All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1982

Capitalism: Hero or Culprit?

Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant. He returned corrected galleys of this article a few days before his death on October 17, 1982, in Ocala, Florida.

Picture in your mind a large, gross man, with a huge paunch, heavy jowls, wicked, pig- like eyes, and a scowling face. Clothe him in gaudy but expensive garments, decorate his vest with dollar symbols, and drape it with an elaborate gold watch-chain. Let him hold an over-size cigar in a bejeweled left hand, and put a bullwhip in the other.

If you want to add a really effective touch, let him be standing with one foot on the neck of a prostrate widow in front of the house from which he has just evicted her; and let her ragged children be standing by, weeping and wringing their emaciated little hands.

I think I need hardly emphasize that I have just taken you for a brief excursion into a scene out of the past—a picture that is rarely invoked in these times, but is not so distant in time as to have lost much of its effect on the mind and heart of those who once saw it. For many years that was the classical leftist concept of “the Capitalist,” as represented by thousands of cartoons, and as portrayed by anti-capitalistic artists, orators and writers.

And while it has now gone out of fashion as a newspaper stereotype, and while leftist speakers are less blatant in their portrayals, the impression created by that old smear technique lingers in the minds of many. To them “capitalism” is still a kind of dirty word, and the capitalist is generally a reprehensible, if not a monstrous, character.

So . . . let’s spend a little time examining some of our pet monsters.

Take capitalism. Is it an economic culprit or a social hero? Good question—and I hasten to answer, with stentorian emphasis—neither!

To be a hero or a culprit; to be innocent or guilty; to be noble or base;—this requires the attributes of person and personality. And capitalism has neither.

It is a device, a socio-economic mechanism. It has no traits of character, good or bad. It is not capable of either guilt or innocence. It is an impersonal piece of economic machinery that men have devised and developed, to help them in the constantly changing, ever evolving process of producing and exchanging goods and services.

Managed by Human Beings

If you want to say that there are bad capitalists—that there are selfish, stupid, avaricious, short- sighted, anti-social men engaged in capitalistic enterprise—you will get no argument from me. Indeed, out of my own experience I could supply you with some derogatory adjectives that may not have occurred to you!

But that is just another way of saying that capitalistic enterprise is managed by human beings. Such characters are not bad, selfish, stupid, avaricious and so forth because they are capitalists, but because they are men. They would display precisely the same objectionable traits under socialism or communism—would, and do; for the law courts of the socialistic countries are heavily docketed with both civil and criminal cases. As for communism, in the Russian Paradise itself the controlled press used to inveigh constantly against the “criminals” who are sabotaging industrial or agricultural production. The alleged crime there is to divert materials from government factories and convert them into luxury items for sale on the black market.

Within a decade after Khrushchev decided to impose the death penalty for such offenses, 163 violators were executed by firing squads. And it was soon discovered that people (supposedly good communists) were setting up a secret knitting operation to turn out sweaters and shirts. The yarns and raw wool were, of course, stolen from government warehouses, and the promoters netted the ruble equivalent of over three million dollars in about four years time. The leader and three others were sentenced to be shot, and the others to long terms in prison.

In passing, we might note here that nothing better illustrates the difference between capitalism and communism than what I have just related. I do not mean the circumstance of applying the death penalty for a civil offense. I mean the fact that capitalism is an economic system, operating under government and law, whereas communism is the government and the law, to which every commercial and industrial process must be subordinate and subservient.

The Development of the American Business System

The thing that has emerged as the American Business System—or as American Capitalism (for practically all businesses, even very small ones, are operated on accumulated capita])—this thing we call American Business is an evolution, with values added as the years have passed, and with further changes and evolution yet to be made, no doubt, as our economy develops and our needs expand. I suppose the best evidence of its utility and permanence is that it has survived and developed during nearly two centuries of trial and error.

The whole experience of man, of course, has been a struggle, a groping upward. His primary physical need, aside from biologic demands, was for food, clothing and shelter. Later, comforts, conveniences and luxuries were added. To provide this in all its ramifications, man developed a set of mechanisms—trade, transportation, markets, money, credit. Of first importance among these was trade, the great civilizer.

