Doug Casey: The Virtues of Capitalism
Originally posted at: www.capitalistexploits.at
What can be said of Doug Casey? His life and career are the stuff of legend among investors and speculators, especially in the junior resource space.
Doug is a friend and mentor to Chris and I. For over 25 years I've read his monthly missives, devoured his books and attended his workshops. I credit Doug with leading me to my first big score, and imparting enough wisdom to make me see the sense of holding onto that winner as long as it made sense to. The value of that lesson was something that can never be repaid.
Doug was one of the key people, along with my friend "Dave" ("The Tao of Dave" - http://capitalistexploits.at/2011/02/the-tao-of-dave/) with whom I credit for arming me with the confidence to leave my comfortable life in the States, family, friends and business partners to experience the broader world and invest and speculate in the frontier markets.
Although he isn't always right, and has been early on many of his calls, his viewpoints are always enlightening and entertaining!
Doug, Chris and I correspond fairly often. I rang him up a while back and asked if we could chat about my favorite subject, capitalism. I proposed that we discuss the virtues of capitalism, since these days capitalism is almost universally scorned and misunderstood. It is perceived as an evil system that creates greedy, uncaring and corrupt monsters. As part of the crowd that understands the folly in those perceptions, it's our moral obligation to right this wrong!
Thankfully, Doug graciously agreed to a back and forth on the matter. Read on...
Mark: Doug, thanks so much for speaking with me!
Doug: Mark, I like people in general, and you in particular. Regrettably, most conversations are limited to subjects like the weather, sports, and the state of the roads. I can do ten minutes on those things, but that about exhausts my threshold of boredom. Trivial conversation doesn’t give you much idea about the character of the person you’re talking to—although, paradoxically, sometimes it tells you more than you care to know about them. They aren’t interested in philosophical issues in general, and absolutely don’t like to discuss practical and applied philosophy. Because that amounts to politics and religion—the two things that are anathema to polite company. I don’t expect we’ll do any riffs on religion here, but we can certainly do politics. And economics, which is, most regrettably, intimately related to politics in today’s world.
So it’s a pleasure talking to you.
Mark: Capitalism is oft-misunderstood. I've heard you say that most people tend to mis-use words because they don't truly know what they mean. I agree, and per the subject matter I want to discuss today, I'm convinced the majority have NO idea how to define capitalism. As evidence to this I refer readers to Peter Schiff's YouTube videos (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahMGoB01qiA) wherein he went to the Occupy Wall Street protests in NYC to defend the 1% and see if those protesting really understood what capitalism was.
I don't know if he just happened to pick the dumbest of the lot, but in general the lack of any coherent understanding of what capitalism TRULY is was shocking. So that everyone reading this is clear, can you define "capitalism" for us?
Doug: If someone can’t define a word precisely, then they actually don’t know what they’re talking about. Imprecise language leads to sloppy thinking. Which inevitably leads to pointless and unresolvable arguments.
But, yes, Peter here is somewhat reminiscent of Jay Leno in one of his “Jay Walking" skits, where he approaches normal looking people and asks them questions like “Who did we fight in the Revolutionary War?”, and gets answers like “The Germans?”. But what do you expect from people who have nothing better to do than hang out in parks and whine?
Of course capitalism got a bad rap from the very start partly because—most people don’t know this—the word was actually coined by Karl Marx. However, the fact is we don’t have capitalism, and never have. Capitalism might be defined as an unrestricted free market, one where—to use Marx’s quite correct distinction—both consumer goods and capital goods are both privately owned and privately controlled.
What almost everybody calls capitalism is actually fascism, a system where both consumer and capital goods are privately owned, but they are strictly regulated and controlled. This is a huge distinction. In socialism—which is now quite rare—capital goods, the means of production, are state owned. In communism, absolutely everything is state-owned. In any event, all the evils attributed to capitalism today are do to state intervention in the economy—regulations, monopolies, subsidies, preferences, taxes, licensing, currency inflation. In a genuine capitalist society you’d have none of these things.
Mark: I think it goes without saying that for the most part, sans inheritance (lucky), coercion (taxation) and theft (mafia), those that control any significant amount of capital are intelligent, hard-working value creators. One cannot legitimately amass wealth without producing something that other people are willing to pay for. Although many people argue that materialism is evil, including religious zealots, the desire for "stuff" is almost baked into our DNA. You've suggested this yourself.
