Dogma Premise # 39

 The advanced state of our current technology shows Capitalism's effectiveness in driving innovation and increasing the standard of living, which could not have been achieved under another system.

Proponents of capitalism frequently point to the rapid pace of technological innovation as evidence that capitalism provides great social benefits and a higher standard of living than any other economic system might. In its fiercer form, the assertion looks like this: Without capitalism, you wouldn't have modern comforts and conveniences like refrigerators, computers, and supermarkets. Dogma Premise 39 is therefore a powerful club wielded against those who would challenge capitalism.

There are enough real-life examples to make this Dogma Premise particularly appealing to Americans. In fact, ice cubes are considered a luxury item in parts of Europe. In fact, food and electricity are scarce in parts of Africa. In fact, a lower percentage of people drive cars in Asia. Dogma Premise 39 warns people that if they abandon capitalism, then they won't be able to have small luxuries like Starbucks any more.

A minor difficulty with this dogma premise is that even in the United States, many of the luxuries that the middle class take for granted are not available to the working class. So capitalism does not reliably deliver such technology and convenience to all citizens, only to some. But it is still fair to say that the average standard of living and the availability of technological innovation in the United States is higher than in other countries, which begs questions like these:

  • Is capitalism the reason for the advantage?

  • Could it have happened without capitalism?

  • Could we sustain our current standard of living without capitalism?

We certainly have seen great technological advantage since the advent of capitalism, but capitalism does not cause the acceleration of technological innovation. It is in the nature of technological advance to accelerate, simply because a single new technology my enable many more. For example, the development of fire enables many new technologies, including steam engines. The availability of steam engines enables many new technologies, including factories. The availability of factories enables many new technologies, including computer chips. The acceleration of technology development predates capitalism and does not depend on capitalism. Indeed, many societies have achieved significant advances in technology and standard of living without capitalism, including, of course, ancient Greece and ancient China.

In modern times, significant technology advances have also been pioneered by non-capitalist countries, including satellites, cell phones, renewable energy, electronics, and manufacturing.

The idea that capitalism is particularly good at innovation is is derived from Dogma Premises, such as:

If all these premises were true, then you could imagine how capitalism might be particularly good at delivering innovation and high living standards.

But of course they are not true, and the technological advances the occurred on capitalism's watch might just as well have occurred on someone else's watch.

This is obviously so because the great hotbeds of innovation in the United States have been in the military and academia, neither of which are profit-driven, and both of which are government subsidized. That's how we got the Internet and rocket science. In other words, the great innovations of our time have come not from corporations seeking profit, but from people pooling their resources via government and trying to solve specific problems for social reasons.

Capitalists frequently try to take the innovations generated by government and academia and commercialize them, or sometimes even co-opt the resource by providing university grants that essentially dedicate a public resource to private use. But the idea that capitalism is essential for innovation is absurd on its face.

Plato correctly realized over twenty centuries ago that necessity is the mother of invention, not capitalism. Capitalism elevates one need above the others -- the need for profit -- as the great motivator. But there are other needs, too, such as hunger, love, honor, or curiosity -- or simply the desire to avoid difficult tasks -- that may drive innovation in any type of economy. Capitalism has no particular claim, either in theory or in the historical record, to being superior at advancing society. To the extent that underdeveloped countries are impoverished and indebted to the United States, the difference may not be because those countries eschew capitalism but because they have been victimized by capitalism's exploitive and imperialistic proclivities. In that respect, poor countries outside the US are not a sign of capitalism's superiority any more than are poor citizens inside the US.

Any group of people, in any form of government, can decide to dedicate more of their resources to innovation, or more of their resources to improving the average standard of living, or more of their resources to enriching a monarchy, aristocracy, or other ruling elite.

Once the societal goal has been determined, perhaps by processes more democratic or more tyrannical, some system of incentive may be devised in an attempt to maximize progress toward the goal. Perhaps the majority of the population are enslaved and beaten if they do not work as directed. Or perhaps they are motivated by a dangling carrot of potential affluence and a threatening stick of impoverishment, starvation, and homelessness (as in capitalism). Or perhaps they are motivated by civic norms that create expectations that everyone will serve the common good, and that expressions of greed are shameful, and that the greatest honor is awarded to those who most improve the standard of living for everyone.

That last option is unthinkable by people committed to the Dogma Premises of individualism (that people are intrinsically selfish, that they will not participate in group efforts, that group projects cannot be trusted). However, once we listen to our own psychologists of human motivation, who explain why people do what they do, all kinds of possibilities become apparent. The time and energy that people devote to art and hobbies by itself should indicate that there is more to human motivation than profit alone. Indeed, the "Human Resources" departments at all corporations busy themselves teaching their managers how to motivate employees without paying them more. According to a McKinsey study, praise, attention, and opportunities to lead and learn are more effective than raises, bonuses, or stock options in motivating employee behavior.

The same dynamics might be applied to generating advances in both technology and standard of living. Capitalism has nothing to do with it.

Dogma Premise 40

All Dogma Premises