When the Canadian government recently announced its plan to build a monument to victims of communism, Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader (and the party’s sole MP) tweeted: “no mention of monument to victims of capitalism.” While the government should not build any monuments by spending our money without our consent, Ms. May’s tweet warrants comment. It reflects widespread ignorance of capitalism, and not just among politicians.
As capitalism is the only social system consistent with the requirements of human survival and flourishing, it is in our interest to understand it—and once we do, advocate for it.
Many people confuse the current mixed economy with capitalism. However, there is no capitalist country anywhere in the world today. The closest was the 19th century America, but even there capitalism was not pure. It was adulterated by the governments' interference in the economy. So there hardly could haven been any “victims” of capitalism then, and there cannot be any today.
More fundamentally, there cannot be victims of capitalism because the concept is a contradiction. To see why, we must be clear what ‘victim’ and ‘capitalism’ mean.
‘Victim’ is “a person destroyed, sacrificed, or injured by another, or by some condition or agency; one who is cheated or duped” (The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language). In other words, a person is victimized by physical force. Physical force is initiated by another or caused by a natural phenomenon (such as an earthquake or a catastrophic flood). Physical force also includes frauds committed by others.
‘Capitalism’ is “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned” (Ayn Rand: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal). In other words, as Ayn Rand explained, capitalism is a system in which the initiation of physical force and fraud is banned, as both violate the rights of individuals.
Capitalism is the only victimless social system.
Under capitalism, only the government can use force—but exclusively in retaliation against its initiators, such as terrorists and other criminals. Therefore, such a social system has no victims: capitalism is the only victimless social system.
Under capitalism, people are free to pursue their interests, but they cannot violate the rights of others by initiating, or threatening to initiate, physical force. Such violations include crimes, from murder and kidnapping to polluting or otherwise damaging or stealing someone else’s property. If people initiate force, the government—via independent courts and objective law—will deter and punish them and thus protect their victims' right to life, liberty, and property. Under capitalism, the government's sole role is to protect individual rights. It cannot itself initiate force, such as by confiscating citizens’ property to build monuments.
In contrast to capitalism, every statist system, including the mixed economies prevalent in most countries of the world today, has victims. There are victims in statist countries, because individual rights are not fully protected and governments themselves initiate physical force. Governments initiate physical force against their citizens to varying degrees, such as through taxation and confiscation of property (for the sake of alleged “public interest”) and by imprisoning and executing dissidents.
If we want freedom and recognition of individual rights—necessities for human survival and flourishing—we need to understand what capitalism means. Once we grasp that, we can then promote it, by explaining it in contrast to statism, to anyone willing to listen. Elizabeth May will likely not be one of them, but many others will be.
When enough of us understand the case for capitalism, we can affect political and social change, and achieve unprecedented flourishing for all.
Originally posted 2 November 2013