I took part last Friday in a debate at Durham University Union on the motion that “This house welcomes the death of capitalism.” I opposed it, of course, arguing that capitalism has not died, is not dying, and probably will not die. I argued that two of its central elements went with the grain of human nature: investment and exchange. I suggested humorously that the first caveman who fashioned a bone hook invested time he could have spent happily hunting mastodons in order to gain greater rewards in future. This is like the child who chooses two chocolates tomorrow rather than a single chocolate today, or the investor who forgoes the pleasures that spending £100 might bring in order to have £105 to spend next year.
Investment is one way in which people better their lot. Another, I said, was exchange. When the caveman swaps one of his bone hooks for a fur offered by a hunter, both gain something they value more in exchange for something they value less. Each gains value and wealth is created. It was these two elements, I remarked, that had enabled capitalism to generate unparalleled wealth for humanity, the wealth that has lifted billions out of starvation and subsistence, and has paid for medicine and sanitation, the arts and education. It has doubled life expectancy within a century, and has meant that far fewer children die in infancy, or mothers in childbirth. Capitalism survives because of what it enables us to achieve.
I dealt with two things that capitalism is not. The first is cronyism, where big business gets into bed with government to secure special measures that enable it to exploit the public instead of competing fairly for their custom. The second is fraud, where bankers illegally fiddle interest rates, where Enron swindles its shareholders out of billions, or where Bernie Maddoff steals from his clients. This is not capitalism; it is criminality, and both of these practices need vigilance to thwart them.
People have asked “What will come after capitalism?” I replied, “Capitalism,” pointing out that after each crisis it is modified so the same mistakes are not repeated. It evolves and learns, as humans themselves do. We should not applaud its death, I said, but celebrate its continued life.
The students came down on the side of capitalism by defeating the motion.