Critics of capitalism — and they include business leaders and elected officials as well unemployable college graduates — base their objections on the notion that it is an “unfair” system: some people get too rich, others don’t have enough to sustain a happy and healthy life. One of the less celebrated wonders of capitalism is that it endures these criticisms so effectively. After all, there are very few us who go through the daily efforts to earn the means to afford a comfortable life, and finish by saying — “that’s enough. I don’t need any more.” Who wouldn’t like to have their salary raised or their bills lowered? The remarkable thing to me is that more people don’t let their disappointments lead them to anger or bitterness, or as we have seen lately, vandalism and violence.
Our malcontent youth are pretty tame compared to the rioters in parts of Europe: There, government benefits programs meant to ease the hardships of life have ballooned public debts beyond any hope of resolution. As a result, life will become much, much harder. The leaders in those countries — having tentatively acknowledged that the debts cannot and will not be paid, and having pleaded for relief from their neighboring countries and international authorities — are slowly making it clear to their citizens not only that they will not get the comfortable benefits they were promised, but they will have to absorb the penalties that go with the financial rescue plans.
This won’t save those economies from higher interest rates, rising prices, freezes on wages, shortages of goods and services, businesses closing, and all the other miseries that follow an economic collapse.
But, in addition, those countries will have to survive the violence of some individuals, and critics of capitalism who will see it as the inevitable outcome of an unfair system will justify that violence. No justice, no peace.
“Peace and prosperity” are linked in our minds, and the phrase seems to identify two separate ideals. As violence rises while wealth declines, it’s easy to see how they are connected. What’s harder to see is that peace and prosperity are in fact a single quality.
Many people achieve personal fulfillment or spiritual contentment without ever becoming wealthy. Many wealthy people wander through their lives without finding any purpose or satisfaction. Is that proof, as the rioters and their sympathizers imply, that we must sacrifice one in order to achieve the other?
The crisis we’re watching now fuels these doubts, but the picture is incomplete. We cannot ponder the failures of an economic system or the society around it without questioning the responsibility of the individuals operating within it. Those rioters are surely to blame, but the business, political, and social leaders are at fault, too. They misled a willing public to believe they could have peace and prosperity without the necessary effort. They encouraged them to value rewards without appreciating sacrifices. There can be no civilized society without civilized people, and the European debt crisis reveals there may not be enough of them to avoid a social collapse.
To dwell on the “unfairness” of capitalism overlooks centuries of proof that capitalism protects us from chaos. Capitalism encourages individuals to identify something that will give them satisfaction, to work at things so that they can provide for themselves, to create equity in something so that they will feel obligated to protect it against collapse. It establishes civilization without denying the freedom and potential of individuals. In short, it creates citizens so that when both peace and prosperity are endangered there will be someone to protect what’s valuable and restore what’s lost.
The views of civilization disintegrating is also a vision of humanity failing. But, if in watching it you are reminded of what you value, and what values you will uphold, then there is hope for the future.