We start by addressing an important question: What is politics?
There are numerous definitions. One encyclopedic definition states:
“According to political philosophy politics is a strife to implement the idea of The Good (Plato), to achieve happiness understood as eudaimonia (Aristotle), to gain, maintain, and strengthen power (Niccolò Machiavelli), to introduce and maintain a state of social peace (16th century’s French les politiques), or to realize common good (modern republican tradition); politics is also acting as a collective entity when faced with a threat of an enemy (Carl Schmitt), or the ability of groups that influence society to reach a compromise.”1
To put it simply, politics set the rules of interpersonal behaviors, thus defining both the ways in which a person can treat another and the institutions that guard these rules.
If there were only one individual in the entire world, they would not need politics. There is no government nor the governed on the asteroid called B 612. Only the little prince lives there, so he is completely free and can live as he pleases. After all, his life is his own and he can best decide how to live it. The little prince does not care about politics. It is true that he should still care about morality in order to know good from evil for his own life’s sake, but concepts such as ‘rights’ are useless to him. Even obvious laws as the right to life or the right to property are relational, and as such have meaning only when other people who can respect these rights (or not) are involved. And only when other people are around the stage is set for the concept of political system governing the norms and principles of cohabitation in society that consists of interacting individuals. Simply speaking, people interact in two ways: voluntarily and coercively.
Voluntary interactions are those made by consenting parties:
when a baker employs a helper;
when a couple in love gets married;
when you buy a used car found through an ad.
Each party believes that their decision was good for them and will improve their life. Otherwise they would not do it.
Coercive interactions resort to violence to enforce decisions on other people without their consent:
when a slave is forced to work;
when parents threaten to use violence if their child does not marry a person they chose;
or when a thief steals your car.
In all such cases one party uses or threatens to use violence against another party. This is what makes these interactions coercive.
Many people claim, however, that there are some NECESSARY coercive social interactions, such as taxes, obligatory history courses in schools, or bans on public drinking.
Political systems that adhere to this notion are called interventionist, as their proponents expect that the government will intervene in private choices of its subjects, limiting their freedom to act. We will not discuss here neither the purpose of such intervention, nor whether it is appropriate.
But let us think about something here:
Is there any political system that is based entirely on voluntary interpersonal interactions, under which a citizen has complete and utter control over their own life? A Political system that does not envision neither lord nor servant, neither owner nor slave? Under which a person has the individual right to separate good from evil, and be free just as the little prince?
Let us turn to philosophy for answers:
According to Ayn Rand, the American philosopher and well-known theoretician of freedom, each and every (adult) individual has the same full right to their life, and neither government institutions nor other people regardless of their needs can exert power over the individual’s decisions, body, nor property. In other words, no person can further their own goals against the will of other individuals by treating them as objects or tools. Any person inherently has natural rights to right to life (which is obvious), accompanied by the necessary right to property, and the right to freedom, i.e. to choose their own way of striving for happiness.
So what can violate natural rights and limit individual freedom? Only physical force or its credible threat can do that (no, we are not capable of paranormal activities like telekinesis!). Therefore, an ideal political system that protects individuals as much as possible so that they can live freely and according to their will should eliminate physical violence from interpersonal relations.
According to Rand: “In a capitalist society [that recognizes individual rights], no man or group may initiate the use of physical force against others. The only function of the government, in such a society, is the task of protecting man’s rights, i.e., the task of protecting him from physical force; the government acts as the agent of man’s right of self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.”
Freedom is the key concept in the capitalist system.
A man living on an empty planet is free — there is no one else to prohibit him from lighting a fire or digging a tunnel to the other side. In a free society in which politics has its place certain activities must be prohibited, so that everyone can enjoy the same rights. VIOLENCE (or rather, its initiation! — it would be unwise to prohibit defensive actions against one’s attacker) should be prohibited. And, according to many supporters of capitalism, this rule is the only appropriate role of politics and the only appropriate role of the government — making sure that all relationships between individuals are, according to their own will, judgments, beliefs, and interests, voluntary and nonviolent.
Freedom is not the ultimate value, nor does it guarantee universal good; but it makes achieving moral goals and being good possible. Paraphrasing the words of Lord Acton:1
“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Morality can emerge only when people are free — where violence reigns, there can be no good.
Is capitalism then… the perfect system?
It is hard to know — capitalism as radically defined is still an ‘unknown ideal’. Never in history has any state consistently adopted a policy based on the principle of non-initiation of violence (i.e. the ethical basis of pure capitalism). But there are countries that can boast more voluntary interactions (like Switzerland, Denmark, Hong Kong, or the USA), and then there are those that intervene in people’s lives a lot (such as Iran, Venezuela, Congo, or Russia).
Experience shows that the more freedom a society enjoys, the higher development rate and higher standard of living it has, because free people are able to utilize the full potential of their reason, thus “subduing the earth”; and when threatened with violence people stop to reason. The categories of violence and reason are contradictory.
It’s trade, investment, exchange of goods and services, freedom of employment and business that over the last quarter of the century1 have reduced world poverty by 75 percent, illiteracy by almost 60 percent, child mortality by 55 percent, and pollution by 65 percent.
What term would you use to separate most easily the world before the end of the eighteenth century from the contemporary one?
North Korea from South Korea?
China in the 70s and China today?
Poland before and after the ‘economic transformation’?
It’s Capitalism. “Good system for bad people” — misunderstood and attacked, its label is constantly being pinned to its antitheses, like governments printing money, saving banks, or introducing regulations to protect big business.
Try to imagine a world in which the laws of economics were discovered 200 years before their times.
Or a world in which propaganda would be replaced by facts, power by free choice, war by trade, and in which politics would be limited to the bare minimum.
Try to imagine a world ruled by reason, not by fist.
Would it be a utopia? Pure capitalism has never existed, so does it mean it cannot exist?
One can be hopeful — for hundreds of years people could not imagine a world without hereditary class divisions or slavery (“utopia!” — they agreed). Yet gradually the scope of freedom increased, and today we celebrate equality of people before the law regardless of gender, race, or religion almost all over the world. Maybe someday in the future we will achieve pure freedom and complete ownership?
There are many reasons both theoretical and empirical for claiming that such a direction is and would be beneficial.
However, we must keep two things in mind:
– That kind of change is not automatic. Both ‘spiritual’ and material development is not set in stars nor is does it lie in some sort of geological nature of the planet. It is knowledge and ideas of men that can result in both the Third Reich or the United States. Therefore, guided by facts, logic, and conclusions drawn for example from the history of political systems we should reevaluate our beliefs constantly.
– We must also remember that the goal is not some social system, but human life; thus we must aim for conditions that best foster it.
As for the little prince, if he cared about politics, what system would he consider the best for himself?
-> One based on coercion and ultimately leading to food shortages, propaganda, or labor camps, where an individual’s life belongs to others…?
-> Or one based on freedom, one that produced modern technology, medical care, diversity and availability of goods, amusement parks, vehicles and electronic gadgets, where an individual’s life belongs to themselves…?