In Tristan de Liege’s April 11 Op-ed, “Capitalism and the poor,” an attempt is made to justify laissez-faire capitalism. The justification rests on two faulty premises: that capitalism is justified by the alleged benefits it brings, and that in a capitalist society wealth is distributed on the basis of voluntary choice.
Firstly, economic and political systems cannot be justified solely on the basis of the benefits they bring. Even if we were to accept, as de Liege asserts, that capitalism will improve the standard of living for the majority of individuals, this is no justification. Slavery certainly “improved” the standard of living for slaves and their masters. It is common knowledge that immediately after slavery was abolished in the South, many former slaves found themselves worse off than they did when they were still slaves. Does this justify slavery? Certainly not.
Secondly, wealth has historically not been distributed on the basis of voluntary choice in capitalist systems for multiple reasons. First, capitalist systems ignore past involuntary wealth transfers. Even Robert Nozick and other radical libertarians agree that history has been so full of unjust involuntary transactions such as colonialism, slavery and wars of aggression that in the short term a radical redistribution of wealth would be justified. Second, the fact that one needs wages for human survival means that contracts cannot be considered voluntary. If one is completely dependent on wages for his or her own survival, as many in society are, employment contracts can reasonably be seen as a form of compulsion.
Political science graduate student