M&S Boss: Don't Trash Capitalism
By Staff News & Analysis - March 05, 2010

Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose (left) made some interesting comments yesterday about the future direction of the retail chain that he heads. But equally thought-provoking were comments he made on the state of capitalism in general in the aftermath of the credit crisis. Sir Stuart warned that the whole concept of 'business' has become demonised as a result of public mistrust in wealth creation. When mega-bonuses are being paid to bankers at taxpayer-owned financial institutions, these feelings of hostility are perhaps understandable. However the retail chief warned that such attitudes are extremely dangerous because capitalism has been the one proven progressive force around the world for centuries. History has shown that communism does not work, he said. We trash capitalism at our peril. – UK Telegraph

Dominant Social Theme: Greed is good?

Free-Market Analysis: Sir Stuart Rose seems to speak from the heart on this one. But here at the Bell we'd make a plea for some truth-in-labeling. Surely (one day) the Internet revolution – which has brought free-market thinking to millions – will contribute a name more evocative than "capitalism" to describe the free-market. In fact, the label that Rose is looking for is not capitalism – which puts the emphasis on money – but human action (a Misesian term) that puts the emphasis on people. Human action, unfortunately, is not yet so popular a term as capitalism. It might confuse the audience, which is one reason not to use it in a popular argument.

Yet capitalism is a dreadful tag. There we've said it! It was presented and defined by Karl Marx in "Das Kapital" and was meant to be derisive. The opposite of "bad" capitalism is "good" communism, of course. But here's our question: Why must we constantly be exposed to the spectacle of pro-free market individuals describing their sentiments using terminology invented by a determined enemy of the marketplace and the invisible hand? We don't blame Rose for using the term. We just wish there was a catchier one that was more accurate as well.

Capitalism, as we alluded to above, puts the emphasis on money when it comes to free-market, which is exactly what Marx hoped it would do. Free-markets of course are not particularly about money. They are about the ability of individuals to take individual, unfettered human action to build better lives for themselves, their families and their communities. One can do this with very little – or no – capital – or one can do it with a great deal of capital. But one can argue quite convincingly that the amount of capital makes little difference. The two "Steves" invented the modern computer in a garage. IBM had the capital, but two teenagers had the better idea.

And now to Ludwig von Mises, the seminal, modern proponent of Austrian economics. His greatest work, Human Action, is in fact one of the most profoundly generous statements about human nature ever composed. Conceptually, we would put it right up there with parts of the Sermon on the Mount. It is also a profoundly radical document, proposing (if one follows it to its logical conclusion) that the best kinds of societies in which to live are those that do the most to empower individuals to realize their destinies without state interference.

Here at the Bell, we are privileged to get all sorts of feedback including those haranguing us about the greed of unfettered capitalism (there's that word again). Formal Western religion (in the best sense) is also misunderstood and our inbox has been the receptacle for some considerable invective aimed at it. Yet the most generous gift humans can be given (by other humans) is the ability to live their lives as they see fit. This is a supreme privilege, though it is DOES NOT imply human beings ought to abandon each other, nor refuse to help each other out. This is a facile interpretation, promoted by free-market enemies.

And while the idea of putting aside all earthly things to concentrate on heaven may be a bit much for a lot of people (in practice anyway) the merciful spirituality of the Sermon on the Mount is its most radical quality. Not only that, but its sentiments actually parallel human beings' evolutionary imperatives in our view.

Whosoever shall compel you to go a mile, go with him two. … Give to him that asks you, and from him that would borrow of you turn you not away. … You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.

You see? It is not fashionable to note, but people, when they are not preoccupied with their own survival are often most charitable – and personally not institutionally. This is an aspect of the human condition that is all-too-often downplayed in modern life by state apologists who only emphasize human evil to raise up the meretricious mechanism of redistributionist smut. Misesian "human action" and the Sermon on the Mount (certainly the parts about love and forgiveness) are a one-two punch, as powerful as poor Mike Tyson could ever deliver.

After Thoughts

It is sad (from our point of view) that we still seem to lack the short-hand vocabulary necessary to describe the richness and generosity inherent in free-market thinking. "Capitalism" just doesn't work, as we've tried to show. Yet statements full of gibberish such as "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" have an undeniable grandeur. One day, perhaps, a vocabulary will arise that will, in abbreviated form, purvey the consolidated wisdom of Misesian human action and the spiritual generosity of the Sermon on the Mount. Writers wanted?