When the Tea Party calls for real cuts in our welfare state, it is typically denigrated by the left as a practitioner of “extremism.” It would be a mistake though, to regard this response as mere name-calling. It is far more significant—and dangerous.
This smear is an instance of a widespread technique regularly employed to undermine capitalism. From the campaign for “stakeholder rights” to the campaign against “insider trading,” the same insidious tactic is being used: the tactic of the conceptual “package-deal.”
Let’s say you oppose the idea that a corporation’s fundamental objective should be to make money for its stockholders. You could present various collectivist arguments, contending that the means of production should be controlled by “society as a whole,” rather than by selfish, profit-seeking individuals. Or you could take the more devious approach of trying to erase the very concept of a stockholder. How? By introducing the pseudo-concept of “stakeholder.”
A “stakeholder,” according to one dictionary, is “a person, group or organization that has an interest or concern in an organization.” The laundry list of examples includes “creditors, directors, employees, government (and its agencies), owners (shareholders), suppliers, unions and the community from which the business draws its resources.”
A concept is supposed to unite things that share an essential similarity. The essential characteristic integrating stockholders is their ownership of a company, which gives them distinctive rights and which clearly differentiates them from all other people. The term “stakeholder,” however, focuses instead on the superficial characteristic of having some “interest or concern” in the company. This approach packages stockholders together with everyone from the janitor to the vending-machine supplier to all the residents of the town in which the company is located.
Since almost anybody can be included in the “stakeholder” classification, the true function of this fuzzy term is to nullify the concept of a stockholder, who becomes just another “stakeholder,” with no distinctive rights.
The same methodology underlies the notion of “insider trading.” Stock traders can take two very different actions. They can steal proprietary information by using it without the owner’s authorization. Or they can obtain information honestly—information that perhaps no one else has managed to acquire—and then trade based on their superior knowledge. The first is a crime; the second is not—or shouldn’t be. But the nebulous term “insider trading” deliberately blurs the distinction between the two, and tars the second with the sins of the first. Its premise is that whenever you trade based on information not possessed by the general public, you are stealing. Thus, for example, the research division of an investment bank may painstakingly analyze reams of data to determine some business’s future prospects. But it isn’t permitted to convey its findings to the bank’s trading division unless the public is informed as well. The private acquisition of unshared knowledge—in this package-deal—is smeared as theft.
“Extremism” represents a far broader package-deal, designed to undercut the system of capitalism per se. This sham concept gained currency during the 1964 presidential campaign, when it was used to tar Barry Goldwater and his supporters. It is an attempt to package together antithetical ideologies by ignoring what one believes and stressing only how strongly one believes it—i.e., by equating the ardent proponent of freedom with the ardent proponent of slavery.
Of course, the smearers don’t really ignore ideological content, since the “extremism” label is applied only to advocates of a free market and not to, say, Occupy Wall Street or MoveOn. When House Republicans last month were willing to shut down the government unless ObamaCare was defunded, they were called “extremists” and likened to terrorists; when Democrats were willing to shut down the government unless ObamaCare was funded, they were called “moderates.”
Unable to discredit capitalism by open argument, the smearers resort to subterfuge. They induce the public to associate pro-capitalists—like Tea Partiers—with the perpetrators of such evils as racist lynchings or Islamic jihadism simply by declaring them all “extremists.”
And then of course there is the deadly package-deal that subverts capitalism at its root: “selfishness.” Here, unlike in the other examples, there is a valid need for a precise concept—a concept to denote a concern with one’s own interests. Unfortunately, the term “selfish” has been corrupted so that it is now commonly associated with some amoral reprobate, who readily lies, cheats and kills in order to gratify his desires. “Selfishness” has come to mean the (alleged) pursuit of one’s interests through the victimization of others.
But what about all the people who pursue their well-being by their own efforts, without victimizing others? From the mailroom clerk who works conscientiously for his paycheck, to the inventor who devotes himself to the goal of becoming rich by devising a better mousetrap, to the artist dedicated to creating a work that fully meets his independent standards—these are people who are acting selfishly, to improve their lives by pursuing their values. But they are not benefiting at the expense of others. These are honest, productive, self-respecting individuals who deal with others by trading value for value, who don’t believe that one man’s gain must come through another’s loss and who neither sacrifice themselves to others nor sacrifice others to themselves. This type of behavior is the proper referent of the concept “selfish.”
Instead, that concept has been replaced in popular usage by one that indiscriminately lumps together the producer and the parasite—the Warren Buffets and the Bernard Madoffs, the long-range creators of value and the range-of-the-moment leeches—and suggests that just as the predator is committing a moral crime, so is everyone who pursues self-interest. And capitalism, since it endorses self-interest, is thus smeared as institutionalized blood-sucking.
In today’s culture, defending individualism, freedom and capitalism requires more than making a clear, rational case for these values. It also requires identifying, and repudiating, the obfuscations of the package-dealers.♦♦
[This was ppubl at Forbes Online, November 11, 2013.]