Why Do People Say Bad Things About The Capitalist System That Delivers Superabundance?

Consider this chart. It appears in a book entitled A Farewell To Arms: A Brief Economic History Of The World and illustrates the worldwide change in personal income over 3000 years.

We can think of increased personal income per person as pleasurable progress for all. Increased income is a proxy for many life improvements: better food and beverages, better shelter from heat and cold, better health and better healthcare, better education, better jobs, better transportation, better entertainment, expanded knowledge, greater freedom, and many more in a long list that covers all of life.

As the chart shows, the progress is recent. There was no progress in income per person for the first 2800 years or so depicted in this chart, and then a high energy surge of almost exponential growth in the most recent 200 years. The pivot point is the invention and introduction of capitalism. 

The pivot is often labeled “the Industrial Revolution” (as it is in our chart), referring to new forms of physical capital such as steam engines and factories that proved capable of producing more and better goods at lower and lower prices and creating the jobs that paid the wages that increased income per person and gave individuals the opportunity to become consumers. It was a technological revolution, a knowledge revolution, and, most importantly, an economic system revolution, the switch to capitalism.

Over the 200 years since the switch, capitalism has delivered more than personal income growth; it has delivered superabundance. That’s the term employed by researchers Marian Tupy and Gaye Pooley in their book of that title. Superabundance is defined by the phenomenon of us each needing to spend less and less time working to purchase more and more goods and services. It’s a new economics, not of scarcity but of abundance.

A similar story is told by Hans Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund in their 2018 book, Factfulness. They provide us with long lists of “good things that are getting better, and bad things that are decreasing”. The former list includes child cancer survival, access to education, women’s rights, clean water, literacy and democracy. The latter list includes child labor, hunger, smallpox, oil spills, and many more.

These and many similar books and papers provide extensive data compilations regarding the improved lives we all enjoy as a result of capitalism. So why do so many people – students, intellectuals, democratic politicians, writers, celebrities, and cultural influencers in general – speak so badly of capitalism?

The authors of the books we’ve quoted put it down to human psychology, that we are wired to be apprehensive, skeptical, and negative even in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Our negative affect comes from our time roaming around prehistoric forests in constant fear of being attacked by some predator. The Roslings point to psychology research that indicates that humans have a gap instinct. We are prone to divide the world in two (e.g. developed economies versus underdeveloped economies, or rich versus poor) and focus on the gap between the two extremes of perception we have just created. We don’t see a continuum and we don’t see continued progress for everyone.

It’s a little hard to accept this psychological perspective in the 21st Century, when there is so much data to refute it, but if we are looking to psychology for an explanation, we can certainly look at envy. According to Helmut Schoeck (in Envy: A Theory Of Social Behavior), envy is universal among humans.

Envy is a drive which lies at the core of man’s life as a social being, and which occurs as soon as two individuals become capable of mutual comparison.

From a perspective of envy, the absolute gains that capitalism brings are ignored and the perception that some gain more than others prevails. Envy itself is an individual emotion – a lonely one since it’s a rejection of relationships – but the great danger occurs when a culture of envy is cultivated. That’s exactly what happens in our educational institutions, both universities and high schools and even elementary and middle schools. A class of educators, resentful because they feel underpaid and underappreciated in the capitalist system that rewards innovative value-creating entrepreneurship more highly than institutional maintenance, teach our children that capitalism is unfair, extractive, and exploitative. 

The teachers are reinforced by the communicators in the media, the writers, influencers, and talking heads who find that anti-capitalist content is amenable to their customers who have passed through the channels of education and become permanently misguided by the perspective they absorbed there. The media continuously reinforce the disaffected envy of their audience, deepening it, extending it, and distorting reality even further. The negativity instinct in the media leads to selective reporting and downright distortion of facts.

And then the politicians and government bureaucrats pile on. Politicians have no interest in progress and improvement. Their stock in trade is to point out how the opposition is failing – undermining or destroying prosperity. They also feed on the idea of the gap – that their constituency suffers by comparison to whomever the politicians decide to compare them to: women to men, non-whites to whites, Southerners to Northerners, less-educated to more-educated, my constituents to your constituents. It’s always about the gap for politicians. And the notion of the gap leads them to anti-capitalist rhetoric: capitalism is responsible for these gaps, that wouldn’t otherwise occur. There’d be equality under alternative systems. 

