29 June 2019

The moral of the story


It is just over two years since I joined CapX, and 18 months since I took over as Editor. It has been a turbulent and, in many ways, disheartening time in British politics.

Brexit has gone from an opportunity for national renewal to a political and constitutional crisis in which the country has been bogged down for far too long. The hard left is open about its revolutionary goals and too close to power for comfort. Through all of this, we have tried our best to stay true to CapX’s animating ideal of making the case for the market.

Making sense of the last few years hasn’t always been easy, but I have always relished the challenge – a challenge that I will be calling time on this week, as I leave CapX, and London, for a fresh challenge in Washington, DC.

Before I go, please allow me a somewhat contemplative final briefing.

Editing a website that makes the case for capitalism has meant spending an awful lot of time on the defensive. Globally, democratic capitalism is under greater threat than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Arguments that many of us thought were dead and buried have returned with a vengeance and alternatives to the market have an allure that would have seemed absurd not long ago.

Part of what we have done at CapX is the unfashionable work of sticking up for the world as it is. That means countering a pessimistic narrative peddled by capitalism’s opponents. It means pointing out that, beyond the alarming headlines, there has never been a better time to be alive – and that this remarkable state of affairs is thanks to, not in spite of, the innovative, liberating power of the market.

That said, correcting the many bad arguments made about the market cannot be allowed to mean a blindness to the iniquities of the status quo. As I hope is clear to regular readers of CapX, there is plenty that we have been unhappy about.

Contrary to the claims of the Corbynistas, 21st century Britain is not home to wild-west free-market capitalism. And, from housing to the railways, it’s hardly the case that high levels of state involvement and regulation in a given market correlates with satisfied consumers and contented voters. In other words, capitalism isn’t always the problem. Sometimes, it might even be the solution.

But capitalism’s admirable track record has evidently not enough to blunt the appeal of alternatives. That’s partly because its critics are usually making a moral argument. An economic response will only go so far. There has to be more to it than the numbers. And so, my parting advice to those determined to defend capitalism is that they must make a moral case of their own.

Of course, there is plenty of moral worth in a system that lifts billions out of extreme poverty. Yet there is a deeper point about markets that goes beyond living standards and to the heart of human nature.

More of less all critiques of free-market capitalism attempt to paint it as unnatural and corrupting. Listen to John McDonnell or Bernie Sanders and you are left with the idea that the market is something imposed on us to further the economic interests of a wealthy elite.

And yet, for something so contrary to human nature, the market is remarkably hard to suppress. Last year, evidence emerged of the gradual bottom-up growth of markets in North Korea. Even in the last holdout of centrally-planned totalitarianism, free exchange is something the state cannot stamp out.

Those green shoots of economic freedom point to wider truth about the market. Far from being unnatural, it is deeply human. Indeed, the more complicated and interconnected the world gets, the more we need markets to organise human action in an open, democratic fashion. Contrary to the claims of capitalism’s critics, a turn away from the market will lead to less democracy, less freedom and less justice.

While popular capitalism’s advocates should stick up for its ability to, quite literally, deliver the goods, they cannot afford to lose sight of their most powerful argument: that we are yet to come across a more human, or humane, way of organising humankind than liberal free market capitalism.

Thankfully, that argument is in safe hands here at CapX. My brilliant colleague John Ashmore will be taking over as Acting Editor while he and Editor-in-Chief Robert Colvile plot the website’s next steps. I look forward to admiring their work from afar (and maybe even writing for them once in a while).

Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.