December 27th, 2016 // 7:50 am @ Oliver DeMille
Part II: The Central Issue of the Trump Era*
“The median [U.S.] family debt went from an average
of $25,000 per family in 1989 to over $70,000 in 2010.
It’s getting harder to make ends meet,
and harder to stay financially afloat.”
—The 5 S’s of Money (citing the Center for American Progress)
LET’S get straight to the point. The biggest battle in the Trump Era probably won’t be capitalism versus socialism. It will be free enterprise versus crony capitalism. For America’s future, free enterprise simply must win.
But crony capitalism is far ahead in this battle right now.
To understand this, we need to define some terms. There are two major types of economies: market economies and command economies. The first is based on freedom, the second on force.
Within these two branches there are a number of subtypes, including various kinds of command economies such as socialism, communism, fascism, collectivism and different applications of economic authoritarianism and totalitarianism.
The divisions of market-style economies are sometimes more confusing to people from free societies, because most of us have been trained to evaluate political and economic issues in binary mode where we narrow any debate down to only two sides—such as liberal vs. conservative, socialist vs. capitalist, democratic vs. totalitarian, good or evil, Allies or Axis, believers and atheists, idealists and realists, free or not free, and so on.
That said, we live in an era where the various types of market economics are now in conflict. During the Cold War the world was divided between two great camps, with market economies of all types firmly allied against the command economies–the NATO nations of the West versus the Soviet Bloc and world communism.
But after the Cold War (and especially in the post-9/11 world), this has dramatically changed. There are forces supporting each of the various types of market economies, and these are often pitted against each other in ways unthinkable before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Differentiating between these sub-types is important for anyone who wants to accurately understand what is happening in today’s world. When people use the term “capitalism,” they may be referring to any of the following five types of market economies. And the truth is that each of these models has drastically different goals and processes:
- Mercantilism: A system where the law allows market forces but gives preference and special benefits to the sector of the economy owned (or directly controlled) by the government. Also known as “state capitalism.” This system was historically used by the British Empire. As Parag Khanna put it in 2016: “…all countries practice some form of ‘state capitalism’ today, whether subsidizing strategic industries, restricting investments in key sectors, or mandating financial institutions to invest more at home.” (Khanna, 2016, Connectography, 33)
- Corporatism: A system where the law encourages market forces and also gives preference and special benefits to the sector of the economy owned by big corporations within the nation, sometimes referred to often as “Big Business,” “The Military-Industrial Complex,” or simply “The Establishment.”
- Keynesianism: A system where the law allows market forces but gives preference and special benefits to companies and institutions that are so big that they tend to care more about their public image for societal responsibility and promoting social justice than about profit(s), market share or stock value. According to Keynes himself, Keynesianism seeks the goals of socialism through market means.
- Capitalism (crony capitalism): A system where the law encourages market forces and also gives preference and special benefits to the sector of the economy owned by big capital—including big corporations like in Corporatism, but also wealthy foreign and multinational corporations, and highly influential non-corporate institutions such as rich foundations, moneyed trusts, political parties, well-funded lobbies and special interest groups, affluent non-profit entities, wealthy families, moneyed foreign investors, and others with large amounts of capital. Under this system, the rich rule society, and they naturally influence government to maintain policies that benefit the rich more than others.
- Free Enterprise: A system where the law encourages market forces and gives no special preferences; it protects equal rights for all individuals and entities and leaves initiative and enterprise to private individuals, groups, businesses and organizations that are all treated equally and with minimal legislation by the legal code.
All five of these sub-types are market-based, and sometimes called “free market” or simply “market economy” systems. But please carefully re-read the differences between these five economic models, because, again – while they are all market systems, they differ drastically in theory and practice.
For the last three generations, these five types of market economics have frequently been lumped together under the label of “capitalism.” While this is technically inaccurate—because capitalism is a sub-type rather than the whole of market economics—this is the way the word “capitalism” has been used and understood by most people.
Under this popular definition, capitalism is synonymous with “market economics” and is a label for the entire free-market model. But even when people use this broader definition, it is important to distinguish which of the five types is being discussed—because the future of freedom under capitalism, corporatism or mercantilism will be a very different reality than it would be under true free enterprise.
So, to summarize, we have five definitions of “capitalism” in the current usage, and another definition which uses “capitalism” to refer to all the five types together. Naturally, these definitions are frequently confused in our contemporary language. Note that even the broader definition of “capitalism” includes every market approach from corporatism and Keynesianism to mercantilism and crony capitalism. In all of this, free enterprise is often forgotten.
Even worse, in the realm of modern politics all five of these systems are frequently lumped together and referred to as “democracy” or simply “freedom.” While this is a partially accurate definition, it confuses the fact that these five kinds of systems behave very differently and offer different results to society.
