The environmentalist gospel is heard evermore louder in public discussions today as governments the world over move to impose restrictions and regulations upon businesses for the sake of protecting the Earth. Products that are supposedly harmless to nature are quickly becoming the norm while companies happily promote themselves as “green” and ecologically responsible. Industry, meanwhile, caricatured as polluting and exploitive, is widely denounced and oftentimes, so is capitalism altogether.
Few seem to remember what immense prosperity free-market capitalism and industrialization brought the Western World. Commentators and politicians hardly bother to point out anymore in what short time industry bettered the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
In “Individualism and the Free Society,” an article edited from his book Honoring the Self: The Psychology of Confidence and Respect (1983), Nathaniel Branden points out what an “extraordinary transformation” the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism brought about: “a revolution so radical,” he notes, “that it is still far from fully understood.”
With […] the development of the free-market society, people saw the sudden release of productive energy that had previously had no out-let. They saw life made possible for countless millions who could have had no chance at survival in precapitalist economies. They saw mortality rates fall and population growth rates explode upward. They saw machines (the machines that many of them had cursed, opposed, and tried to destroy) cut their workday in half while multiplying incalculably the value and reward of their effort. They saw themselves lifted to a standard of living no feudal baron could have conceived. With the rapid development of science, technology, and industry, they saw, for the first time in history, the individual’s liberated mind taking control of material existence.
“Capitalism,” according to Branden, “was achieving miracles before human beings’ eyes.” Yet, from the very start, by majority, intellectuals were vehemently antagonistic to it. “Their writings were filled with denunciations of the free-market economy.” Broadly speaking, notes Branden, the antagonism came from two different directions: the medievalists and the socialists.
The medievalist school found its early outlet in nineteenth century Romanticism. It abhorred the disintegration of feudal aristocracy and the sudden appearance of self-made men from backgrounds of poverty and obscurity. They rejected the supposedly hollow concern with profit making and preferred that man embrace his “spiritual” side, echoing the age-old dichotomy of “soul” and “body” invented by religionists.
One finds the medievalists’ sentiments best expressed in the works of men as William Cobbett, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and John Ruskin who wrote that, “Commerce or business of any kind may be the invention of the Devil.”
“The medievalists dreamed of abolishing the Industrial Revolution,” according to Branden. “The socialists wished to take it over.” They did away with the spiritualism of their contemporaries and stressed the miserable conditions which the working classes had now to endure. Men as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx crusaded against the “dehumanizing” effect of the factory system which supposedly “alienated” workers from their labor. The rationale of the free market was “cold” in their view; laws of supply and demand, “cruel”. They painted a vague, rosy picture of a lost “golden age” of the working man which, they argued, the Industrial Revolution had destroyed — regardless of historical fact that many up to that time lived very short lives, on drag, meager diets, plagued by scarcity and disease. “There was nothing romantic or enviable,” notes Robert Hessen in “The Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Women and Children,” published in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966), “about a family living and working together in a badly lighted, improperly ventilated, and poorly constructed cottage.”
Men continued to endure hardships throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but conditions improved for the common man as industrialism marched on. As early as 1697, John Locke suggested in a report for the Board of Trade on the problem of poverty that all children over three years of age should be taught to earn their living at working schools for spinning and knitting where they could be fed. “What they can have at home, from their parents,” wrote Locke, “is seldom more than bread and water, and that very scantily too.”
How did children and workers fare under industrialism? In Human Action (1949) economist Ludwig von Mises reminds readers that, low as factory wages initially were, “they were nonetheless much more than these paupers could earn in any other field open to them. It is a distortion of facts to say that the factories carried off the housewives from the nurseries and the kitchen and the children from their play,” he writes. “These women had nothing to cook with and to feed their children. These children were destitute and starving. Their only refuge was the factory. It saved them,” according to Von Mises, “in the strictest sense of the term, from death by starvation.” Yet this future offered to them, nineteenth century socialists thought of as “inhuman” and “cruel”?
The truth is that industry provided men not born into nobility, for the first time in history, with the opportunity to better their own lives. Up to this very day, that chance is denied to billions of people around the world. In light of this, historian Thomas Southcliffe Ashton (1899-1968), writing in The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830 (1948), gave perhaps the most cunning answer to critics of the Industrial Revolution:
There are today on the plains of India and China men and women, plague-ridden and hungry, living lives little better, to outward appearance, than those of the cattle that toil with them by day and share their places of sleep at night. Such Asiatic standards, and such unmechanized horrors, are the lot of those who increase their numbers without passing through an industrial revolution.