Despite an almost rabid hatred these days of capitalists and big business, I see a lot of people walking around, Tweeting and texting on their beloved iPhones, wearing their Nike tennis shoes and Levi's, while simultaneously trying to undermine and lobby for the destruction of the very system - capitalism - that allowed them to buy those things! The hypocrisy is mind-numbing! How can we make sense of the disconnect between reality and perception here?
Doug: Well, a century ago Schumpeter predicted that capitalism’s own success at producing would lead to its overthrow. I think he was right. Maybe it’s genetic in humans. We’ve apparently always been tribal creatures, where the group held many or most things in common; perhaps that’s just the way the human brain is wired. The fact that capitalism has changed almost everything in the material world over the last 200 years doesn’t mean it’s changed the way people think.
I believe in Pareto’s Law, the 80-20 rule. In this application I’m of the opinion that although perhaps 80% of people are basically decent types, 20% are potential trouble sources, and 20% of that 20%, or 4%, are really bad actors. 20% of that minority are hard core criminals. Criminals believe in coercion, violence, and theft. Unfortunately, they are naturally drawn to the state—which is institutionalized coercion. They concentrate there, and after a while they dominate it. They undermine and corrupt society by promising f”re”e goodies to society, which are stolen from the capitalists—which is to say the innovators and producers. It’s hard for libertarians to counter that with esoteric and seemingly hard-hearted economic theories, however correct.
At this point every country in the world is headed in the wrong direction, philosophically. Most importantly the US, where more than half the people are living at the expense of the other half. And as the economy grinds down in the years to come, things will get worse. Why should the trend change?
I don’t know if that’s a good answer to your question. Maybe it’s because libertarians are a tiny mutant minority. Maybe it’s a spiritual flaw in the nature of man. Or maybe it’s because most people are stupid—stupid defined as not necessarily of low intelligence, but having an unwitting tendency towards self-destruction.
Mark: Almost every other political, religious or economic model besides capitalism supports the premise that a man's efforts and earnings are only virtuous when given to others. It's clear that the leader of the free world, Mr. Obama believes that. He has infamously said, "I just want to spread the wealth around". Doug, is capitalism itself virtuous, or is it what one does with it that is virtuous.
Doug: Capitalism, defined as an unrestricted free market, is innately virtuous. I suppose it’s possible to succeed in a free market without virtue, but it’s unlikely. People—absolutely everybody—prefer to associate with and do business with virtuous people. People who are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, thrifty, brave, and clean. That’s the official list of Boy Scout virtues, although I left out obedience on the grounds it’s not a virtue, and reverence, which is questionable. Irreverence is much more worthy… Add in classical virtues like courage, fortitude, generousity, honor, foresight, prudence, hospitality, thoughtfulness, and patience. Disregard the faux virtues of faith, hope and charity—they’re really moral flaws.
In a totally free market, the most productive people, the people who create the most value for others, are rewarded. The ones with bad habits live under bridges and die young. Justice is another virtue I believe in, and it means that people should get what they deserve. Fascism, which rules the world today, is unjust because the people who are politically connected—not necessarily economically productive—do best.
Capitalism brings out the best in people. Socialism encourages every possible vice. But people have been trained to believe exactly the opposite.
Mark: One of the most well-known proponents of capitalism was Ayn Rand, whom I know is one of your favorites. In her book "The Virtue of Selfishness", she says, "The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve 'the common good.' It is true that capitalism does—if that catch-phrase has any meaning—but this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice."
Socialists and communists often cite the "common good" as the reason for their tyranny. That term is undefinable, as what is good for you, might not be good for me or others. Force and coercion - the things that the socialists and communists rely on - are what's really immoral, correct?
Doug: It’s absolutely perverse how the apologists for statism and collectivism have stolen the moral high ground. It’s one reason I despise Republicans and conservatives, that they accept the moral premises of the enemy, only saying that we should be more moderate in pursuing these supposedly noble goals. Conservatives think they’re being pragmatic, but are perceived—correctly—as just being confused and inconsistent hypocrites.
