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Does capitalism have a nature?

Notes from Planet Earth

Myths, rituals, languages, and other culturally determined behaviors that have been always been part of human existence are rightfully considered to be in some way rooted in our biology. Similarly, the many institutions (political, religious, military, and economic) with which humans are involved also reflect important aspects of our nature. Markets — the buying, selling, giving, loaning, or exchanging of goods and services (including humans) — existed thousands of years before the advent of a written language with its symbols for recording these market transactions. Indeed, some anthropologists believe that the need to record economic transactions for future reference was an important catalyst for the more recent origin of a written language.

The various economic systems developed for managing complex exchanges of material goods and services include the one we call capitalism. Generally, in a capitalist system, the means of production and distribution are owned privately and operated to produce a profit for its owners. As a natural result of this system there is a strong tendency for the wealth of a society to become increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Milton Friedman, a highly admired economic guru of the Twentieth Century, believed corporations should not be “socially conscious.” I believe by this he meant (at least in part) that it was not proper for a corporation (as an entity) to donate some of its profits to charity because which charities are selected should be the sole prerogative of each of the individual owners (stockholders) acting and choosing independently the charity (if any) he or she wishes to support. This makes some sense to me, although as one who seeks grants from Corporations to support non-profits in this area, I like seeing a little “social consciousness” of this sort.

However, there is another way of being “socially conscious.” This latter form of social consciousness requires empathy (i.e., having an awareness of, and caring about, the impact of one’s actions on others). In contrast, sociopathy is characterized by a lack of empathy and little regard for the impact of one’s actions on others. In current research into highly social organisms (including humans) individuals behaving in one or the other of these two modes are labeled cooperators or defectors, respectively. Having many more cooperators than defectors appears to be necessary for the evolutionary success of social organisms.

Questions and suggestions from readers are welcomed and will be responded to in future editions of this column. Contact me at cwdingman@frontiernet.net.

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