deeds of Gallant Goats or any similar title. But so far from the movements that make up the story of man being economic, we may say that the story only begins where the motive of the cows and sheep leaves off...It will be hard to maintain that the Arctic explorers went north with the same material motive that made the swallows go south. And if you leave things like the religious wars and all the merely adventurous explorations out of the human story, it will not only cease to be human at all but cease to be a story at all. The outline of history is made of these decisive curves and angles determined by the will of men. Economic history would not even be history".

To believe that society's most important purpose is to minister to man's material needs----rather than his more complex spiritual requirements---is to misread man's nature. Dante, writing in the 14th century in "De Vulgari Eloquentia," described man in these terms: "That as man has been endowed with a threefold life, namely vegetable, animal, and rational, he journeys along a threefold road; for in so far as he is vegetable he seeks for what is useful, wherein he is like nature with the plants; in so far as he is animal he seeks for that which is pleasurable, wherein he is like nature with the brutes; in so far as he is rational he seeks for what is right---and in this he stands alone, or is a partaker of the nature of the angels."

We have learned how to conduct an efficient and productive economy-----although its growing politicization has led to recent decline---but we seem to have forgotten how to build strong families and communities and how to provide men and women with purpose in life beyond the acquisition of material goods. The one without the other will lead only to decadence. It is the growing spiritual vacuum in our society which should be the focus of our attention as we proceed into the 21st century.


_________________________________________ contributor Allan C. Brownfeld received his B.A. degree from the College of William and Mary, his J.D. degree from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary and his M.A. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland. He has served on the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland.

The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, Mr. Brownfeld has written for such newspapers as THE HOUSTON PRESS, THE RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH, THE WASHINGTON EVENING STAR and THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER. For many years he wrote three columns a week for such newspapers as THE PHOENIX GAZETTE, THE MANCHESTER UNION LEADER, and THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER. His weekly column appeared for more than a decade in ROLL CALL, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in such journals as THE YALE REVIEW, THE TEXAS QUARTERLY, THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW, ORBIS and MODERN AGE.

Mr. Brownfeld served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and was the author of that committee's 250-page study of the New Left. He has also served as Assistant to the Research Director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to such members of Congress as Reps. Phil Crane (R-Il) and Jack Kemp (R-NY) and to the Vice President of the United States.

He is a former editor of THE NEW GUARD and PRIVATE PRACTICE, the journal of the Congress of County Medical Societies and has served as a Contributing Editor AMERICA'S FUTURE and HUMAN EVENTS. He served as Washington correspondent for the London-based publications, JANE'S ISLAMIC AFFAIRS ANALYST and JANE'S TERRORISM REPORT. His articles regularly appear in newspapers and magazines in England, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and other countries. You can write to Allan at


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mike August 11, 2017 7:30 pm (Pacific time)

Here is the question economists should ask but never seem to address: what is the distribution of wealth in a given country that maximizes basic material needs? Put another way, what wealth distribution maximizes the greatest good for the greatest number.

Allan Brownfeld March 3, 2013 1:48 pm (Pacific time)

Thank you for your for your very thoughtful analysis. I do no not think that we necessarily disagree that much. While the free enterprise system is the most efficient in economic terms---as opposed to centralized state-controlled systems----this does not mean that capitalism cannot be combined with a generous social welfare system. The Scandinavian countries, for example, are capitalist in economic organization with a higher tax rate than we have----and more benefits. There are many ways to organize a capitalist society and, since the societies we are discussing are democracies, it is up to the voters in each society to decide how they want to proceed. As I indicated, placing the profit motive and material concerns above other, competing values is perhaps short-sighted since man is much more complex and is hardly only material in his concerns and essence.

Daniel Johnson March 3, 2013 11:39 am (Pacific time)

You write: “Capitalism, it should now be clear, is the most efficient form of economic organization.” It is clear, indeed, only to those who share your experience and assumptions.

—of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the U.S,. ranks 34th, edging out Romania in child poverty

—the U.S. is 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education.

—the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.

—America is No. 1, in locking its citizens up, with an incarceration rate far higher than that of Russia, Cuba, Iran or China.

—in obesity, easily outweighing second-place Mexico

—its energy use per person is nearly 10 times the rate of Japan with double the consumption of prosperous Germany

—According to the OECD, a full-time American worker paid at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour earns 38% of the median wage in the United States. That ties the U.S. at twenty-third with Japan out of twenty-five OECD countries ranked in that category. Turkey ranks first, with a minimum wage-to-median wage ratio of 0.71.

—Nearly 50 million Americans have inadequate or no health insurance. Over the decades, millions have had to file bankruptcy, some losing their homes because someone in the family contracted some catastrophic illness. This doesn’t happen in Canada or Europe, countries that have had universal health coverage for a half century or more at a far lower cost than the “efficient” capitalist system in the U.S.

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