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Op-eds

American capitalism isn’t perfect, but it is worth defending

Deseret News, September 28, 2020

In the first two installments of this three-part series, I defended American exceptionalism and American patriotism. In this, the third and final installment, I must defend another important idea that has fallen out of favor: American capitalism.

Though imperfect, free market capitalism has been an incredibly powerful force for good in the world. The combination of liberal democracy and free market economics has lifted billions of people out of poverty and offered more hope to the hopeless than any other economic system in the world. No other economic system even comes close.

This reality begins with a simple idea: The function of our government isn’t to ensure that all men are economically equal. Only theft and compulsion can guarantee equal outcomes. The purpose of our government is to ensure that all men are equally free. Free to choose. Free to succeed or, as we all do occasionally, to fail. Free to grow rich, free to live a life of humble service, free to learn, free to make our own decisions and then to live with the consequences of what we decide.

Yet, inexplicably, many of our younger generation seem to be ashamed of the economic system their forebears fought to preserve. The socialist Bernie Sanders craze demonstrates the power of this trend. Voters flocked to a candidate who extolled the evils of capitalism, seemingly unaware of the pampered conditions under which most of us live, even though it is directly attributable to the power of our economic system.

Since the first Pilgrims arrived on our shores, millions of people came here to find a new life, hoping to take advantage of opportunities not available to them in the nations they were leaving. Because of this, the U.S. grew from a ragged group of colonies to the world’s richest superpower. Yet there’s an old adage that when you are starving you only have one problem, but when your belly is full you have hundreds. For seven thousand years of human existence, survival, food and shelter were our ancestors’ primary concern. That might explain some of the modern distaste for American capitalism. We spend so little time worrying about simple survival that we now have the luxury of focusing on the flaws in the economic system that gave us our freedom and prosperity.

The fruits of capitalism are many. It has increased access to education, driven up the value of labor over time and allowed for an unprecedented level of economic mobility. The average modern person works fewer hours—in far better conditions—than their counterparts from earlier centuries and still enjoys a far better standard of living. American capitalism has led to innovations in health care, technology and industry that have literally changed the world. These innovations have reduced infant mortality rates and increased life expectancy by decades. Rapid advances in technology during the Industrial Revolution and Digital Revolution have produced a standard of living that far exceeds that of our great grandparents—with the opportunity for even further improvement.

Capitalism—unlike socialism, Marxism or authoritarianism—rewards individual innovation and work ethic. Anyone can improve their station in life by hard work or coming up with a new idea. That has rarely been the case throughout human history and is still not true in many countries in the world. Capitalism and free trade have allowed resource-poor countries like Hong Kong to become rich, while socialism has caused resource-rich countries like Venezuela to become poor. The biggest recent gains in the fight against poverty have occurred in countries that have opened up their markets, such as China and India.

When we see people around the world living in extreme poverty, they almost always have one thing in common: denied access to free markets. These noncapitalist states may be caused by government corruption, war, political instability or other structural problems preventing power from being placed into the markets and operating efficiently, but history has proven that the most effective thing a nation can do to lift their people out of poverty is to embrace free market capitalism.

As I stated earlier, capitalism isn’t perfect, which allows many critics to focus on the unequal outcomes produced by capitalism. But those inequalities can be minimized through good policy without destroying the system that produces prosperity. And they do not serve as proof that our economic system needs to be uprooted and destroyed. Those who suggest that we should tear down our economic model and start over are both ignorant of economic history and unappreciative of the great blessings that are offered to us every day.

I defend America as an exceptional nation—created by exceptional ideals, safeguarded by humble and grateful patriotism and continuing in greatness through the opportunity and freedom created by capitalism. 

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