I must admit that I am frustrated. A little self examination would likely reveal that my frustration is leading me to overgeneralize and magnify problems. Still, even in my calmer, more objective moments the problem does not go away, so I think it is real. I will leave it up to any readers of this post and to my further reflection to judge how severe the problem is.
Capitalism is fine. Really…I think it is. But not as a worldview. Our nation seems to have bought into the Darwinian, “survival of the fittest,” “nature red in tooth and claw” view of capitalism with a vengeance. The overvalued view of “success” as acquisition of money, possessions, and power has squeezed out of our society values such as community, compassion, beauty, universal rights, and intrinsic human value. Society idolizes those who are strong enough to overcome those around them, rich enough to indulge their every desire, and powerful enough to command those “under” them to do their will. They imagine their heroes to be constantly happy and aspire to be like them in their bland euphoria. They see people around them as merely tools by which they can achieve their happiness. There are herds of customers to provide them money for their work. There are shelves full of workers to be inserted into jobs, used up, and be replaced when used beyond their limits. Customers and workers are a dime a dozen. They are valuable as groups but not as individuals. If I can induce (by hook or by crook) a customer to spend more money on my products or a worker to work harder for longer hours, then good for me. The really valuable people are my fellow entrepreneurs. They are valuable because they are the only ones really playing the capitalist game. I sharpen my teeth on their competition. I see my value reflected in my market share and the number of my opponents I vanquish.
And government has been induced to play the game as well. “What’s good for GM is good for America.” “The business of America is business.” Really? I thought it was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Capitalism should be managed to achieve these goals. It too often seems that these goals have been harnessed to propel capitalism. We see this as business interests get louder voices in our government while personal interests are ignored. Not totally, no. The court system seems to be the last bastion of personal liberty (for now), but even there the question is often asked about how protection of personal liberty is going to affect business, commerce, or personal fortune. It’s as if personal rights are tolerable as long as they don’t inconvenience the economy.
As a psychiatrist, I treat all kinds of people. The most frustrating to me, however, are those who suffer from illnesses that are magnified by the conflicting interests of a capitalist worldview — my disabled patients who are improving and are able to start resuming their jobs are told that they have to start at full time, full duties or they will not be allowed back; my depressed and anxious patients are put on swing shifts, made to work long hours, and are supervised by demanding, inflexible “superiors.” Our society treats them as disposable or replaceable parts in the engine of industry. If they can be repaired cheaply enough, they will be used. If they break, they can easily be replaced. If they don’t like their lot in life, they should have become entrepreneurs. Regardless, it the manager’s duty to wring out as much efficiency as he can from them for the good of the business. It’s only right that workers suffer for their “bad” choices. The invisible hand of the market has chosen, and they have lost. The owners’ interests are the ones that matter. His religion and his values will dictate what opportunities his employees have. They come to me thinking they are “sick” and can be healed. I wonder, “Is there any treatment (short of lobotomy) that could make a patient happy or content in such situations?” My answer is often, “No.”
I often wonder wistfully about what our nation would be like if individual liberty (independent of wealth) had remained our goal. I am certain that capitalism would have remained our economic model, but what if capitalism served life (not simply survival), liberty (not merely consumer choices), and the pursuit of (real) happiness? What if the “captains of industry” took the health and welfare of their individual employees as their chief good? What if the votes of the workers counted more than the interests of the stockholders and boards of directors? What would happen in our society if people meant more and money meant less? How would we work? How would we govern? How would be take care of the sick, weak, and poor?