I have been reading a lot of U.S. and world history as I try to understand a way out of our nation’s political divisiveness. What I reaffirmed is that capitalist democracy is the best economic and political system ever created by mankind. It has provided more quality of life and freedom for more people than feudalism, colonialism, absolute monarchies, dictatorships, communism, fascism and whatever other isms time has given the world.
However, as Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Not inspiring but an apt description of both democracy and capitalism. That’s because they are the best political-economic combination ever but also destructive and discriminatory, creative and capricious – elevating winners and crushing losers sometimes randomly and often cruelly.
The greatest virtue of capitalist democracies is their extraordinary ability to evolve away from their worst self-destructive tendencies – sometimes just when total collapse seems near. To realize that you only need to study America’s real history – not some glossy rendition intended to inspire children. America and Americans are great not because of some glorious past we have to re-create but because we overcame our biggest flaws time and again to become a better people. Not perfect – that will never be possible – but a less flawed people.
We took far too long but we ended slavery and child labor. We took too long but we gave the vote to women and minorities. We overcame the Great Depression by reinventing America and then overcame both Nazi and Soviet communist oppression. We took too long but most of us finally recognized the need to sustain the planet, not just exploit it. America did all of these things – not immediately, not easily or perfectly, and we backslid at times, but “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried” usually pulled through. Yet so much remains to be done.
The world is full of instructive alternatives. Just as America has been at times a shining city on the hill to the rest of the world, there are other capitalist democracies that in some ways offer shining examples that we should consider.
We must not be tempted by false idols. China’s growing power and wealth comes from its 1.4 billion people, a low starting point and a command economy that extracts more than innovates. It seems poised to take over the world, just as Nazi Germany was leaping ahead in the 1930s while capitalist democracies languished in the Great Depression. China is a lot like Soviet Russia, which seemed poised to overtake the West in the 1950s.
China is trying to create capitalism without democracy, but the history of America and other Western nations teaches us that democracy smooths capitalism’s roughest edges. Democracy makes capitalism sustainable; without democracy, capitalism will eventually self-destruct. China reminds us communism and fascism are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin, and that a command economy and political dictatorship may lift a society out of poverty, but it will eventually stall.
Yes, capitalist democracy is the worst kind of society “except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Uninspiring message? Try this: Make America great again just as we’ve always done, by turning an imperfect America into a less imperfect America.
E Pluribus Unum.