Free-market capitalism, I've come to accept, is the best way to grow a global prosperity without completely dismantling civilization and human nature and starting over from something else. Any attempt to corral it under deliberate management quickly collapses into nightmare, as even a single national economy is too complex for any one, or any committee to manage, and the temptations incumbent on controling so much wealth and power is too great for the weak human will.
That was one of the hard lessons of the 20th century -- perhaps the principal lesson, for nations. Tim Tzouliadis's "The Forsaken" tells the sad tale of thousands of Americans during the Depression who fell for Soviet propaganda and pro-Soviet reporting in U.S. newspapers and migrated to the USSR to be part of a robust worker-centered economy and the wave of the future. As one review tells it:
Most of these expatriates, not intellectuals but simple working men, were quickly disenchanted and wanted to return home, only to find that Moscow considered them Soviet citizens and barred them from leaving. Ignored by the American government, many of them ended in the gulag.
The history we know is false. No matter how hard they try, historians when they write can't purge themselves of knowing how it turns out. Usually, I suspect, they don't even try. To understand why people did what they did, you have to stand in the past and blind yourself, so you cannot see ahead.
In the early 1930s, capitalism and liberal democracy looked like dead ends. The Soviet Union, filtered through the supposedly reliable reporting of Western observers who actually went there (Amity Shlaes has a fascinating chapter on one high-level junket to Stalin in "The Forgotten Man"), seemed to be charging ahead with inspired workers and full production, where the U.S. was a land of cold chimneys and breadlines. In Germany and Italy, other collectivisms made monumental strides, under dynamic leadership, amid popular enthusiasm. That a certain brutality accompanied all this was known, but it had not yet become monstrous and even then the full degree did not become apparent to most people till after the war.
In researching the history of the federal highway system, I came across this account of its birth, full of fascinating anecdote and prominently featuring one of the favorite figures of this site, Gen. Lucius D. Clay.
When Sherman Adams, the President's Chief Assistant, asked who should serve on the committee, the President said, "Call General Clay."
It's interesting to me that Eisenhower's national highway system often is presented, even by historians, as a Cold War solution to the problem of mobilizing a huge military or evacuating cities in the case of nuclear war. Those were part of the rationale that the government used to sell the plan. But the reasons discussed at the time of birth, apparently, focused on other fears from the early Cold War era: that with World War II over, the Great Depression would return.
In a biography of Clay, Jean Edward Smith quoted an oral history interview in which General Clay recalled how he became involved in the President's Advisory Committee:
Sherman Adams called me down. This was in August 1954. We had lunch with the President, and they were concerned about the economy. We were facing a possible recession, and he wanted to have something on the books that would enable us to move quickly if we had to go into public works. He felt that a highway program was very important.
In the end, capitalism, to the great surprise of a great many people, proved more durable, and more humane.
We never ought to mistake capitalism for a positive good. It works in the way biological evolution works on species: with reactionary slowness, terrible suffering, and colossal waste. Its driving force is self-interest, which is a nasty balance of greed and fear. The lowest impulses, yet the most potent ones. It's nothing to be proud of, even if it gets the job done.
And it works best when both elements -- fear and greed -- are at work on both the capitalist and the producer. If the rise of domestic populism and international communism (and, briefly, fascism) as seemingly viable alternatives to capitalism had never happened, would the bosses in the United States have been willing to quickly give in on issues such as the 8-hour day, pensions, health-care coverage, and paid vacations? Is it coincidence that the collapse of that horrid sham alternative represented by the USSR coincided with the loss of bargaining power by workers against bosses in the U.S., and the incremental give-back of what had formerly been thought of as workers' privileges (and now can only be found, it seems, in the contracts of public school teachers)?
Capitalism has gone global. No nation, even America, can stike fear any longer in the bigger bosses; they can take it all overseas. For this mindless, instinctual system to keep working at its best, the level of fear they feel has to be global, too. And Bill Gates is right to feel something in a world where media allows the some people's gross opulence to be discovered by people whose children die of preventable diseases. If there's a touch of fear in his benevolent words and works, so much the better for capitalism.
Was it ever possible to mix it with something sweeter? Make of this what you will. You could use it to compare yesterday's entrepreneurs to today's. Or as a glimpse of an early understanding of macro-economics. It fascinates me as an insight into a time and a mind.