Government bureaucrats can claim to fix the gap problem in a different system that they run. Call it socialism, call it public-private, call it interventionism or regulationism, call it the entrepreneurial state. Governments are anti-capitalist because capitalism gives no role to government. Government can divide the pie, but only after capitalism has created the recipe for the pie, assembled the pie ingredients, baked the pie, served the pie, accepted and incorporated the feedback of the consumers of the pie, and nurtured the broad and deep market for pies that generates the commercial revenues that governments can then tax and redistribute. Politicians and bureaucrats must condemn capitalism so that they can offer their so-called solutions to the problems they claim capitalism causes.

We have a deep and wide circle of groups willing to say bad things about capitalism: educators, intellectuals; the students and others whom they influence; the media who act as their cheerleaders; and politicians and bureaucrats whose professional incentives are to undermine the popularity of capitalism in order to justify their own anti-capitalist ends and means. Together, they represent a formidable array.

There isn’t a word for fans of capitalism. If we use the word “capitalist”, it’s perceived as derogatory. Whatever the name for fans of capitalism, we need them to be confident, vocal, well-armed with data, and positive and persuasive in its presentation. We need to strengthen the pro-capitalist mentality.

Why Study Economics?

Economics is the science of human thriving. It is the study of human choices and the motivations behind them. If we can understand those simple things, we can understand every transaction between humans as consumers and humans as producers, and roll that micro understanding up into the more macro understanding of firms and economies, and how they function, succeed and grow.

Thriving is what we all want. We can define it as continuously increasing our feelings of well-being. And that’s the first indicator of the value of economics. The output of any economy, of every firm and of every exchange and every transaction is more well-being – the feeling of being better off. Yes, a feeling. Economics is not measured in numbers like GDP or firms’ revenues or profits. It’s assessed by the satisfaction of individuals as to whether things are getting better or not. A growing economy is one with improving feelings of well-being. The nearest thing to a metric for this feeling of well-being is the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index.

When the index is high, it’s associated with increasing stock market valuations, economic growth and prosperity. When it’s low, it’s associated with recessions. There’s no need to search for cause-and-effect, because it’s not there. The sentiment is emergent from the system.

A successful firm is one whose customers feel increasing well-being – more satisfaction, more confidence, more trust, more relatability. A strong balance sheet is one with assets that will facilitate such satisfactions and feelings of well-being many years into the future. A strong P&L is one that shows that customers are generating the cash flows that result from their willingness to pay for those satisfactions at the price the business chooses to set and results in profit.

How does economics teach us to increase well-being? Development economics as its called – the study and theory of how economic growth is generated – is a highly underdeveloped field. It has no answers because it’s looking for those cause-and-effect conclusions that just can’t be found. It’s better to look at system effects: what is the system most associated with increased well-being? It’s free market capitalism.

More entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is the function that drives growth in the free market system of capitalism that brings prosperity. Entrepreneurship is misunderstood by most economists and all policymakers. Entrepreneurship is the economic function that creates new value, and value is what we all seek. Value is the feeling of being better off after experiencing a good or service that’s been prepared for us or sold to us. It’s the feeling of betterment – better off today, and better off tomorrow because of all the great offerings entrepreneurship brings to us. Entrepreneurship is what drives capitalism. It can take place in a startup or in a giant corporation, so long as the intent is to improve customers’ lives. It is highly restricted in an economy where government regulation strangles innovative opportunity, or where government directs investment funds to one industry rather than another – for the simple reason that entrepreneurship is experimentation to find out what customers prefer, and regulation often doesn’t permit experimentation. What drives growth? Those of us who are not entrepreneurs don’t know – we leave it to entrepreneurship to run the crazy experiments that will help the rest of us to find out.

Production before consumption.

