Peace, love and schadenfreude
- Ivo Vegter
- 17 Nov 2009 (South Africa)
Funny how those who claim to care about the poor gloat smugly when an advocate of free markets incurs a loss. The presumption is that supporters of capitalism are rich, don't care about the poor, and merely argue their own pocket book.
I responded to a note cheering the actions of an electricity thief (a "Robin Hood", he was called), with a complaint that electricity theft had recently cost me a fortune. This news was met with glee by a first-world hippie. He was "totally comfortable" with my misfortune, he said, publicly. The schadenfreude was palpable, and infuriating.
I have never made any claims about my personal prosperity. Not only because it is not worth bragging about, but also because it has no relevance to the arguments I make as a columnist. I don't judge other people's opinions by their personal wealth either.
However, this kind of callous presumption couldn't be left unchallenged.
My correspondent was shocked to discover that the incident not only forced me to move, lest I get disconnected, evicted, or involved in a nasty court dispute, but that the move left two newly unemployed people in its wake. They have yet to find new jobs.
Suddenly, the thought of this free-market capitalist pig losing thousands to theft wasn't so pretty any more.
What made his smug presumptuousness personal, though, was the implied insult to my integrity.
It apparently isn't enough that I don't earn income other than from writing. That I rarely take corporate gigs, for fear of such relationships being used against me. That I am not oil-industry funded, nor get paid by (or own shares in) any company I might write about. That I do not join organisations and turn down invitations to sit on committees, for much the same reason.
Apparently, merely being a "beneficiary" of the free-market capitalism I advocate is enough to damn me. I merely argue my own pocket-book, he thought.
Instead of making an intellectual counter-argument, he attacked the man and his motives.
I am, of course, a beneficiary of free-market capitalism. Without it, I wouldn't have the freedom to do what I love. Without it, I would probably earn even less than I make as a second-rate hack with a surfeit of opinions. To the extent that our market is free, it benefits me as much as it benefits everyone else.
His meaning, however, was that he thought I was rich, and well able to afford the occasional theft or fraud committed against me by people who, again in his naive presumption, he believes to be less well off than I am.
This hippie isn't alone. In a recent conversation with a government official about whose performance I'd been rather scathing in a column, I declined the invitation to be lectured in person for a few hours on the basis that doing so would involve costly travel. I explained that I live in Knysna.
"Oh, lucky you, living in one of the most beautiful parts of the country," he smugly told me, as if he'd caught me at something. "Some people aren't so privileged, you know."
The implication, dripping off every sarcastic word, was that I was a complacent white capitalist, luxuriating in unearned wealth, picking on a poor, honest, black guy whose only purpose in life is serving others.
I could have been defensive. My cost of living is now lower than it was in Johannesburg. I fled having been fleeced by crime. I could have offered to compare cars, houses, or incomes. That would have been a real zinger, since I'm fairly sure our taxes buy him a rather more lavish lifestyle than I can afford.
Doing so would have suggested that his insult might have merit, however. My prosperity, or otherwise, had nothing to do with the issue at hand.
So I merely pointed out that his noble intention of serving others was exceeded only by his conspicuous failure to achieve it, and that the tax-paying public deserves to be informed accordingly.
What does my wealth, or lack of it, have to do with that?
Contrary to the belief of such insular people, it is precisely the poor who need free markets the most. They suffer most from high telecommunications prices charged by the protected cartel established by the state. They suffer most from an education system whose only outcome has been to raise yet another lost generation. They suffer most from inadequate protection of property rights; anyone who thinks they don't suffer crime or care about their property is deluded. They suffer most when import tariffs or other barriers to free markets raise the price of clothes or food. They suffer most when they cannot claim title to their land, to sell it or mortgage it to raise capital.
By contrast, they stand the most to gain from the freedom to maximise their wealth by trading with whomever they choose, engaging in productive effort, establishing businesses without regulatory hurdles to jump. More importantly, they stand to gain from the economic activity that such freedom encourages: there's nothing natural about a high unemployment rate.
The smug hippie couldn't accept this view. He pointed to Scandinavia as proof that socialism is better for the poor. However, if this were true, why doesn't this hold for the socialist enclaves of Central and South America? Why doesn't it work in Africa? Why has India stagnated in times of socialist control, and grown richer whenever liberal reforms were made?
Johann Rupert, chairman of Richemont, recently told an audience what he said to his well-meaning but socialist daughter: "In order to give money to the poor, you have to make it first."
The Scandinavian countries – including the favourite model for social democracy, Sweden – got rich through free trade and free markets. They imposed socialist policies only after they got rich. They're drawing on their savings, so to speak. The socialist policies can last only as long as the prosperity that was created through entirely different policies. There's another column in that observation, in fact.
I think the hippie's argument on Scandinavia is wrong, but at least it's an argument.
Presuming that I'm rich and protecting my own interests when I favour free markets is not an argument. It is a slur on my integrity. It would be offensive and irrelevant even if it were true.
That said, I'll grant that absent the rhetoric of personal attacks, socialists, communists and unionists really do have very little of intellectual value to fall back on. I do have a heart, you know.
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