And, yes, I’m a huge fan of Rand, primarily because she offered a moral defense of capitalism. I’m only sorry she didn’t go far enough; unfortunately, she wound up defending the necessity of a state. It’s also unfortunate that a religious cult has formed around some of her ideas, full of dogmatic acolytes who look on her every opinion as holy scripture. But, then again, another law I believe in is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which holds that everything degenerates over time. That would appear to apply to intellectual movements as well the material world. As further proof of that I offer the fact the pundit Glen Beck now describes himself as a libertarian. That word is now clearly on its way to perdition, like the word “liberal” before it.
Mark: Recently British MP Daniel Hannan argued at the "Occupy Wall Street Oxford Debates" that the bailouts were an "ethical crime" and a generational offense. As we've said herein, bad businesses should be allowed to fail to make way for better-run organizations to take their place. Yet, the politicians on both sides of the pond voted to bail out their campaign contributors at the expense of the taxpayer in 2008, and they continue to do it to this day.
Capitalism has been ravaged by politicians and an empowered elite that need to limit and/or eliminate competition to survive. It's only cronyism that keeps them afloat at all. So, if bailing out failing businesses is unethical, then allowing them to fail would be THE ethical thing to do. I know the answers to this, but humour our freshman readers a bit and explain why allowing bad businesses to fail is more ethical, and ultimately pro-growth for the economy, than bailing them out.
Doug: Well said, Mark. The important thing to remember is that if a business—whether it be a bank, a manufacturer, a food producer, or what-have-you—is allowed to collapse, it’s largely a financial phenomenon. The real wealth—the buildings, the factories, the technologies, the skills of the workers—still exist. They’re simply redeployed. In a capitalist society the owners of the business are punished for running it badly, which is correct and proper.
In today’s fascist societies, however, uneconomic businesses are propped up by the taxpayers. And managers and shareholders are rewarded, instead of bankrupted. So, perversely, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Mark: Doug, I've heard you and others I respect argue that amassing as much capital as one can is morally the "right thing to do". In fact, in your book, Totally Incorrect, Louis James paraphrases you, saying "...money is a positive moral good in society because the pursuit of it motivates the creation of value..." Can you explain this further?
Doug: Yes, this speaks to my thoughts on charity. I’m opposed to conventional charity, not because it doesn’t do some good, but because its major unseen consequence is to disipate capital, while it often cements poor people in bad habits. Conventional charity’s main purpose is to allow the rich to feel righteous.
If you really want to be a philanthropist, and benefit humanity, then you should create more wealth, and increase the supply of capital. That’s what separates us from our primitive ancestors living hand-to-mouth in caves. It’s the accumulation of capital, through productive activity, that raises the general standard of living.
Mark: Back to Rand for a moment. In her book "For the New Intellectual", she says, "Capitalism demands the best of every man—his rationality—and rewards him accordingly. It leaves every man free to choose the work he likes, to specialize in it, to trade his product for the products of others, and to go as far on the road of achievement as his ability and ambition will carry him. His success depends on the objective value of his work and on the rationality of those who recognize that value." This implies that lazy people will not, and should not succeed, and that ill-conceived and/or poorly-managed businesses will fail.
However, in this world of too big to fail, and "everyone gets a ribbon", ineptitude and laziness are almost considered maladies or handicaps that should be subsidized! We wrote a post called "The Strawberry Generation". Therein we talked about the belief among today's youth that regardless of their ability or motivation they are "entitled" to anything and everything they desire, most-specifically a high-paying job right out of college. It's almost ingrained in the DNA nowadays. Given that reality, I'm not too optimistic; how about you?
Doug: I’m of two minds on this subject. On the one hand, the longest trend in existence is the Ascent of Man, and it’s still in motion; that’s cause for optimism.
There are essentially two reasons for our upward progress. One reason is that even the average man—although especially the independent thinker—intuitively realizes that he has to produce more than he consumes, and save the difference. That;s not just how you become rich, it’s how you ensure your survival. Saving builds capital. The other reason is science and technology, which both compound because of capital, and add to it. And there are more scientists and engineers alive today than have lived in all previous history put t ogether.
On the other hand, it appears that half the people in the US, and even more in some other places, chronically consume more than they produce. They’re essentially parasites that vote for a living. Their numbers are growing, they seem to feel more entitled than ever, they control the political systems of the world, and they’re becoming bolder and more strident. Furthermore, the type of sociopaths that are attracted to government appear to have reached a critical mass. They’ve long controlled the school systems, which serve to indoctrinate kids with destructive ideas. In addition, governments seem to have co-opted many or most of the advances in technology—drones, military robots, surveillance cameras everywhere, massive communications monitoring—and this impresses me as quite destructive.
So there’s no guarantee that progress will continue.
Mark: I know how you feel about charities, and both Chris and I agree; most of them aren't worth a damn. But, it's a fact that there are those that cannot care for themselves. Those born with major disabilities, mental retardation, or those who are injured physically and can no longer work in any capacity. In a true capitalist society, how would those individuals be cared for? Who is responsible for them.
Doug: Despite the fact that no good deed seems to go unpunished I, personally, like to help people. But I’m rather discriminating. My policy is to only aid people of good moral character; the best allocation of my time, and the best thing for society, is to try to make the able more able, not fight an uphill battle for minimal returns. Further, when I help someone it’s usually through a loan, albeit one that I never expect to be repaid. That has several advantages. It allows me to assess the character of the recipient, by seeing whether he repays it. It encourages him to use it wisely. And if it’s paid back, it allows me to repeat the action, and “pay it forward”, if you will. Only an idiot tries to be a cornucopia, giving money it to the benighted to fritter away till there’s none left.
But that’s just my approach. If others want to help the halt, the lame and the retarded I’m all for it, and wish them well. I don’t want to invalidate others choices. It’s their money; they should use it as they think best. That’s what makes a market, differing desires and approaches to problems. I simply urge them to act responsibly, which means to do it themselves, instead of guiltily giving money to some massive charity bureaucracy with executives hauling down a million dollars a year. Which is a fair description of most popular charities today.
Mark: Doug, how about coming to Fiji with us to sit down with the Prime Minister and see if we can't get him to see things our way (laughs). All joking aside, I know you entertained something like that in Vanuatu...trying to turn it into a capitalist stronghold. You even told me you had a couple thousand acres picked out there for a "Galt's Gulch-like" community, years prior to Cafayate. What happened?
Doug: Well, one of my hobbies for many years has been pitching heads of state on a radical plan that would radically transform their backwater hellholes into Hong Kong on steroids. I’ve had some really fun, and weird, adventures in the process. But while it’s possible I could get lucky, it’s an extreme longshot. So I view it as entertainment.
But I also just wanted a neat place to live. So we bought 1300 acres on the edge of the wine-growing town of Cafayate in NW Argentina and have built a world-class resort there. Fantastic amenities of every type— you name it, we have it, or soon will. I did it because I wanted a place that had all the facilities and amenities a civilized person could want, but isolated. I want to watch the riots on my wide screen in the company of friends, not out my front window. I invite your readers to come down and check it out.
Mark: Doug, this has been great! I know you get asked this question a lot, but in closing what countries seem to stand a chance? And, if you were in your 20's again (ah, that would be nice for all of us...) where would you be planting your flags? Where is capitalism still understood and considered the virtuous path?
Doug: I was a big promoter of Burma a few years ago, back when nobody went there, you could get a suite in the best hotel in Rangoon for $40 a night, and you could still cut deals with the generals. But that ship has sailed; the place is now overrun with Uhuru jumpers. Mongolia is still interesting for lots of reasons. In the Western Hemisphere I’d go to Guyana, or especially Surinam. But I think Africa is the place to be. If someone with some moxie were to camp out in Windhoek, Maputo, Luanda, Kinshasa, or the capitals of the smaller countries in West Africa for a month it’s got to pay off. You have to go some place few people go, where you have a marginal advantage.
But where is capitalism understood? Basically nowhere, although people in the Orient have the best intuitive understanding of it. I’d forget about Western Europe; it will be a petting zoo for the Chinese in a couple of generations.
Mark: Chris and I agree wholeheartedly, as does our young upstart colleague, Scott. We plucked this young man from the jaws of Wall Street and are deploying him in the markets you speak of.
Thanks Doug, let's do this again soon! Enjoy wherever you're at right now!
With no further comment...
"Two things are infinite – the universe and human stupidity. And I'm not sure about the former." - Albert Einstein