The conventional wisdom of economic pundits and government planners is the opposite of the entrepreneurial view. They believe that consumption – what they sometimes call aggregate demand – is the driving force of the economy. If the economy, as they measure it, slows down or stalls, their answer is to put more spending power in the hands of consumers so that they buy more products and services. They believe that demand brings production into being. Without demand, there’d be no production. The opposite is the true case. Entrepreneurs reveal to consumers that there is more they can want – better goods and services, new technologically innovative products, faster deliveries and lower prices. By demonstrating the availability of more – by producing, that is – entrepreneurial businesses generate demand for their offerings. Demand does not bring businesses into existence; businesses bring demand into existence. Any and all restrictions on production should be lifted to bring productive growth to any economy anywhere in the world.

Less quantitative, more qualitative.

Economics is usually presented as a quantitative science. Economic “quants” focus us on numbers like GDP or economic growth rates or trade imbalances or debt levels. They want us to think of economics as a science on par with physics and mathematics. But it’s not. Economics is about well-being, and how humans increase well-being for themselves, their families, their firms and their communities. Well-being is subjective, a feeling on the part of individuals. It can’t be measured, enumerated, ranked or stacked or trended. Economics aims for a world in which we can consciously and deliberately raise and expand and extend well-being, without always trying to capture the improvement in numbers. Feeling better off is a qualitative phenomenon.

Less economic policy.

The word policy should never be conjoined with the word economics. Policy equates to politics, i.e. a biased, group-interest driven perspective on economic decision-making. Economics teaches us that markets can freely determine all allocation decisions, and all selections between what individuals and groups prefer, favoring new and better and jettisoning what’s out-of-date and inferior. Politicians may not always like market choices, and may therefore introduce policy that contradicts the markets, but this always leads to less total well-being. And since there is no possibility of isolating cause and effect in a complex economic system subject to an incalculable number of influences, interactions, constraints, and unanticipated feedback loops, policy never “works” – it can not lead to the outcomes it promises.

Students of economics will understand and appreciate these catalysts for well-being – that’s why economics is worth studying.

The Culture Of Entrepreneurship Promises An Exciting Breakout From Government, Corporatism And Dependency.

The science of economics has a big problem with vocabulary. It attempts to capture complex concepts in single words and phrases, which only serve to confuse and befuddle and cause arguments. To take a current example, the word “socialism”, for an economist, means state ownership of the means of production (which, in itself, is a good example of clunkiness in economic terminology). But when the country and its journalists and its bloggers argue about socialism and who is or is not a socialist, they’re not arguing about who owns the means of production. They’re arguing about forcible redistribution of people’s income by government, and about the top-down imposition of all-encompassing resource allocation schemes like Green New Deal and Government Health Care. They’re arguing about the role and scope of government and what it means to be free. “Ownership of the means of production” doesn’t help us understand the issues to any great extent.

The opposite of socialism is entrepreneurship. This is another word that comes from economics, and is even harder to define than socialism. The definition of entrepreneurship at the Library Of Economics And Liberty ( is 2000 words long. Within those 2000 words, there are references to the many disagreements between economists as to what entrepreneurship really means.

Let’s propose that, instead of defining entrepreneurship, we examine it as a complex and multi-faceted system of individual and social human behavior, and identify its consequences.

Entrepreneurship is the system for the generation of betterment for all in a society characterized wholly or partially by both collaboration and private property.

Entrepreneurship is action. Entrepreneurial individuals, teams or groups are alert to situations where their fellow citizens are dissatisfied with current conditions – when they feel things could be better. Entrepreneurs see this as an economic opportunity: if they take action to devise a new, different and better offering than is currently available, people might buy it to improve their condition, delivering a profit to the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs do take that action – that’s what separates them from others. There’s a risk in acting. It takes time to design and produce the new offering; the finished product or service may not be as good as the entrepreneur imagined in the design phase; the selling price may not be right; the consumer may have changed preferences over time and no longer wants this new solution, instead preferring someone else’s offering. But whatever the outcome for the individual entrepreneur, the system is a win-win. The consumer ultimately has the choice of the various new offerings, and at least one entrepreneur is rewarded, and society is better off. The entrepreneurs who were not chosen by the consumer in this case will redirect their efforts in another direction until they find the right exchange in which they can reap the reward of the marketplace.

