Some people enjoy being dropped into the unforgiving wilderness with nothing but their courage and ingenuity to save them from the beasts and the elements.
But for similar reasons, I do enjoy the challenge of examining viewpoints that oppose mine. I've read terrorist manifestos and new age hokum. I've read Al Gore and Pat Robertson — at the same time. (Do not try this at home.)
So, armed only with an ink pen and a 5X3 memo book, I put on my critical thinking helmet and subjected myself to millionaire socialist Michael Moore's latest cinematic rant, CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY.
Depending on which news source you trust, Moore is either a brilliant filmmaker who speaks truth to the evil empire known as the United States or a dangerous master of propaganda whose magic spell converts sensible Americans into flag-burning commies. I had to see if this guy is really all he's hyped up to be.
What a letdown. I went in loaded for bear, but found only fish in a barrel.
Moore's film is a haphazard checklist of the usual left wing arguments against capitalism, but with one additional argument that may be the key to understanding just what this guy is really all about.
Now, you may think capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and the free exchange of goods and services. For Moore, however, capitalism is a catch-all word for everything he hates. If it's capitalism, he hates it, and if he hates it, he calls it "capitalism," even when it isn't.
Moore is rightfully outraged by the housing fiasco and the bank bailouts, but he wrongfully characterizes these problems as the results of "capitalism gone wild." Actually, they were the results of "capitalism gone away." The housing bubble was a result of government interference in the economy, something that isn't in capitalism's playbook. In a truly capitalist system, the Clinton and Bush administrations wouldn't have pressured and enticed banks to lower their lending standards. Without government backing to protect them from risk, banks wouldn't have made so many risky loans to people with poor credit, and homebuyers wouldn't have bought "more house" than they could afford If President Bush, President Obama, and the Democratic congress had followed capitalist principles, they never would have considered bailouts. In a capitalist system, the government neither props businesses up nor pushes them down. It stays out of the way and allows them to succeed or fail based on their ability or inability to produce goods and services efficiently.
There is a word for the government-business collusion that gave us the housing bubble and the bank bailouts: corporatism. If Moore had made a movie about the ill effects of corporatism and called it by its rightful name, supporters of capitalism would have cheered him as a newfound ally.
Moore likes to expose corruption and attribute it to capitalism. He tells of a Pennsylvania juvenile court judge who sentenced kids to a privately-run detention center in exchange for kickbacks. Condemnable? No doubt. But human corruptibility isn't the result of capitalism (or socialism either, for that matter). It is a timeless condition that predates both ideas. Cheating occurs in capitalist and socialist economies because economies are made up of people, some of them corrupt.
Since some people remain poor in capitalist economies, Moore concludes their poverty is a result of capitalism. But poverty isn't a "result" of anything. It is the natural state of the human race. Since we live in the United States, where even poor people own cars and televisions, it's easy to forget that poverty, not prosperity, is the norm for most people around the world. When pundits and politicians ask, "What causes poverty?" they're asking the wrong question. The right question is, "What causes prosperity?" It isn't hard to figure out. Just look at the countries listed in the Index of Economic Freedom and compare it to a list of countries with the highest GDPs per capita. Free (capitalist) countries tend to be prosperous, and vice versa.
No anti-capitalist tirade would be complete without a shot fired at capitalism's much-demonized engine, the profit motive. Moore interviews priests who call capitalism and profit evil and sinful. The purpose of any economic system is the allocation of resources. Should wood be used to produce houses or furniture? Toothpicks or newspapers? Millions of such questions have to be answered every day. The profit motive accomplishes this by enticing producers to find more efficient (less costly) ways to produce and deliver highly-demanded goods and services.
The alternative to the profit motive is central planning. A supposedly benevolent, all-knowing leader (Barack Obama? Nancy Pelosi? Michael Moore?) stands on the mountaintop and tells everyone what and how much to produce. The problem is that no one knows enough to plan an economy. It is far too complex a task. Centrally planned economies are notorious for having shortages of some goods and surpluses of others, the results of planners' miscalculations.
Moore comes dangerously close to being likeable when he talks about his most personal reason for opposing capitalism. He describes his Flint, Michigan childhood as an idyllic time when his father worked in the GM plant and was a union leader. To hear Moore describe it, it was suburban bliss.
Moore blames capitalism for allowing this way of life to die. Is it really possible that all of Moore's socialist ranting and America-bashing is just his maladaptive way of mourning his lost childhood? A Kremlin made of Kleenex?
Not that there's anything wrong with nostalgia. Heck, I record TEXAS COUNTRY REPORTER every week. I take off my critical thinking helmet and get all mushy and nostalgic with the old man who still repairs mechanical watches and the college student who has taken up blacksmithing as her hobby. Hmm, I wonder how turn-of-the-century blacksmiths felt about the auto industry that Moore gets all misty over? It's easy to forget that everything that is now old and charming was once new and threatening.
If it's stagnation you want, socialism will get you there. Why should anyone be innovative or take risks if he won't be allowed to keep any resulting profits? Capitalism allows — no, demands — innovation. With competitors constantly trying to out-innovate one another, none can afford to rest on his laurels.
Overall, I find it hard to believe that CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY could make a socialist of anyone who isn't already halfway there. I'll wager you could walk into a high school honors class and find a highly-intelligent-but-thoroughly-brainwashed student who could present a case for socialism that is more coherent and more compelling than Michael Moore's.