I recently finished reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. When I was about halfway through, I told a friend that Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of the Gulag’s forced labor camps served as a thorough indictment of the Soviet regime and its communist ideology. It was truly corrupt at every imaginable level. He then asked me if I thought that the reliance of the southern antebellum economy on slavery served as a similar indictment of capitalism. And I said no.
“Capitalism” has distasteful connotations. We instinctively assume that anyone in favor of capitalism is on the side of soulless corporations and unscrupulous financiers. The way the word is put together (“capital” plus “ism”) makes it seem like it should refer to an ideology which values the accumulation of capital above all else, which is pretty much how Marx described it. So it shouldn’t surprise us that this is the working definition of “capitalism” for dumb Marxists on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s instinctive because the word itself is misleading, and it’s also a good straw man.
A much more accurate term to describe the ideology behind free market economies is “liberalism.” (This term has its own baggage, as the “liberals” of today tend to favor greater government involvement in the economy, unlike the OG liberals such as Adam Smith.) The whole point of free markets is that individuals get to make their own choices. That’s it. I dispose of my labor and my property as I see fit, and no one can force me to do anything. Of course, if I want to last long in the world, I’ll probably need to make some cooperative arrangements with others, but no one will force me to enter such arrangements.
How does slavery fit into this? Simply put, it doesn’t. Which is why it frustrates me to no end when Marxist fools try to link slavery with “capitalism.” If each individual person has the right to dispose of his labor as he sees fit, then no other person can enslave him. Slavery can occur only when government either fails to secure fundamental rights or actively deprives people of these rights. In the case of the southern states, the government was on the side of the slaveholders. The laws and the slaveholders teamed up to deprive the slave of his rights.
The other reason I dislike the use of the term “capitalism” is because it shifts the focus away from the most important feature of free market systems, i.e., that they are free. It’s certainly nice that free markets have resulted in astounding prosperity and economic growth over the past two centuries. But the main reason that we ought to prefer free markets to other systems is because other systems rely on coercion and theft. No one should be able to force you to dispose of your labor or your property in ways that you do not want to. You do not belong to the state or to the collective or to the guy with the biggest gun. You and your possessions are yours.
Of course, “capitalist” countries aren’t always successful at keeping their markets and their people free. That’s not a result of the “capitalist” ideology, though. It’s because people have an incentive to cheat the system if they can get away with it. If there is no rule of law and I can enslave people without being punished, then getting a bunch of slaves can make me a lot of money. But problems of this sort are far, far worse in non-capitalist countries than in capitalist ones. They are not peculiar to liberalism; indeed, liberalism has been the most successful way we’ve devised to solve them.