Madison Weighs In
Understanding the details and nuances of how these words are used is extremely important to maintain freedom. The American founders dealt with several similar language challenges, such as when Madison felt the need to write Federalist Papers 10 and 14 explaining the important differences between democracies and republics.
He also used papers 18, 19 and 20 to clarify the differences between federations and confederations, as well as national and federal governments. Without such clarity, the Constitution would have been confusing to many Americans who were deciding whether or not to ratify it. The fact that today most Americans don’t understand these differences illustrates how far we have devolved from the level of education exemplified by the founding generation.
There are numerous similar examples, and part of being a free people is taking the time to understand the nuances of economic and political freedom and the language of liberty. No nation in history has long maintained freedom at a level deeper than that understood by the regular citizens in the society. And note that few things are more essential for free people than clearly understanding what type of economic system they want.
Based on the definitions above, consider the following three observations:
- All five types of market economies are better (meaning they have more freedom, opportunity and prosperity for more people) than all types of command economies.
Even the market approaches with the least freedom (Keynesianism and mercantilism) are significantly better than the command systems with the most freedom (collectivism and socialism).
- Still, when comparing the five subtypes of market economies, free enterprise is significantly better (with more freedom, opportunity and prosperity for more people) than mercantilism, corporatism, crony capitalism, and/or Keynesianism.
- The United States, Canada, Britain, France, Switzerland, Japan and other leading free nations of the world today have far too much mercantilism, corporatism, crony capitalism, and Keynesianism—and not enough free enterprise.
This is surprising to most citizens of America and the free world. For example, many conservatives in the United States argue that we are a “capitalist” nation or vote for the “capitalist” candidate and conclude that all is well, when in fact free enterprise is under attack from socialism but also just as strongly from mercantilists, corporatists, Keynesians and crony capitalists.
Voters and citizens must know what to look for when a policy or candidate claims to promote “capitalism.”
Real Life Differences
Some might argue that most of this is mere theory, and that the United States today is a free enterprise society rather than a crony capitalist system as outlined here. Such an assumption is incorrect. The U.S. commercial code has numerous laws which are written specifically to treat people differently based on their wealth—and extending special benefits to those with more capital.
For example, it is illegal for those with less than a certain amount of wealth to be offered many of the best investment opportunities. Only those with a high net worth (the amount is set by law) are able to invest in such offerings. This is capitalism, not free enterprise. Under free enterprise, the law would be the same for all people.
Also, in many cities employees of the wealthy are allowed special legal benefits—such as carrying firearms (personally or through body guards), operating under false names, or traveling with different security measures—that are withheld from the regular citizens. However a person feels about gun laws or financial policies, such laws specifically treat the rich and powerful differently than the rest. Crony capitalism gives them special benefits.
This bears repeating: The laws of the United States stipulate that if you have more money you can invest in business opportunities that people with less money cannot (to study this in more depth, see the terms “sophisticated investor,” “accredited investor,” and SEC regulations on private investment offerings). The specific amounts and details are changed by law over time, but we are absolutely a crony capitalist nation where the laws give higher benefits to the rich.
In fact, many of these laws, including all the examples above, specifically benefit the wealthy to the detriment of wage earners. Regular working people are excluded by law from the best investments and various other perks and benefits. This system is called capitalism, and it is a bad system—better than socialism or communism, to be sure, but not nearly as good as free enterprise.
With all this said, the amazing thing is that this reality is basically ignored by almost everyone, mainly because those who point out the flaws of capitalism tend to be promoting socialistic solutions rather than free enterprise.
As a result, people are accustomed to attacks on the rich by those who want bigger government. But almost nobody has experienced those who want more free enterprise and much smaller government pointing out that the rich have terribly unfair legal advantages in our society—and that this is a bad system.
In fact, this is so deeply ingrained in most people that when they hear anyone criticizing the unfair benefits enjoyed by the rich, they seldom believe that the speaker is making a case for smaller, limited government and less socialism. We are so conditioned, that this possibility just does not compute.
Some may say that I am overstating this point. “Of course the rich and powerful are treated differently than the rest. After all, they are rich and powerful!” While this may be true, such a view is itself a symptom of aristocratic society with preferential class divisions. And in nations where the laws and government treat the rich and powerful differently, freedom is always in decline.
In free enterprise systems, the law allows all people to take part in any investments. If there are laws about bodyguards, firearms, using false names, or anything else, they are the same for every single citizen in the nation. This is what free enterprise means, because such a system gives everyone truly equal opportunities. In a system where Congress creates one set of laws for some, and different laws for those with wealth, status, or position, free enterprise isn’t allowed to give people the full benefit it should.
Indeed, in our system, Congress goes so far as to exempt its own members from certain laws and guidelines; this is especially harmful when members of Congress are allowed special financial opportunities that other people are not. Thus it isn’t surprising to see people elected to Congress and within a few terms become extremely wealthy, even though their actual salary could never generate such prosperity. They are allowed (by their own votes in Congress) to make deals that are illegal for regular people. This is crony capitalism, not free enterprise.
The Local Test
Another way to test the level of free enterprise in your society it to start a business in your local area. In fact, start two. Let the local zoning commissions, city council and other regulating agencies know that you are starting a business, that it will employ you and two additional employees, and then keep track of what fees you must pay and how many hoops you must jump through to gain the needed approvals.
At the same time, have your agent announce to the same government officials that a separate company, a big corporation, is bringing in a large enterprise that will employ 4,000 people—all of whom will pay taxes to the local area and bring growth and prestige. (Don’t really announce this—because if it’s untrue you might be breaking the law, unlike big corporations that are allowed to routinely float such trial balloons.)
Then simply sit back and watch how the two businesses are treated. In most towns, counties and cities in the United States, the small business will face an amazing amount of red tape, meetings, filings and obstacles—the big business will likely be courted and given waivers, benefits and government-funded publicity.
Add up the cost to government of both of your proposed businesses, and two things will likely surprise you: 1) how much you will have to do to set up a small business, and 2) how much the government will be willing to spend to recruit the large business.
This is the natural model in a crony capitalist system. Capital gets special benefits and a different level of treatment by the government. The result in such a system is that the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, entrepreneurialism is discouraged, and many jobs, innovation, investments and growth move to other nations.
In contrast, under free enterprise, everyone is treated the same by the law. Free enterprise is a better system than capitalism—it provides more freedom, opportunity and prosperity to many more people.
Bait and Switch
All of this is more than a mere philosophical or semantic argument about which word we should use. The truth is that many people, probably most people, who feel positively about capitalism actually mean free enterprise when they say “capitalism.” The things they admire about “capitalism” aren’t special benefits to the rich and different laws for the rich versus the poor or middle class, but rather a true free market where everyone is treated equally by the law and where each person has true and equal freedom of opportunity.
The problem is that this definition of capitalism seldom makes its way into official government policies or the law. People support free enterprise, which they call “capitalism,” and the government implements public policy that is certainly capitalism (because it favors those with more capital) but violates the principles of free enterprise. This “bait and switch” is one of the main problems with using the term capitalism.
If by capitalism we mean true economic freedom and laws that treat everyone the same, regardless of their level of wealth, and if this thing we call capitalism made it into our laws and became our operational policies, I would ardently support it. In fact, I would support such a system whether we called it free enterprise, capitalism, or even zebra- or giraffe-ism. The system, not the label, is the important thing.
The problem occurs when people support a thing called “capitalism” because they believe it is free economics for all, and then those in power take this popular support and use it to enforce something very different. This is the current reality, and it is hurting the middle and lower classes by decreasing their opportunities and abilities to prosper. Again, most people don’t even realize this is happening to them.
Freedom for All
In short, call it what you will, but we need a system of truly free economics with laws that treat everyone the same. Words mean things, and the word “capitalism” emphasizes special benefits to the wealthy with capital just as naturally as the phrase free enterprise promotes freedom and enterprise for all. Still, it is the actual system that matters, and all of us would do well to carefully observe political and economic details and nuances—regardless of how things are labeled.
When the laws are altered at all levels so that government entities treat all businesses and individuals the same, regardless of how much capital they have (or don’t have) in the bank or as assets, the natural result is the spread of more business, innovation, entrepreneurialism, jobs and economic growth. Free enterprise, not government favoritism of any sort, is the most effective economic model.
If we want to call the future of our society by the name capitalism, fine. But we must find ways to effectively change the current model to a system where the law treats everyone the same by maintaining true freedom and opportunity for everyone—without special government benefits for a few elites.
It is important to recognize that this is about more than quibbling over what word to use. As long as our society gives special legal and financial benefits to elites, while withholding them from the rest of the people, freedom will continue to decrease and the gap between the 1 percent, and even the .01 percent, and the rest will keep expanding. For the typical family, this means they will have to work longer and harder in increasingly scarce jobs in order to earn less and less. This is a bad economic model—bad economically, and bad for freedom and society.
Today’s Major Challenge
To put this all in perspective, the Trump Era is on target to emphasize mercantilism, corporatism, Keynesianism, and especially crony capitalism.
This needs to change. We need to focus on free enterprise.
But first, people need to realize that this is even an issue. The truth is, the battle between free enterprise and other types of capitalism isn’t just an issue right now—it is the central issue of the Trump Era.
We need to start acting like it.
*(Note to Reader: This post is part of an upcoming new book by Oliver DeMille, entitled Free Enterprise versus Capitalism: Battle for the Future of Freedom.)