Today, of course, life in India and China is much better than is was half a century ago, precisely because after decades of experimenting with socialism, these states have embraced free-market capitalism, if only in part. They have opened their markets to foreign products and investment and allowed the best among them, the innovators and the entrepreneurs, to work and trade in relative freedom. Consequently, all of society prospers.
That capitalism works then, even modern day socialists cannot escape. Yet they insist that it has to be tempered; that its “excesses” must be controlled. But, as Hessen stressed, “the Industrial Revolution and its consequent prosperity were the achievement of capitalism and cannot be achieved under any other politico-economic system.” As proof, he offered the spectacle of Soviet Russia which combined industrialization — “and famine.”
But old dreams die hard. “In the writings of both medievalists and socialists,” notes Branden, “one can observe the unmistakable longing for a society in which the individual’s existence will be automatically guaranteed — that is, in which no one will have to be responsible for his or her own survival.” The ideal of the welfare state, still persistent in most of Europe, is ample evidence of this.
As the alleged cruelties of capitalism have been disproved, the antagonists of industry found different arguments to dispel it. Today, anti-globalists and eco-socialists argue that industrialism is no longer destroying livelihoods; it is ravaging the planet and condemning us all.
Observe, for instance, the absurdities promulgated by Joel Kovel (1936) and Michael Löwy (1938) in their “Ecosocialist Manifesto” of 2001 which equates globalization with imperialism and claims that in order to survive, capitalism is resorting to “brutal force, thereby increasing alienation and sowing the seed of further terrorism.” The choice before humanity, they insist, is between socialism and barbarism.
According to the manifesto, socialism failed in the first place only because the “capitalist powers” were so hostile toward it. (Even though social-democrats came to power in former superpowers as Britain and France after World War II apparently.) Now, it can prosper anew as the “limits on growth” are obvious to everyone. Eco-socialism does not intend to impose scarcity and repression on people though. “The goal, rather, is a transformation of needs, and a profound shift toward the qualitative dimension and away from the quantitative.” What does this mean? How is to be achieved? The manifesto doesn’t answer these questions.
This, one might argue, is the point of view of radicals however. Mainstream environmentalists should be more moderate. They are, but their principles are no different.
In a report entitled Growth Isn’t Possible: Why rich nations need a new economic direction (2010), the British New Economics Foundation (NEF) asserts that “endless economic growth isn’t possible when faced with the threat of climate change and other critical environmental boundaries.” According to the study, “there is no magic technological bullet that will allow us to continue with business as usual in the face of climate change and other critical resource thresholds” even though rapidly, extraordinary progress is made in the fields of renewable energies today.
Since the early days of industrialism, man has always found ways to free himself from the necessity of adjusting himself to his surroundings, which is the state of the animal. Through industry, man is able to adjust his surroundings to himself. That, NEF despises. “Survival of the fittest,” i.e., that the best may prosper, isn’t the “natural” order of a society, they say. Rather the study proposes to “tame the worst excesses of capitalism and liberate society from the motivation of conspicuous consumption.” We are all victims of materialism, it seems, as man can’t handle the freedom to work, produce and consume for his own gain.
NEF promotes “true sustainability” and proposes a “stationary” or “steady” economic order. This, they argue, is natural, which is nonsense. Nature doesn’t stand still. It constantly evolves and improves. But NEF seeks “an economics of better, not bigger,” or, as the eco-socialists put it, “toward the qualitative dimension and away from the quantitative.” Governments should “change priorities,” they argue, “spending less on unproductive military expenditure and more on schools, hospitals and support for those who need care.” Who is to pay for it all? No answer.
The study continues to assert that in a non-growing economy, “it might actually be easier to approach full employment.” What if population growth persists as it has for the past few centuries though? No answer.
“At the corporate level, there are many other forms of governance that could reduce or remove the pressure to service shareholders who have a one-eyed obsession with maximum growth and returns,” according to the study. What other forms of governance? No answer. What else should a business be concerned with other than making profit? No answer.
NEF’s reverence in the doctrine of anti-growth is hardly a novel concept unfortunately. As early as 1957 philosopher Ayn Rand warned against this destructive obsession with sustainability instead of growth in her novel Atlas Shrugged. As the greatest of producers of the United States go “on strike” one by one, top-level bureaucrat Wesley Mouch is confronted with an economy that has seized to grow. His solution to the problem:
[O]ur sole objective must now be to hold the line. To stand still in order to catch our stride. To achieve total stability. Freedom has been given a chance and has failed. Therefore, more stringent controls are necessary. Since men are unwilling and unable to solve their problems voluntarily, they must be forced to do it.