The nature of the entrepreneurial system is that both consumers and producers experience reward when one responds to the other in a way that aligns what the consumer wants with what the entrepreneur can provide. It’s a collaborative win-win, and society (i.e. all the producers and consumers rolled up) progresses and improves. Consumers are more satisfied. Entrepreneurs are more fulfilled. GDP per capita rises. The world gets better.

The system works for everyone.

The encyclopedia entry on entrepreneurship informs us that widely cited studies conclude that between one third and one-half of the differences in economic growth rates across countries, states and localities can be explained by differing rates of entrepreneurial activity. Economic growth is the economists’ way of saying “things get better for everybody”.

That’s because the goal of entrepreneurs is to help customers towards better lives, in which they experience feelings of greater satisfaction. When they succeed, the entrepreneurs get paid, i.e. achieve the monetary reward of profit. And they, too, also feel greater satisfaction: a sense of achievement and the expanded horizons that come with success. Entrepreneurs’ personal pursuit of higher aspirations results in consumers’ attainment of higher levels of satisfaction and happiness. Everybody wins.

Entrepreneurship blossoms in a culture that supports it and admires it.

Entrepreneurship requires an institutional and cultural framework in which it can blossom. Primarily, it thrives in political and economic systems that protect and secure private property rights. The entrepreneur must have control over private property in order to transform it into new offerings and solutions for consumers to choose and enjoy. In this case, private property includes their own personal effort and ideas, physical resources and capital, and money to invest.

More broadly, entrepreneurship thrives in a framework of economic freedom: low taxes, minimal regulation constraining entrepreneurial imagination, and an unbiased and rapidly-functioning judicial system to resolve any contract disputes that arise. Empirically, the level of entrepreneurial activity in a country correlates closely with the Economic Freedom Index, a measure of the existence of premarket institutions.

There’s also an important element of how we think about feel about and talk about entrepreneurs and business’s role in our culture. If the culture tags the successful entrepreneur as an exploiter rather than a hero, and emphasizes the inequity of outcomes – some succeed, some don’t – rather than the achievement of those who establish and grow successful firms, then society will turn against those who bring betterment. We must, as Professor Deirdre McCloskey insists, assign dignity to our entrepreneurs.

The main barriers to entrepreneurial productivity are governments and corporatism.

Government action – regulations, subsidies, tariffs, taxes, manipulation of labor markets and financial markets, and so much more – impedes entrepreneurship. Governments limit the scope of entrepreneurial imagination and freedom, by restricting what is possible. They divert the productive efforts of entrepreneurs through taxation, which is the confiscation of the fruits of productivity so that they can be put to unproductive uses. They restrict productivity via regulatory constraints, such as the limitations on the location of new production facilities (think solar energy farms) and the distribution of produced goods (think interstate electricity distribution). Government, by its very nature, is anti-entrepreneurial.

As government gets bigger and more interventionist, it brings into existence new barriers to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurial action can take place at any organizational scale – single employee companies, small businesses and venture-funded startups, and within medium and large-sized businesses. But, as Michael Munger explains, government distorts the incentives for entrepreneurship by creating conditions in which a dollar invested in lobbying can provide a greater return than a dollar invested in R&D and innovation. If a large corporation can secure the passage of a bill or a regulation or a tax or a tariff that is favorable to its business and unfavorable to competitors, domestic or foreign, it will be tempted to make that investment. R&D is starved, innovation is slowed or stopped, and incumbent corporations are insulated from the creative destruction that entrepreneurs generate and which raises consumer satisfaction through innovative improvement.

If we can restrict government and reduce its level of regulatory and fiscal activity, we will enjoy a double boost in economic productivity because the temptation for corporations to spend money cozying up to regulators and legislators will be reduced, if not removed, and the level of investment in entrepreneurial innovation will be increased.

Entrepreneurship is the antidote to the culture of dependency.

