All Commentary
Thursday, May 1, 1980

Book Review: Will Capitalism Survive? A Challenge by Paul Johnson with Twelve Responses edited by Ernest W. Lefever


(Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1211 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036) • 69 pages • $3.00 paperback

Few people know that we could fit 2½ Americas into the massive continent of Africa, but that wasn’t hard for me to believe after a three-month safari through many of its countries. And throughout this 1979 business travel, one phenomenon stood out boldly in almost every one of the countries I visited: the cities of the developing nations of Africa are crowded beyond anything imaginable to comfortable Americans. These cities grow by thousands each year, as people pour in from the jungles and outlands in search of employment and a better way of life. Instead of finding pots of gold, however, they invariably find poverty worse than they left behind, starvation, epidemics, massive unemployment—and crime.

Why aren’t these striving peoples finding the employment that one would expect to find in countries developing industries and international trade? That, too, was apparent. In almost every case, the development of a healthy, growing, free economy was held in check by a central government operating either out of raw fear or oppression by design. In the latter case, these central governments decry the “poisons of the West,” when many of them know only too well that with the inception of industrial capitalism in the 1780s, wealth, productivity, and the economic well-being of the individual has risen unlike any period in the history of mankind.

But, as the distinguished British historian Paul Johnson notes in this impressive little book, “most governments fear and resent” this never-ending one-way flow of people from countryside to city. Indeed at the very same time they view the free market system as a force, and a force that threatens the power of central governments. And yet, Johnson points out, “There are now literally scores of million-plus cities all over the Third World,” and many of these cities have become havens for individuals seeking to raise their standard of living and find greater freedom of choice (cities and city-states like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Mexico City, Istanbul come to mind), but only when the central governments agreed to let the market mechanism function unhampered by restrictive legislation or wealth-skimming policies of confiscation. After noting that short of evacuating these developing cities by force or terror, nothing will stem this human flood, Johnson observes: “There seems to be an almost irresistible urge in human beings to move away from the status society to contractual individualism, the central feature of industrial capitalism.”

Beginning with an eleven-page essay bearing the book’s title, the publishers have chosen to use what was presented by Johnson as a speech to Bermuda businessmen in 1978 as a springboard for responses from twelve other social figures whose views range from close support for the free market viewpoint to outright castigation of the free way of life. Every now and then there comes along a book in the freedom literature which actually does stimulate some hard thinking on the collectivist assaults on the free-market way of life. Will Capitalism Survive? is one of those books, and its 69 pages are veritably packed with provocative commentary designed to sharpen the skills of that natural aristocracy of mankind who believe in and practice a way of life which denies the omniscience of government guidance.

Mr. Johnson sees five principal threats to capitalism’s future: the intellectual challenge of collectivist-oriented universities and academies; an irrational passion-ridden ecological movement neglecting such crucial factors as social costs; the unchecked growth of “big government” and unionism; and the ever-present threat of Soviet encroachments wherever nations are poorly armed or inclined to accept Soviet overtures of “aid.”

Some of the respondents are thinkers of clarity: Berkeley’s Paul Sea-bury; First National Bank of Chicago’s (and National Review’s) Alan Reynolds; American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Novak; Hudson Institute’s Herman Kahn; and Congressman Jack Kemp. And indeed it must be said that many of their arguments are barbed attacks on some of Johnson’s points. (Johnson’s claim, for example, that the 1974 birth of the OPEC cartel spells the end to cheap energy in America is deftly refuted by Alan Reynolds.) But these differences of opinion merely serve to further clarify and refine the excellent points made by Paul Johnson in one of the most readable economic essays I’ve ever seen.

For decades The Freeman has articulately shown why it is that social improvement can begin only with the improvement undertaken by the individual—you and I—in our daily lives. The Ethics and Public Policy Center has rendered a fine service in this direction by offering a challenge and twelve responses which examine the need for the preservation of economic freedom, not least because only under a capitalist system can man maximize his own potential for achieving good, and hence that of his society.