Does Capitalism Check Itself?

Updated: May 10, 2020

I pondered on this question for over a year, and while i haven't gotten clarity yet i had a discussion with amazing folks who gave me context i could never think up on my own.

I pondered this question for quite a while. It’s started about a year ago, from slowly questioning capitalism’s role in deepening inequality and the obsession of monetary value as the true and only source of progress to wondering why our societal values isn’t wired to think beyond the monetary gain towards other salient things like value of life, human rights, and protecting the weak from exploitation. It is hard not to be convinced of the benefits of a capitalist system seeing the overall positive impact on better healthcare, lower poverty and mortality rates, and more prosperity. Even seeing the positive impact of NGOs, is often driven by the value Capitalism provides.

I had a layover somewhere in France, on my way back to Nigeria, and i met a Nigerian man who was going home as well. Bayo now lives in the US. Looks to be in his fifties and i started a conversation. He has a 21 year old daughter. I told him what i did for work and somehow the conversation landed on capitalism. The one thing he said that struck was:

Capitalism Checks Itself, those who are short term in their mindset will be displaced by those who are long term thinking and it will not necessarily be for the good of just the other, but for good of themselves as well and this is a perpetuating cycle. When Capitalism seems unchecked - It’s almost like birthing a child, it is painful in that moment, but doesn’t mean it should be stopped because the market will correct itself”

I thought about this for a long time. Do we keep quiet while capitalism deepens inequality and causes the outright disregard of human rights for the mere reason that it needs room to thrive depending on the “stages” of growth of an economy? It does sound a little crude, or perhaps i see this from idealist lens?

When it comes to salient things like human life, do terms like “net effect” account for the real horrors minorities face through this journey? Is seeking for a better system idealist or necessary?

Someone once said to me in a discussion at a hotel lobby, “Not for profit organizations are essential to countering the excesses of capitalism. Just as you have people who will not stop at anything the get the most monetary value, you need people who have no limits to what they can give just to empower the weak and vulnerable”

I watched Ava Duvernay’s documentary on Netflix called The 13th and in shock and horror after the credits rolled, i easily could see the un-pretty extremes to capitalization and asked myself

Who was acting in the interest of the marginalized and oppressed as capitalism reigned unchecked?” I didn’t get an answer.

Over the next few months, i started reading and ploughing through materials on the subject weighing views from academics of varying backgrounds, free enterprise enthusiasts, conscious capitalists and books on capitalism, i ached for the friction and cohesion of discussion, a two way street of deliberation and i hoped that would somehow give me clarity.

Two months later at the dinner table for five, three weeks after a tweet expressing this desire, five people confirmed to attend.

Moe came first. In her natural curly black hair, dressed in a lovely teal gown battling a cold, but she came anyway. She is a finance attorney and investor and in my mind, i sort of expected that she would lean towards more supporting capitalism than against but i know she held strong views of excessively capitalist companies. For example, Moe doesn’t shop at Amazon.

Affi, came in next. Her golden locs and pink nail polish, her defiance is so easily misunderstood. The deliberate choice of her position to always self-check groupthink no matter how absurd is a principle i deeply admire. I was almost certain she would be all for capitalism, maybe even free enterprise.

Mustapha came in next; A CEO of a solar company passionate about sustainable energy. He is calm spirited but strong and direct in communication. We had met before just once. In my mind i could easily see him defending anti-capitalism standpoints and i’m not sure why i jumped to that conclusion.

Next was Ife and her friend, Kunle. Ife’s an amazing person, warm is how i’ll describe ife. You just want her around. A social justice crusader and podcaster at Not Your African Cliche , i felt like i could predict where she might stand - fighting for the rights of those who have no one in their corner. The weak and marginalized.

I had never met Kunle and his first words to me was, “you are very nice”, and i chuckled. Dark skin and with an afro, a marketer by profession Kunle was initially quiet, watching, reading people, expressing with his face, for the first hour and then the remaining two he expressed strong idealist views with his words that would not have been expected of his disarming countenance. In a good way.

The conversation started with Nigerian politics but very quickly we segwayed into the matter at hand, “Capitalism” and i wish i took notes, or moderated better, but i wanted to be in this discussion. I wanted to be a part of it, not moderate it or document it.

A lot was said, and potentially others left unsaid. Folks both held their ground and accommodated different points of view, and in the heat of raised and excited voices, three hours passed and we talked and drank and talked and drank.

I asked, if we could change the system, how would we do it?

Affi: Use tax revenue from businesses to keep reducing inequality. Make Capitalism counter itself. Capitalism is not the enemy. It has greatly benefited mankind (poverty, disease, wealth) and we mustn't take that for granted.

Kunle: Go back to the basics. Capitalism is learned behaviour and cannot functionally exist without the government and right incentives and infrastructure to thrive. Focus more on getting the right people who care about inequality and protecting the public’s interest to politics, to pass the right laws so that we have a balanced system.

Mustapha: As a government, it is important to define where you want to go, and define what type of market will suit your goal. It could be capitalism, but you wouldn’t know if you didn’t know what you wanted to achieve.

Moe: Governments must define their value systems. This becomes the cornerstone of regulation and policies and becomes the common theme. This becomes what people put their resources and money towards. What is that for your government? That is the first question that needs to be answered to determine what works

Ife: There are certain things where capitalism isn’t the best system to define what is valuable or not. To define what prices would be or not. Because doing that will deepen inequality. Healthcare, Education, these areas should be regulated with the interests of the public, especially those who need the most defending and protection. The weak and powerless.

The irony was my assumptions of some folks were wrong. It was an amazing discussion, with varying philosophies, all logical. I could relate to each and every view.

Me, the quasi moderator involved as deeply in the conversation as participants themselves, and when all was said, we smiled and said goodbyes, and said how amazing the discussion was. Ironically at the end, I still had more questions than answers, but i gained even more diverse positions on this topic than i did before. Maybe that counts for something, and maybe even also step to finally finding some resolution on the matter.




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