Capitalism and Coercion

By Levite, Allan | Ideas on Liberty, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Capitalism and Coercion


Levite, Allan, Ideas on Liberty


A century and more ago, when Marxism was in its ascendancy as a theory, its followers (as well as many others) aturally believed its dogma about workers being the helpless pawns of capitalists-forced to sell their labor at less than its true worth, with no real alternative. But now, despite Marxism's collapse as both a theory and a founding ideology of communist governments, a very similar idea seems to be gaining ground: that big corporations force citizens to participate in the capitalist market system, or "compel" consumers to buy their products. Indeed, this idea can even be found in a good and useful book on the writing of history-written to refute the relativist, "postmodern" notion that historical reality is not objective fact, but only "socially constructed." The book is Telling the Truth about History, by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, all history teachers at UCLA. Here are the relevant quotes:

One of the distinguishing features of a free-enterprise economy is that its coercion is veiled. . . . The fact that people must earn before they can eat is a commonly recognized connection between need and work, but it presents itself as a natural link embedded in the necessity of eating rather than as arising from a particular arrangement for distributing food through market exchanges. . ... Presented as natural and personal in the stories people tell about themselves, the social and compulsory aspects of capitalism slip out of sight and out of mind. . . . Far from being natural, the cues for market participation are given through complicated social codes. Indeed, the illusion that compliance in the dominant economic system is voluntary is itself an amazing cultural artifact.1

What is really amazing is how these three historians misunderstand the market process, especially the way it evolved naturally, over millennia, through trial and error-motivated by the efforts of all buyers and sellers to advance their well-being. This is not "far from being natural"; it is as natural as breathing. Furthermore, these authors make it sound as if capitalism became dominant because some authority imposed it on humanity. But history (especially recent history) clearly shows that capitalism won out over such competing systems as socialism because it works, while the competing systems failed miserably. To say, almost with an air of disdain, that capitalism is the dominant economic system, is like complaining that diesel locomotives have "dominated" (and replaced) the less-efficient steam engines. Historians, even more than others, should possess a greater ability (or willingness) to distinguish between mere metaphorical "force" and actual force.

We also need to examine the notion that injustice and exploitation exist whenever people are "forced" by circumstances to accept dangerous or low-paying jobs, or to buy products from capitalist firms. This deterministic view ignores the fact that the human race as a whole is indeed "forced" either to work for its bread or to starveand to purchase most goods and services from someone, since humanity has long since passed the primitive stage in which each farm-household was self-sufficient and able to make everything it needed. To write their book, the three historians would formerly have had to buy a typewriter from a capitalist firm or write the entire manuscript in longhand, a laborious and time-consuming process. More likely, they purchased a word processor or personal computer and wrote their book far more efficiently. Were they "forced" to do so--or did they do it because they saw the tremendous advantages of such electronic equipment?

As for employment, accepting the best (or only) offer available, as unattractive as it might be, is not the equivalent of slavery-a situation in which actual violence, or the threat of it, is used to compel people to labor without pay and without the option to seek other work. That circumstances limit one's choices does not prove that one has neither the capacity nor the opportunity to choose, since everyone's choices are limited. …

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