Capitalism makes war obsolete.
I was watching a scene in the BBC miniseries, “The Last Kingdom,” when the character Uhtred explains to a friend why he’s become a warrior. “I seek wealth. And the only means to achieve wealth is to conquer land.”
I put the TV on pause to digest that statement. The only way to achieve wealth is to own land? Really? The show takes place in 9th century England, during the time of the Viking conquests, and there’s a lot of fighting. Why? Apparently because everyone is trying to own land. So as to achieve…wealth.
Why does owning land achieve wealth? Well, back then life was pretty simple, and the economy even more so. From the time civilization began around 4,000 BC, with the invention of agriculture, the more land you owned (controlled) the more food you could grow. Specialization of labor meant that a given amount of land could produce more food than was required to feed the people who farmed it. The surplus could thus be traded by the owner of the land for (take your pick) gold, jewelry, castles, armies, concubines, etc. But the only way to become wealthy was to own land, and those who owned land were wealthy. Everyone else was just working to make ends meet.
Perhaps this is obvious, but it explains so much of history, which is mostly about conquerors expanding their ownership of land, by taking it from others. Consider the great empires of history: Egypt under the Pharaohs, the Greeks and the Romans, Genghis Kahn, the Aztecs, the Normans (a branch of the Vikings), and England’s empire under Henry II, which his descendants kept trying to expand, finally culminating in the 100 years war. It was all about owning land; stealing it from others for economic gain.
The “own land so you can become wealthy through farming” model changed slightly with the Spanish Conquest of the New World. They weren’t so much farming in places like Peru, as looting. And when they ran out of loot, they enslaved the locals and forced them to mine for more loot in the form of gold and silver.
Today, such ill-gotten gains would be labeled “conflict minerals” but back then they called it “winning,” or if they ever felt guilty, “spreading the word of God.”
This paradigm of achieving wealth only by owning land, and farming it or looting it, survived from the dawn of civilization up until the dawn of capitalism.
Some of us are still waiting for capitalism to dawn, because with very few exceptions, free-market economic activity has been so heavily taxed and regulated and crowded-out by the bureaucrat class, that—like Jews still waiting for the true Messiah and not convinced it was Jesus—today’s Libertarians aren’t convinced capitalism has ever actually arrived. Or it’s arrived only in crippled form, making it often worthy of criticism.
Progressives, who will turn apoplectic at the thought of the State telling women what reproductive choices to make, or telling gays who they can marry, have no trouble at all with the State regulating people’s private financial transactions. It seems odd that the very people who would not dream of regulating, say, an exchange of bodily fluids between consenting adults, are horrified that exchanges of money, labor, or property between those same consenting adults might somehow escape regulation.
Well, when you see broken capitalism in such examples as Daraprim increasing in price 5,000% overnight, it’s hard not to agree with them. But that’s not free-market capitalism. That’s the opposite, in this case the convenient removal of competition courtesy of the FDA.
Still, it was terrible PR for capitalism, because it looked like a free market gone wild, not what it really was: a free market hamstrung by government regulations.
It’s worst at Christmas-time when we’re forced to endure replays of “A Christmas Carol,” and be reminded how bad capitalists are, and how we should instead be loving and generous to our fellow man. You know, the message of Christ.
In fact, popular culture has it backwards. Capitalists are the new peacekeepers. Capitalism is the only system ever developed to generate wealth other than by looting it from your fellow man.
When you think about it, this is a concept that deserves to be up there with the great inventions of civilization, starting with civilization itself. And the invention of fire. The creation of weapons and tools. The wheel. Agriculture and so forth. But until capitalism came on the scene, the only way anyone could achieve wealth was via Uhtred’s model: plundering it from someone else.
As long as that was essentially the only model, then warfare became a pre-requisite to almost everything. The world can never be at peace if personal advancement can only come by stealing from others. In short, lack of capitalism almost guarantees endless warfare. Capitalism means no more need for war.
With capitalism, Uhtred can do better putting away his sword and launching an e-tail site on Amazon.
Of course capitalism is never portrayed this way in modern culture. Quite the opposite. Capitalists are seen as the new warriors, raping and pillaging and… Well, maybe not raping per se. But pillaging for sure.
It’s hard for people raised in the intellectual darkness of America’s K-12 and higher educational system, to understand quite how capitalism works.