Note that the “solutions” offered by the aforementioned environmentalists can only be implemented by force. People will only give up so much voluntarily; they will only sacrifice up to a certain point. That point is the line beyond which their sacrifice begins to harm their happiness and wellbeing. According to the environmentalist school, their voluntary sacrifices can never be enough therefore. They demand that people renounce capitalism and industrialism almost entirely which will inevitably make their lives harder.
The assumptions underlying NEF’s proposals are supposed to be clear with readers yet they are never stated explicitly: that industry is evil; that capitalism is “cold” and “cruel”; that free markets are exploitive; and that man must abandon progress to return to an imagined pre-industrial state of living in harmony with nature.
Man, the environmentalists argue, has “lost touch” with his deeper roots. The complexities of Western industrial society have alienated him from his “instinctual nature”. Yet the least developed of nations deserve a different treatment. The Third World, they say, “could not be expected to bear equal measures of growth reduction.” That would be unfair, surely. Western countries, although in moral and economic crisis, have been the most successful in history so they must suffer evermore as the Rest pollutes in the process of catching up.
This is medievalism and socialism wrapped together in a lethal, anti-human mix. Whatever man’s rights and wants, it is needs that must dictate his life, these enemies of industrialism assert: the needs of the poor; the needs of the sick; the needs of the Third World; the needs of the planet. They demand that man sacrifice, not just his freedom, but his material wellbeing, his wealth and his happiness, for the sake of serving some superhuman purpose that even its most ardent of defenders always fail to identify unambiguously. Sacrifice, some now claim, will actually “feel good” no matter how many liberties and luxuries one is deprived of.
Pointing out the material advantages of free-market capitalism won’t be enough to counter their claims. Pointing out the “practical” advantages of industrialism won’t do. As Branden notes, few defenders of capitalism ever bothered to attack the position of their opponents at the root; “not one of them challenged the altruist-collectivist frame of reference in which all discussions concerning the value of capitalism were held. Capitalism has lost more and more ground,” he writes, “because we have lacked a moral philosophy to sustain and support it.”
What unites opponents of capitalism, claims Branden, is their justification of force to be used “for the common good.” Capitalism, in its ideal, consistent form forbids the initiation of force entirely and is denounced therefore as being “anti-social”, “impractical” and “unprogressive”.
Whatever the differences in their specific programs, all the enemies of the free-market economy […] are unanimous in their belief that they have a right to dispose of the lives, property, and future of others, that private ownership of the means of production is a selfish evil, that the more a person has achieved, the greater is his or her debt to those who have not achieved it, that men and women can be compelled to go on producing under any terms or conditions their rulers decree, that freedom is a luxury that may have been permissible in a primitive economy, but for the running of giant industries, electronic factories, and complex sciences, nothing less than slave labor will do.
Whether they propose to take over the economy outright, in the manner of communists and socialists, or to maintain the pretense of private property while dictating prices, wages, production, and distribution, in the manner of fascists and welfare statists, it is the gun, it is the rule of physical force that they consider “kind,” they who consider the free market “cruel.”
“A free society,” writes Branden, “cannot be maintained without an ethics of rational self-interest.” A proper morality, a morality that values life and recognizes individual rights, banishes force from human relationships because only force can threaten life and diminish rights.
Capitalism is this proper morality. Capitalism is the only philosophy which protects man’s individual rights to life, liberty and property. It is the only philosophy which holds man’s life as an end in itself. It is the only philosophy which allows man to pursue happiness, fully and voluntarily.
Climate change is a reality and global warming a challenge that demands the best in man to ensure the continuation of our way of life. The solutions lie not in updated versions of ideologies of the past however; ideologies that have condemned millions to scarcity and starvation but still appeal to many intellectuals and politicians who promote “social justice”.
True justice can never entail the corruption of civil liberties nor the expropriation of property. It is just for men to live in freedom, not oppression; it is just that achievement is rewarded, not robbed; that excellence breeds success, not punishment; and that each and every man is entitled to pursue happiness on his own terms. This, at its core, is the meaning of free-market capitalism. And this is exactly what, at its core, environmentalism, consciously or unconsciously, denies man.