As an economic system to create wealth, capitalism has proven enormously successful. It promotes efficiency, rewards diligence and innovation, spurs improvement and produces benefit for many. Indeed, capitalism is a key driver to the rise of this great nation.
Capitalism consists of a complex set of checks and balances in perpetual motion, changing and adapting to circumstances. Each part must be given its due, yet all parts must be continually tested and scrutinized to ensure sustainability. Like any system, capitalism has inherent flaws that, left unchecked, can lead to adverse consequences.
While many Americans revere capitalism as unassailable, we must acknowledge capitalism’s darker side. In its worst form, it is no better than the ugliest manifestations of authoritarianism, communism, socialism, the church-state or anarchy. Americans are reluctant to point out capitalism’s ugly side for what it is, but ignoring systemic flaws that plague our economic system and society does not make them go away. On the contrary, capitalism’s most damaging elements thrive best when left unbridled. The trend is indisputable: Fewer people own more of the overall wealth, and fewer companies own more market share.
Wealth — and its counterpart, power — are increasingly being concentrated into the hands of few. While that may be good for the few, it is by no means good for the whole. Not only is inequity undesirable from an ethical standpoint, it is also undesirable from a practical perspective. For example, the social upheaval and growing violence we see in race relations today is not merely about race; it’s about the hopelessness, despair and anger that accompany inequality. This upheaval will not go away until there is a genuine movement toward equality.
World history is a tale of wealth and power building upon itself, marching inexorably toward corruption, domination and oppression. Unfortunately, history has shown that breaking the stranglehold of concentrated wealth and power is only achieved at a staggering cost: warfare, violence, bloodshed, political collapse, revolution and natural disaster. Redistribution of wealth and power, a “leveling of the playing field,” does not happen naturally. And, discouragingly, well-intentioned efforts to legislate redistribution of wealth and power generally fall short.
A reasonable approach is to shepherd capitalism, so it provides the best possible benefit for the greatest number of people. This approach is not perfect nor ideal, but it is realistic. Most importantly, we must continue to strive for a better outcome for more of us.
Inequity is growing at an accelerated, exponential rate, with no end in sight. This astonishing explosion of inequity is leading our nation to the same ultimate outcome experienced by other countries who have adopted different political systems, most of which systems we Americans disparage with contempt. Some symptoms? Power vested in the hands of few people, lying and corrupt leaders, mistrust of the government, disregard for the rule of law, lack of confidence in the electoral process, lack of respect from other nations, poverty, mockery and scorn toward people and points of view different than our own, and lack of compassion for the vulnerable and weak among us. This sounds like a checklist ascribed to a corrupt third world nation, but these symptoms are unfolding before our eyes today in this country.
The ugly side of capitalism is increasingly becoming an intractable part of our economic reality, causing destabilization, anger and hopelessness. Furthermore, in bizarre and disturbing fashion, many people champion this ugliness as a model for the American ideal, promoting selfish interest above public interest, valuing win-lose relationships and outcomes, exploiting the vulnerable, lauding “survival of the fittest” as virtuous, and doing whatever it takes to win, even at the expense of decency and unity.
We must pause and recognize the dangerous direction in which we are headed. We must move our country to a higher, more united place. We must channel the strength of capitalism so it can provide greater opportunity for more people. We must not turn a blind eye to an economic system that perpetuates the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a few at the expense of the masses, which is exactly what is happening.
Ben Driggs earned a master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He owns a financial advisory practice in Salt Lake City.