When you think of the great age of European exploration, what images come to mind of the men who led it? Greed? hubris? Lust for power?
How about "concern for the poor people of one's homeland"?
Probably wasn't on the list. But history is more complicated than it looks.
Richard Hakluyt was an Elizabethan scholar and clergyman fascinated by voyages and discoveries, who set out to be an expert in the geography of the world which had suddenly doubled in size and complexity following the discoveries of Columbus.
Hakluyt sought practical knowledge, not merely book-learning. In part this was because, in his era, the ship's captains and common sailors had outrun the learning of the old geographers, still stuck on Ptolemy.
His work came to the attention of the English authorities, who sent him to France as a chaplain to the British ambassador, the better to study the French and Spanish explorations that were leaving England in the dust.
Hakluyt was a tireless proponent of English settlement in America and was involved in the planning of James Town. But English exploration in those days reached east, as well as west, and the document I've cited was written in 1582, to an unnamed English "factor" in Constantinople. It gives him instructions and suggestions as to what he ought to do, and look out for, in the national interest.
That in seeking private gain, the Englishman also would seek the common good of England, Hakluyt presents as an obvious matter.
Since all men confesse (that be not barbarously bred) that men are borne as well to seeke the common commoditie of their Countrey, as their owne priuate benefite, it may seeme follie to perswade that point, for each man meaneth so to doe.
Hakluyt's letter is written for the sake of offering his correspondent details on how best to do this. For England's sake, he writes, the merchant should pay attention to clothing, and dying.
And therefore I am so bold to put you in minde, and to tell you wherein with some indeuour you may chaunce to doe your Countrey much good, and giue an infinite sorte of the poore people occasion to pray for you here throughout the Realme this that I meane is in matter of Cloth, &c.
The superior quality of English wool was well-known. The trade employed many poor people, enriched the middle class, and puts money in the royal coffers. Hakluyt told his man to look for markets for it abroad, or as he writes it, "ample and full Vent of this noble and rich commoditie." He directs his man to investigate, for instance, whether there is a market for red Scottish caps in Egypt
To compete with local products, the high-quality English wool must be enhanced by superior dying. He urges the Constantinople factor to pay particular attention to this business.
But if Forren nations turne their Wools, inferiour to ours, into truer and more excellent made cloth, and shall die the same in truer, surer, and more excellent and more delectable colours, then shall they sell and make ample vent of their Clothes, when the English cloth of better wooll shall rest vnsold, to the spoyle of the Merchant, of the Clothier, and of the breeder of the wooll, and to the turning to bag and wallet of the infinite number of the poore people imploied in clothing in seuerall degrees of labour here in England.
He urges him to send home samples of the best Turkish cloth, to show to the English master weavers, "partly to remooue out of their heads, the tootoo great opinion they haue concerned of their owne cunning, and partly to mooue them for shame to endeuour to learne more knowledge to the honour of their countrey of England, and to the vniuersall benefit of the realme."
But he also urges him to take to Turkey certain plant derivatives from England that produce a glorious blue, but which English dyers had been unable to fix, to see if Turkish dyers knew or could discover a way to do it.
He urges the factor to hire, and send to England, a young man who had been trained in native dying methods. He urges him to learn all the methods Turks used in dying cloth, "be they plants, Barkes, Wood, Berries, Seedes, Graines, or Minerall matter, or what els soeuer. But before all other, such things as yeeld those famous colours that carrie such speciall report of excellencie, that our Merchaunts may bring them to this realme by ordinarie trade, as a light meane for the better vent of our clothes."
If the dye-stuff comes from plants, he wants to know how and where the plants grow best. He wants to know about sesame seed oil, a product useful in the dying process. He is especially interested in anil, a blue dye which we know as "indigo."
There's an element of espionage in this. Nations were aware of their special products and resources, and smuggling them into a rival power's hands was an act of high treason.
It is reported at Saffronwalden that a Pilgrim purposing to do good to his countrey, stole an head of Saffron, and hid the same in his Palmers staffe, which he had made hollow before of purpose, and so he brought this root into this realme, with venture of his life: for if he had bene taken, by the law of the countrey from whence it came, he had died for the fact. If the like loue in this our age were in our people that now become great trauellers, many knowledges, and many trades, and many herbes and plants might be brought into this realme that might doe the realme good.
