Wrote Thomas Jefferson in The Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”1, and on these principles was ushered the first stable democracy of the world into existence. “Four score and seven years” later Abraham Lincoln would ratify the same principles in his immortal Gettysburg address by defining American democracy as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
But if every individual engages freely in the pursuit of their own happiness, how could society ensure the completion of its tasks? For most of the history of civilized man, social tasks were realized either by tradition (for instance, the caste system in India) or through the authoritarian edicts of kings (such as in pyramid-building Egypt and the Roman empire). Obviously, neither system would work in a self-governing society. A new social order was required, and it would gradually emerge from the workings of what we call the market system. The framework of this new social system is that everything that we can imagine as necessary either for our survival (food, clothing, shelter, medicines), or for improving our standard of living (education and our inexhaustible sources of entertainment), has its own value, i.e. its price. To satisfy this price, individuals employ their skills and services “freely” (those skills and services also have their price). However, when the services offered by several individuals coincide, competition ensues. The ultimate result of this competition is the provision of goods (1) in the quantities that society wants, and (2) at the price that society is willing to pay for them. In this way, wrote Adam Smith in his remarkable treatise titled The Wealth of Nations, the “invisible hand” of the market steers “the private interests and passions of men” in a direction “which is most agreeable to the interest of the whole society”2. He called the market system, known today as capitalism, “the system of Perfect Liberty”.
And so, based on these core principles, it seems like a good idea that democracy should be wedded to capitalism in a society that seeks prosperity. As a testament to this idea, 18 out of the 20 countries with the highest GDPs (gross domestic product) in the world have representative democracies and capitalist economies (China and Iran being the exceptions) 3. Also, more than 123 out of 192 countries in the world (as of 2007) were electoral democracies, and an overwhelming majority of countries (democracies or not) have capitalist economies. The point to note, however, is that although a majority of countries have capitalist economies, the flavor or style of capitalism in the United States is quite different from those of Germany, Japan, Norway, Canada, and France. Likewise, the democratic system of the United States varies significantly from that of Britain, or that of India.
Because the 2012 general election is being set up as critical for the “soul of America”, let us be clear about what aspect of “America’s soul” are we discussing here. For starters, candidates from neither party believe in dismantling either democracy or more relevantly, capitalism. Rather, the debate is about how effective our specific model of capitalism is. Does it adequately provide our society with the goods and services it wants, at the prices that we are willing to pay? What are the social tasks we need done and does our economic system ensure the completion of these tasks? Does our economic and political system give individuals in our society sufficient opportunities to develop, and then employ their skills and services freely to meet their needs? My hope is that each candidate will clearly enunciate the initiatives they will take to address these questions.
1. Peterson, M.D., ed. (1977). The Portable Thomas Jefferson.
2. Heilbroner, R.L. (1999). The Wordly Philosophers: The lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers.
3. CIA (2012). The World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook