All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 2002

Commerce Triumphs

Capitalism Flourishes When People Are Left Alone

The day after the Taliban abandoned Kabul in Afghanistan last November, the New York Times‘s David Rohde reported on the quick revival of commerce in the capital. “Food appeared plentiful. A central market that lines the road leading into the city had large amounts of fresh meat for sale, fruit juices from Iran and even Coca-Cola, a testament to the strength of smuggling networks in the area.”

This is yet another tribute to the resiliency of markets and the people who animate them. Kabul had been under the thumb of a repressive, reactionary regime for years. Then it was thrown into chaos by massive U.S. bombing and fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Yet the moment there is calm, commerce flourishes. Merchants were selling CDs along with the victuals. One man sold satellite dishes.

I’ve long thought that the best definition of capitalism is: the moral-legal-economic system that results when people are left alone. It’s the default position. Every time some ruler has sought to abolish or severely restrict the market, he’s had to set up a secret police to keep an eye on the population lest they act like capitalists. There is nothing more natural than for people, of virtually any culture, to look for ways to improve their lots in life through investment, production, and trade. Governments may squelch that activity and even execute its practitioners, but they can never wipe it out. Given half a chance, people find a way.

The Afghans have managed to find a way amid the most adverse conditions. A good word should be said for the smuggler. He’s gotten a bad rap historically. But the smuggler is the one who risks life and limb to satisfy consumers when the government refuses to permit “anything that’s peaceful.” He was an admired figure in America’s revolutionary days. It was the customs officer who got tarred and feathered.

Long-term, permanent economic progress in Afghanistan will require the security provided by formal property rights and the rule of law. That in turn will depend on the attitudes of the people there. But it is inspiring to see what people can do on short notice under less-than-optimal conditions.

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Those who look to government to accomplish big things, like defending our liberty, might contemplate its apparent inability to keep the children in its own custody alive. James Payne has the heartbreaking story from Washington, D.C.

Buyer need not beware because the government is watching out for you. Right? Then why, Keith Wade asks, is the market generating private protection?

The American system rests on the premise that words on parchment read by judges can protect liberty. At the time of the founding, not everyone thought it would work. Norman Barry revisits the doubts that plagued the anti-federalists.

Those doubts led to a search for devices to keep the national government confined to its constitutional dimensions. Thomas Woods Jr. discusses one of those devices.

Orwell once wrote that sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking. So why do we let the IRS get away with calling us “customers”? Stephen Barone wants to know.

Nothing is more despised by college students and union workers than third-world sweatshops. A little sound economics, writes Stefan Spath, can clear things up quickly.

In the aftermath of September 11, what’s the American people’s greatest enemy? George F. Smith says it’s the same as it was before the day of terror.

Big advertising budgets account for the high price of pharmaceutical drugs. So say the pundits and politicians. Industry spokesmen say it’s R&D. William Anderson says they’re all wrong.

Discussions about resources, such as the ANWR oil, often imply that they belong to the nation or the government. That kind of thinking, writes Scott McPherson, can only get us into trouble.

It’s widely believed that the people who run large corporations dictate public policy as well. James Rolph Edwards points out some facts that don’t fit the theory.

China agreed to keep its hands off Hong Kong when it regained jurisdiction over the former British colony. Unfortunately, Christopher Lingle is seeing ominous signs of interference with the laissez-faire haven.

The states scored big when they sued the tobacco companies. They also found a novel way to capture resources without raising taxes. Larry Schweikart sees the next round coming.

Here’s what our columnists have cooked up this month: Mark Skousen examines Japan’s economic woes. Lawrence Reed presents a case study of municipal privatization. Doug Bandow marvels at post-September 11 stupidity. Thomas Szasz examines insurance parity for mental illness. Dwight Lee looks at the question of public goods. Donald Boudreaux wonders what it’ll take to end the drug war. Russell Roberts defends service-sector jobs. And Robert Higgs, reading a historian’s claim that past wartime limits on freedom have done no harm, protests, “It Just Ain’t So!”

In the book department, reviewers dissect volumes on U.S. foreign and military policy, the right to keep and bear arms, medical political correctness, a new approach to defending the freedom philosophy, social engineering, and Lenin.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.