Get Invoved with WCTM:

Progress and Capitalism

As General Electric often said, “Progress Is Our Most Important Product.” Some may dispute it, but I believe that capitalism has been the most important engine of economic “progress” in the past 500 years. Capitalism and free markets created our modern lifestyle – refrigerators, amazing health care, automobiles, social media and so forth – and none would exist if innovators had not repeatedly ventured into the unknown. Their motives were often capitalist self-centered and followed the mantra “Greed is good” – that acquiring wealth is a primary goal of a successful life – but their work helped us all. The great ones – Christopher Columbus, Henry Ford,Thomas Edison, Bill Gates and so many others – changed the world by restlessly jumping outside the known and pushing. They and their Western, capitalistic homelands made fast economic and lifestyle “progress” while, for instance, the Chinese stayed, until recent decades, mostly within the technology and political organization that had served them for millennia.

What caused Western countries to leap ahead and become so dominant that 19th century England could say “The sun never sets on the British Empire” while European languages and technology ruled in the Americas and in much of Asia and Africa? My answer: the competition that is inherent in capitalism. Europeans and their societies were not content with what they had, and they took risks striving and fighting for more. Capitalism’s motto can be stated simply as “More” – which is produced by innovation, organization and competition. The process was that after about A.D. 1400 backward, small-population European societies worked to expand knowledge, and to use it for new technologies, while the rest of the world moved more slowly. Europeans caused huge amounts of pain with their new weapons and organization as they competed with each other to colonized other peoples around the world and to divide conquered markets and resources. The pain came both to Europeans in wars against each other, and certainly to the conquered “natives” as Europeans exploited them.

So life is not always “fair.” But who among us would want to live as Native Americas did before Columbus and later European intruders brought contagious diseases, steel tools and weapons, and then antibiotics and mechanized agriculture? Most of us would choose the longer, more comfortable life that European capitalism has given to the world, even though we know that producing our capitalistic world has created and continues to create losers. Lenin in support of a different system said, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” On the other side, our blog has raised the possibility that Homo sapiens just may be nearing the end of the 150,000 years where there were always new technical and geographic frontiers whose exploitation could improve human lives and support increasing populations. Americans need to question their implicit no-limits environmental assumptions more aggressively, for our high-consumption economy has disproportionately caused looming world climate change crises, and we have much to lose.

In the very long term we know that infinite economic and population growth is not doable on a finite Earth, but that is an “inconvenient truth” most of us will continue to ignore. When and if we think about it, we may decide that new fruits of human imagination and technology will likely support our civilization and its populations at least through our children’s lifetimes. In the meanwhile we work and wait impatiently for effective solutions to human-caused climate change, and to other land, air and ocean deteriorations triggered by expanding Gross World Product and fed by endemic short-term vision of government leaders.


Comments are closed.

Subscribe to Newsletter