At the level of individual behavior and attitude, the culture of entrepreneurship can be energizing, motivating and fulfilling in ways that the current culture industry of state schools, leftist media and welfare state socialism can never emulate. The entire cultural edifice of government and its associated institutions is dependency. This culture insists that individuals can not be successful without state assistance, welfare, subsidies, and regulatory control. Since our children are continuously and exclusively indoctrinated in this dependency framework from the earliest age in state schools, it is not surprising that most of them never get to experience the joys and rewards of entrepreneurial striving. They feel that they must depend on others, especially the welfare bureaucrats, to achieve whatever goals they are capable of conceiving. As a result, self-reliance, imagination, resourcefulness and entrepreneurial energy are under-developed attributes among our young population. The long-term drift towards suffocating hopelessness and helplessness sometimes feels irreversible.

Yet the spirit of entrepreneurship has not been fully extinguished. We still have some entrepreneurial heroes, despite the cultural repudiation of “millionaires and billionaires”. We still have some supportive branches of our institutional framework, including local small business groups, entrepreneurial business school courses, private online education, incubators, venture capital, private loan platforms, and exchange platforms like Upwork and Angie’s List. Perhaps someday, we’ll be able to extend that list to include pro-entrepreneurship public policy.

Until that day, let’s celebrate every entrepreneur who breaks out from statism, corporatism and dependency.

Mainstream Economists Favor Efficiency. That Should Not Be A Goal – It Should Be Avoided.

What does an economy do? Modern economics suggests it is about [production] efficiency, and develops models for assessing the degree to which it is achieved and predicting outcomes assuming it. This is a fundamental misunderstanding that, when scratching on the surface, clearly is as impossible as it is undesirable. Economy is about value creation: about getting more out of less. Efficiency is backward-looking and lacking in progress, while value creation is future-oriented and aspirational.

What I mean by that is that efficiency is about tinkering with processes and mechanisms that already exist, with the goal of making them run faster, smoother, and with less waste. It is about management, about reducing costs and cutting overhead. But one cannot cut costs unless there is already an established process for which costs can be cut. In other words, efficiency is not a matter of figuring out other things to do, but only how to do things already underway in other ways. Consider any production process, either within a firm or the economy overall, which is either already efficient or nearing such a state. Every step on the way toward increasing output at lesser per-unit cost is an improvement in terms of efficiency. Why, in this situation, would you take resources and speculate on producing something else? You wouldn’t, because it is inefficient and makes the overall undertaking less efficient.

But this is exactly what an economy does through entrepreneurship: attempts numerous new types of production, new types of goods, and so on. And a first attempt is never efficient. Very often, it is rather outrageously inefficient and wasteful. But where it turns out to be successful, new value is created. And then, through competitive discovery and skillful management, the production process can be improved in the direction of (whether or not it ever reaches) efficiency. With a little luck, this process–even though it’s approaching efficiency–is disrupted by, relatively speaking, a more inefficient process. But one that creates more value. More wasteful in terms of resource usage given the valued outcome, but more valuable in the outcome! Schumpeter addressed this as ‘creative destruction’ (see ch. 7 of Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy), arguing that this process of discovery and creation will always beat a system that is ever maximized.

It is because there is slack/available resources that the open economy’s ‘essential element’ (entrepreneurship), through inefficient innovation and attempted value creation, creates immense value. All of those actions are future-oriented, as Menger stressed, whereas efficiency is about the management of that which was already established. One can only improve processes that already exist, and one cannot demand that something new is efficient from scratch. Consequently, efficiency necessarily leads us astray if our goal is increased standard of living and wellbeing, and saving humanity from poverty. Focusing on efficiency instead of value creation (and one cannot have both!), because it relies on historical rather than future value, also augments previous structures.

There is no saying that those owning capital in the past will be the ones creating value in the future. In fact, it is often the other way around: disruptions are brought about by small and seemingly insignificant players and innovators. But if our aim is efficiency, then whatever differences were will be augmented: those who already own existing production structures are those benefiting from making them more efficient/less costly. And the difference between capital owners and non-capital owners is thus strengthened. Not because of power or influence, though the State tends to provide them with that too, but because the past is not disrupted by new value creation. In this sense, efficiency should not be a goal, but should be avoided.

By Per Bylund,