There’s a scene in the 2004 film Troy where Nestor, the Greek elder and advisor to King Agamemnon, tries to temper the latter’s hatred for Achilles. “How many battles have we won off the edge of his sword? This will be the greatest war the world has ever seen. We need the greatest warrior,” Nestor says, referring to Achilles.
Similarly, a call to arms for capitalism needs the greatest capitalist.
So when Elon Musk last month tweeted favorably about Johan Norberg’s latest book The Capitalist Manifesto: Why the Global Free Market Will Save the World and sent it to the top of Amazon sales chart, the Greek gods may have smiled in recognition.
Now, perhaps Musk isn’t that great of a capitalist, having successfully relied on government subsidies and a faulty green ideology to build the largest of his companies. But he is a serial entrepreneur with his name intimately connected to several of America’s iconic companies and, according to Forbes, the richest man on a fairly capitalist Earth. Whatever else is true, his stamp of approval ought to count for something.
The book, released this fall in the US, is a very Norberg-esque rallying cry of all the ways in which markets and liberty are great, and all the ways in which governments and collectivism are bad. It’s a torch that Norberg has proudly carried for the better part of two decades. He first burst onto the scene in 2001 with In Defense of Global Capitalism, arguing convincingly against the anti-globalization movements of those days.
Interestingly, as he tells the story in the opening of The Capitalist Manifesto, he used to debate people from the left; now globalization’s critics often come from the right. Ironically, nobody seems to have learned the true lesson about positive-sum games. Free trade used to be a bad thing because “we exploited them, now it is considered bad because they exploit us. Twenty years ago, capitalism was wrong because supposedly it made the world’s poor poorer. Now it is wrong because it makes the poor richer.”
The common denominator is still the mistaken belief that trade and markets are zero-sum games with winners and losers — a cosmic battle over finite resources. These days, Norberg is as likely to be called a woke, globalist leftie as he was a crazy, right-wing, capitalist lunatic in the 2000s. Frustrated, Norberg remarks that he’s not the one who changed.
Apparently, then, “every twenty years we need a capitalist manifesto that makes the case for economic freedom, applied to the problems and conflicts of the present era.”
So, here’s the new manifesto… but if we’re being honest, it isn’t that new. Most of the things presented in the book are simple updates to arguments that proponents of markets already know. Free trade benefits both parties. China didn’t destroy the mythical 1950s America. “The whole narrative of the lost golden age of factories,” he writes, “is based on a single American city in a single year during the very peculiar time after World War II, when Europe’s industry lay in ruins.”
Global capitalism has lifted countless people out of poverty. Inequality, of income as well as living standards and life itself, is mostly falling and isn’t a cleanly detectable problem anyway. Taxing the rich doesn’t work practically (the rich just move away, or stop bringing forth the goodies you want to expropriate), nor does it make society better off in any observable way. The capitalist’s striving for betterment makes the environment better, not worse — and degrowth is the worst thing we could do on behalf of nature: “We need prosperity and technology to adapt to [global warming]. Rich countries have no fewer natural disasters than poor ones, but they are much better at minimizing their damage to life and health.”
The green play was never “to stop flying and settle for less,” Norberg calmly points out. Instead, we should let enough people and countries everywhere grow rich so “that we have the will and resources to reduce our environmental impact.”
Between the very Norberg-esque appeal to statistics and far-away countries, and how tariffs are harmful and industrial policy nonsensical, it’s a pretty dull read. We get lots of statistics on how everything gets better, some fancy quotes from famous people, that kind of thing. We’ve seen it all before. He even repackages Leonard Read’s famous I, Pencil story in a few pages’ discussion about making coffee:
I can’t make a cup of coffee; neither can you. In fact, no one can make a cup of coffee. Those invigorating drops are the result of lots of people’s knowledge, skill and hard work that no single person can undertake. I am not just thinking of those who cultivate, pick and roast the beans, but also of everyone else who makes it possible.
The saving grace is that while In Defense of Global Capitalism was meant for me when I belatedly read it ten years after it came out, The Capitalist Manifesto isn’t. Instead, it’s meant for someone who — much like me, back then — doesn’t appreciate markets, thinks profit is evil, and believes in fairytales about government competence and social design.
On the battlefield of ideas, capitalism certainly needs defenders, as its reputation among the learned classes was never that great. In the real world, it’s much less clear that a defense of liberty and capitalism really matters that much. We all live and breathe it every day, embodying its principles every time we spend, consume, save, or otherwise act as economic agents. What we (sometimes loudly) profess to believe while we do it is of secondary importance.
Thankfully, capitalism doesn’t depend on others agreeing with its ethos for its success. Prosperity isn’t determined by a show of hands. What matters for the capitalist story to flourish is that its effect on the world continues to be positive, not whether market actors believe it while embodying its principles.
Let’s finish as Norberg does, elegantly dismantling the anti-capitalist trump card (but what about our values?!):
Liberalism is not about finding all life’s meaning in a shopping list, it just says that we need more meaning than can be found in a ballot paper. And that those who seek the meaning of life in collective projects that they try to enforce on everybody else have less of a sense of the beautiful richness and diversity of human nature than the alleged cold and robotic market liberals.
Well said, sir.