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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold History of Our Country, from the Pilgrims to the Present

Capitalism Solves Problems and Enriches the Working Class

Professor Thomas DiLorenzo of Loyola College, Maryland, has managed to pack two books into the volume titled How Capitalism Saved America. The first is the work promised in the title, the inspiring story about the creative power of that nexus of voluntary exchanges known as capitalism. The second, more sobering, book inhabiting these same pages tells the tawdry tale of those who through venality, envy, or simple ignorance have acted to stifle capitalism and deprive us of its benefits. Unfortunately, this second is as necessary as the first.

The “first book” is replete with unsung heroes, such as industrialist Thomas Weston and nobleman Thomas Dale. These two Englishmen observed, diagnosed, and treated the free-rider problem that subjected the Jamestown and Plymouth Bay colonies to impoverishment, famine, and death. Their prescription was not, as today’s conventional economic wisdom would have it, enlisting the government to provide food, but rather replacing communal property rights with private property rights. Within a year, poverty was succeeded by plenty, initiating a process that would make America the wealthiest country the world had ever known.

The “second book” shows that identity theft has been a problem since long before the Internet, credit cards, and Social Security numbers. The culprit here is mercantilism and the victim capitalism. Few who have not studied the history of economic thought even know what mercantilism is, a problem that wide readership of this book would remedy. Yet this system, in which the state extracts large amounts of resources from the populace to subsidize favored corporate interests, is what most people think capitalism is. This deception has led to a double injustice: the vilification of market entrepreneurs whose wealth came from solving the problems of millions within the capitalist system and the hailing as the “saviors of capitalism” politicians who conjure up phony problems or phony solutions to real problems.

DiLorenzo sets this out clearly and provides many historical examples. For instance, he contrasts the private road systems that sprang up throughout the United States in the early 1800s with the “public improvements” subsidized by state governments that were so corrupt and inefficient that by 1860 most states had banned such boondoggles. Unfortunately, after the Civil War the newly empowered central government picked up where the states left off by subsidizing railroads. While most historians paint all railroad owners as “Robber Barons,” this book makes the crucial distinction between market entrepreneur and political entrepreneur to separate the Vanderbilts and the Hills from politically connected railroad magnates such as Jay Cooke and Thomas Durant, who were truly deserving of that ignominious title.

This book elucidates many other examples of capitalism delivering the goods while its opponents fraudulently take the credit. For one, it demonstrates how capitalism enriched the working class through that most capitalist practice, capital accumulation, while union leaders and politicians claimed their beloved income-redistribution policies had done the trick—and some trick it would have been, since you cannot redistribute what has not been produced. For another, it illustrates how capitalism, in the person of the entrepreneur John D. Rockefeller, solved the problem of providing cheap energy, enabling supply to grow and price to fall year after year. Simultaneously, nearly every measure promulgated by the government to tame the “excesses” of capitalist production of oil, including antitrust prosecutions, worked against the interests of consumers. Especially worthwhile is the discussion of the antitrust bait-and-switch scam, which promises to promote competition while actually seeking to rein in those who compete too successfully.

Finally, no discussion of how government problem-solving makes matters worse would be complete without surveying its sorry record of ameliorating the business cycle. DiLorenzo’s detailed analysis of the policies adopted from the onset of the Great Depression obliterate any justification for believing that Herbert Hoover was a practitioner of capitalism and Franklin Roosevelt was its savior.

The author writes with a clarity and passion rare for economists. How Capitalism Saved America is scholarly yet accessible. While not theoretical, it uses theory to help us understand the facts. I did note a couple of inaccuracies, however. For example, the author says a worker must generate at least as much profit as the wage he is paid, when he means revenue. He also confounds the First and Second Banks of the United States. While neither of these undermines the main themes of this powerful work, they are the kind of errors that will be pounced on by those who cannot counter his arguments on the merits.

  • Robert Batemarco teaches economics on an adjunct basis at Fordham University and Manhattan College. He was formerly book review editor of The Freeman. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.