Some years ago I wrote and published a little book of verse that I called “Heritage.” It was my effort to express in metrical measures something of the physical, moral, religious and political legacies that have come down to us from the past. Well, leaving aside its poetic measures, let me summarize here the guess I made in it as to the real origin of the thing we call trade.

One day a hairy hunter staggered home to his cave, under the weight of a small venison—happy to have provided some food for his cave and its inmates, but distraught because, in killing the deer with a well-aimed arrow, he had broken his last flint head, and must now spend a lot of time and effort to find and fashion another to replace it.

His neighbor, however, had a different kind of problem to worry about. With all the instincts and needs of a good hunter, he was however, lame from a broken hip, and could not go afield to hunt big game. Instead, he had to content himself with wild fruit, and with easily-caught small fish, for food. This handicap, however, allowed him plenty of time to sit before his cave and chip pieces of rock into flint-heads—an occupation at which he had become rather expert. As his hunter friend drew near, he had several such flints all shaped and ready to become spear or arrow points. But . . . he had no food; and he was hungry!

And then, suddenly:

The thought elusive that had burned
      With smoking smudge, remote and dull,
      Within each thick and troubled skull
Burst forth at last in vocal flame.
Each gave a start, and then a shout
Of wonderment; and each held out,
The one his flint, the one his game,
And thus a mighty force was sired.
Man’s life would never be the same,
Each gave the thing he least required,
And gained the thing he most desired!

The Process of Exchange

Well . . . in some such fashion the principle of trade was discovered, and a first long step was taken toward civilization. For that (or some experience like it) was the beginning of specialization, which was the convenience under which individuals no longer had to supply with their own hands all they needed, but each could specialize in what he did best, easiest, and with most pleasure. This gave to those who wanted it freedom for leisure; and with leisure, even a little of it, came time to wonder, to think, to dream, to question, to doubt, to create—in short, to begin to be civilized.

That was trade—exchange; and it is still at the heart of business. It has almost infinite ramifications—finances, credit, production, distribution, salesmanship, advertising, competition, legal observances and restrictions,—but it comes down finally to an exchange between two ‘people.

The two cave men of my little poetic fable stood face to face. In modern commerce the original producer and ultimate consumer almost never see each other. A score, maybe a hundred, intermediaries may stand between them. But the principle and the results are the same.

Namely, Mr. A has produced something far in excess of his need for that particular thing. He receives tokens for the time and skill he has expended in producing the thing. These tokens are called money. Another man, Mr. B, has done the same thing with some other product. On the open market each exchanges his tokens—his money—for what he needs of the other’s product,—and so do millions of others,—with some grumbling, some cheating, some chiseling going on, no doubt; but with general satisfaction, benefit and convenience to all concerned.

Some years ago I saw this graphically illustrated. A television commercial was extolling the superior grade of cotton in a product being advertised. It showed two men in a raw cotton wareroom—a seller and a buyer. Many samples of cotton were spread out on tables—handfuls of lint that had been pulled from bales in a distant warehouse, each sample tagged by number to its far-away parent bale.

The seller demonstrated the quality of the various samples—long staple, freedom from dirt, etc. After some haggling back and forth as to price and number of bales available, the buyer said okay—and the deal was closed. And as the scene closed, I remarked to my wife, who happened to be with me, “Multiply what we have just seen by a thousand, and you have that mysterious thing called the cotton market.”

Back of each of those men was a small army—farmers, truckers, weighers, graders, ginners, compress men, railroaders, weavers, spinners, salesmen—and hundreds more. But the whole business was built around the point where two men strike a bargain for X bales of cotton.

That is trade; that is business; and that, in these modern times, is capitalism. Business is more than a store, or an office, or a bank, or a stock exchange. It is the whole, vast, infinitely complicated yet essentially simple matter of exchanging the excess goods and services provided by a million John Does, for the similar excess of other goods and services produced by a million Richard Roes—to the benefit of all.

Finally, it is summed up in a couplet from my little poetic analysis:

Each gave the thing he least required,
And gained the thing he most desired.

These men are capitalists. What about your capitalist? Is he a hero, or a culprit?

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.