At its core, capitalism is the negation of the zero-sum-game concept civilization has toiled under for so long. When free people voluntarily engage in a trade, both walk away from it richer. One is not stealing from the other. New “wealth” is created for both parties.
When I go to Safeway and buy milk, I am not robbing Safeway of milk, nor are they robbing me of money. I want the gallon of milk more than I want the $3.50 in my wallet. Safeway wants the $3.50 more than they want the gallon of milk. So we trade. And when the trade is complete, each party now has something worth more (to that party) than what they had before. This is how wealth gets created: two consenting parties willingly making an exchange, and both of them ending up richer, for having done so.
Once past the Age of Conquest, today’s great fortunes (and little ones) have all been made on the basis of willing exchanges between consenting parties. Bill Gates trades software for cash. Both parties come out ahead. Warren Buffet trades use of money (capital) for partial ownership of the businesses that need the capital. Both parties come out ahead. Apple trades iPhones for cash. Etc. Notice that Microsoft, Berkshire-Hathaway, and Apple Computer are amassing great wealth without going to war at all. This may seem obvious to us, but to Uhtred and 9th century Britain, it’s a revolutionary concept.
The important thing to keep in mind is that capitalism enriches both parties. In the Christmas Carol, Scrooge is seen as wicked because he doesn’t treat his employees very well—at least by 21st century standards. They work long hours, and often in freezing conditions.
Yet look at this transaction from a capitalist’s perspective. Bob Cratchit (the employee) is willingly exchanging his labor for pay, from Scrooge. His employer is exchanging pay, for labor. The exchange is made willingly. Both parties come out ahead versus not making the exchange.
Sure, Bob wishes he were paid more and had better working conditions. Scrooge wishes he could obtain labor for even less money. Everyone making an exchange wishes the deal was better. I wish that gallon of milk from Safeway cost only $2.00. Safeway wishes they could sell it for $5.00. But we agree on $3.50. Why do I agree? Because it costs even more at 7-11.
The point is, I make the trade for the best deal I can get. As does everyone. People think of Scrooge as the villain, but he’s actually the hero. Scrooge is paying more, and providing better working conditions, than is anyone else in London at the time of the story. He’s the outlier, the high bidder, significantly above the average. How do we know this? Because if someone else were paying more, or offering better conditions, Cratchit would be working for them.
The Ghosts of Various Tenses aren’t denying this. They are trying to teach Scrooge the joy of engaging in charitable activity for its own reward. That’s an important lesson. And it’s one that most successful capitalists have learned. This is why no one gives more to charity than people like Bill and Melinda Gates. But that’s not a condemnation of capitalism. It’s the opposite. If it weren’t for capitalism, Bill and his wife wouldn’t have anything to give to charity. Nor would Scrooge. Capitalism is the engine which allows wealth to be created, and that wealth can then be used as a force for good. And it almost always is, whether it’s given away for worthy causes, or used as the basis for further transactions, each of which creates further wealth. Etc. It’s why we’re no longer living in caves.
And civilization is learning this. Thanks to capitalism, people can now earn money, make profits, enrich themselves (and those they trade with), and create wealth out of nothing, with no need whatsoever to conquer enemies and gain land.
It’s not hard to see the results. One of the most intractable territorial disputes of our time is the Pakistan-India conflict over ownership of Kashmir. A 2015 study makes it clear that it is precisely capitalism—free trade—that is calming the waters. So much wealth is created through trade between India and Pakistan, that it dwarfs whatever value might exist in the ownership of Kashmir. Businessmen—capitalists—are literally forcing peace on their politicians, because war would damage profits. The “conquer land to gain wealth” model is now upside down. Going to war to gain territory actually impoverishes everyone.
There is still war, of course. But these days it’s seldom about gaining wealth. ISIS fights for a religious cause. Russia invades Ukraine to bolster Putin’s image and help his political situation back home. No one is trying to loot the grain fields. China’s mischief in the South China Sea is all about gaining military advantage. Sure, there’s some oil there. But no one’s going to war over oil, no matter what the conspiracy theorists might claim about our invasion of Iraq.
The cost of war is far greater than the marginal value of controlling an oil field. You can buy oil on the world market. As much as you want. And you can afford it, if your own capitalists are busy creating wealth in an economy free from the disruptions of war.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” says the Bible, “for they will be called children of God.” Increasingly, these days we can also call them capitalists.