As a result, English saffron had "sent many poore on worke, and brought great wealth into this realme." So much so that Hakluyt was looking for a "vent" for it in Tripoli.
Thus may Sumack, the plant wherewith the most excellent blacks be died in Spaine, be brought out of Spaine, and out of the Ilands of the same, if it will grow in this more colde climat. For thus was Woad brought into this realme, and came to good perfection, to the great losse of the French our olde enemies.
Conversely, Hakluyt tells his "factor" to look for a "vent" in Turkey for yellow- and green-dyed English woolens, "because yellowes and greenes are colours of small prices in this realme, by reason that Olde and Greenweed wherewith they be died be naturall here, and in great plenty, therefore to bring our clothes so died to common sale in Turkie were to the great benefit of the merchant, and other poore subiects of this realme, for in sale of such our owne naturall colours we consume not our treasure in forren colours, and yet we sell our owne trifles dearely perhaps."
At the end, he lists the number of things brought into England in historic times, and more recently, and the great good they've done.
And the Romans hauing that care, brought from all coasts of the world into Italie all arts and sciences, and all kinds of beasts and fowile, and all herbs, trees, busks and plants that might yeeld profit or pleasure to their countrey of Italie. And if this care had not bene heretofore in our ancestors, then, had our life bene sauage now, for then we had not had Wheat nor Rie, Peaze nor Beanes, Barley nor Oats, Peare nor Apple, Vine nor many other profitable and pleasant plants, Bull nor Cow, Sheepe nor Swine, Horse nor Mare, Cocke nor Hen, nor a number of other things that we inioy, without which our life were to be sayd barbarous: for these things and a thousand that we vse more the first inhabitors of this Iland found not here.
And in time of memory things haue bene brought in that were not here before, as the Damaske rose by Doctour Linaker king Henry the seuenth and king Henry the eights Physician, the Turky cocks and hennes about fifty yeres past, the Artichowe in time of king Henry the eight, and of later time was procured out of Italy the Muske rose plant, the plumme called the Perdigwena, and two kindes more by the Lord Cromwell after his trauell, and the Abricot by a French Priest one Wolfe Gardiner to king Henry the eight: and now within these foure yeeres there haue bene brought into England from Vienna in Austria diuers kinds of flowers called Tulipas, and those and other procured thither a little before from Constantinople by an excellent man called M. Carolus Clusius. And it is sayd that since we traded to Zante that the plant that beareth the Coren is also brought into this realme from thence; and although it bring not fruit to perfection, yet it may serue for pleasure and for some vse, like as our vines doe, which we cannot well spare, although the climat so colde will not permit vs to haue good wines of them.
And many other things haue bene brought in, that haue degenerated by reason of the colde climat, some other things brought in haue by negligence bene lost. The Archbishop of Canterburie Edmund Grindall, after he returned out of Germany, brought into this realme the plant of Tamariske from thence, and this plant he hath so increased that there be here thousands of them; and many people haue receiued great health by this plant: and if of things brought in such care were had, then could not the first labour be lost. The seed of Tobacco hath bene brought hither out of the West Indies, it groweth heere, and with the herbe many haue bene eased of the reumes, &c. Each one of a great number of things were woorthy of a iourney to be made into Spaine, Italy, Barbarie, Egypt, Zante, Constantinople, the West Indies, and to diuers other places neerer and further off then any of these, yet forasmuch as the poore are not able, and for that the rich setled at home in quiet will not, therefore we are to make sute to such as repaire to forren kingdomes, for other businesses, to haue some care heerein, and to set before their eyes the examples of these good men, and to endeuour to do for their parts the like, as their speciall businesses may permit the same.
Thus giuing you occasion by way of a little remembrance, to haue a desire to doe your countrey good you shall, if you haue any inclination to such good, do more good to the poore ready to starue for reliefe, then euer any subiect did in this realme by building of Almes-houses, and by giuing of lands and goods to the reliefe of the poore. Thus may you helpe to driue idlenesse the mother of most mischiefs out of the realme, and winne you perpetuall fame, and the prayer of the poore, which is more woorth then all the golde of Peru, and of all the West Indies.
Private gain, public virtue. Not enemies, but allies in the great vanguard of patriotism. Do we still think this way?
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