Economics

The rich keep getting richer… and they’re not the only ones

Capitalism helps everyone. That might be hard to believe right now, with the worldwide economy in the doldrums, and with many fingering capitalism as the culprit. But before we jump on the anti-capitalist bandwagon, and before we ask the government to take over larger areas of the economy, it would be a good idea to look back and get a proper understanding of the good capitalism has done.

The fact is, capitalism is responsible for lifting billions of people out of poverty and creating improved standards of living that previous generations couldn’t have dreamed of. Swedish scholar Johan Norberg has written a brief overview of this phenomenon in The Wealth of Generations: Capitalism and the Belief in the Future.

Marx got it half right

It’s likely that Karl Marx, the originator of Marxism, developed the sharpest anti-capitalist theory. According to Norberg, Marx believed “that capitalism would make the rich richer and the poor poorer.” If someone was making money in a free market situation, it must be at the expense of someone else. That is, somebody was losing money if another was gaining money. Thus over time the upper class would accumulate more wealth at the expense of the middle class and lower class. The middle class would be pushed into the lower class, and the original lower class would basically starve.

Marx made this prediction during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Despite its undeserved bad reputation, the Industrial Revolution resulted in a dramatic rise in living standards. “When Marx died in 1883, the average Englishman was three times richer than he was when Marx was born, in 1818.”

Since that time capitalism has continued to raise living standards to the point that “the poor in Western societies today live longer, with better access to goods and technologies, and with bigger opportunities than the kings in Marx’s days.”

Lenin got it all wrong

Marx’s original theory was obviously a failure; standards of living rose rapidly for all classes due to capitalism. So Marx’s disciple, and Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin had to rework the theory to explain how workers in Western countries were doing so well economically.

Lenin argued that the capitalist class of the Western countries looted the poor, undeveloped countries, and gave a portion of the loot to the workers in their own countries. The rich countries were made richer because the poor countries were made poorer. Quite simply, the rich countries took the wealth of the poor countries.

But like Marx’s theory, Lenin’s theory contradicts the facts. As Norberg explains, the problem with Lenin’s view is:

“all continents became wealthier, albeit at different speeds. Sure, the average Western European or American is 19 times richer than in 1820, but a Latin American is 9 times richer, an Asian 6 times richer, and an African about 3 times richer. So from whom was the wealth stolen?”

Capitalism benefits every class, every sector of society, and not just one special group or certain exploitive nations. In fact, Norberg describes the success of capitalism in alleviating poverty in the last three decades or so as “the greatest untold story ever.”

As Norberg writes, the proportion in absolute poverty in developing countries has been reduced from:

“40 to 21% since 1981. Almost 400 million people have left poverty – the biggest poverty reduction in mankind’s history. In the last 30 years chronic hunger has been halved, and so has the extent of child labor. Since 1950 illiteracy has been reduced from 70 to 23% and infant mortality has been reduced by two-thirds.”

This has occurred during a period where many countries around the world have shifted away from socialism and socialistic policies towards capitalism and free market policies.

Using creativity to create wealth

It’s common to think of creative people as being writers, painters, musicians, and others in the fine arts. But some of the most creative people in the world are entrepreneurs. These are people who use their creative abilities to provide products and services in new and innovative ways. By doing so they create new jobs for countless people and generate wealth where previously none existed. Capitalism allows the greatest freedom and opportunities to people whose creative talents are in the economic sphere. This is a key reason (perhaps the key reason) for the success of capitalism.

A thriving economy requires entrepreneurs but socialism stifles and punishes entrepreneurs. Generally speaking, socialists consider businessmen to be the exploiters of workers, therefore these “exploiters” must be heavily regulated and controlled.

Capitalism, on the other hand, unleashes the creative powers of entrepreneurial businessmen, and thus becomes a driving force for generating new wealth and economic development. As economic history clearly demonstrates, capitalism is the only system that leads to prosperity. Yes, the rich do get richer under capitalism but so do the poor!

Dr. Michael Wagner is the author many books, and is a regular contributor to Reformed Perspective. This article first appeared in the January 2009 issue under the title “The rich keep getting richer…and that’s a good thing!”

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