A couple years ago I was listening to NPR. A Chinese factory worker described his long hours and low pay. Then he said that as a subsistence farmer he could barely feed his family, but as a factory worker he had just bought a TV. And his daughter was continuing with school. Her life would be even better.
Capitalism is the greatest anti-poverty program ever. It created such a dramatic rise in the standard of living that today’s poor are rich by historical standards. But some gain much more than others, and that stuck in Karl Marx’s craw.
Slavery is incompatible with capitalism because capitalism depends on incentive and innovation while slavery encourages passive resistance; and capitalism needs an increasingly educated workforce, while education is a tool for slave rebellion. Abolitionists always existed, but capitalism made their quest politically viable.
Not long ago when New York state was working to legalize gay marriage, Wall Street executives spoke up in support. Their motivation was indeed financial: people spend a lot on weddings, and gay marriage means a new specialty market. But this does not detract from a genuine moral support for equality – even within the same individual.
The same is true for the women’s movement. Before capitalism most women spent most of their adult lives pregnant or caring for children. Without effective birth control, and the likelihood of being dead by age 40, biology really was destiny. Without machines men were beasts of burden, and this hard labour killed men’s bodies.
Capitalism created lucrative, low risk jobs. And innovation created reproductive control. That there would be political opposition to this sea change in lifestyle is to be expected – people don’t like change – but successful change was nonetheless inevitable.
Without capitalism we never would have had a women’s rights movement. Not that women wouldn’t have wanted it, but rather that no economic structure would have existed to support it. Look at China: egalitarianism is a communist ideal, but no women’s rights movement blossomed under Mao. Instead, women were forced to have abortions.
Capitalism has been a boon for women, even if this point has been lost on Marxist and socialist feminists. Promoting free markets and free global trade will greatly improve women’s and men’s lives in the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
In The Birth of Plenty, William Bernstein claims there are five essential ingredients for great economic growth: property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, and technology for communication and transportation. These conditions never existed together until the early 1800s in Europe and North American, and these continents surged ahead. But when a country tried to discard one of these, as with property rights and capital markets in the Soviet Union, things eventually fell apart. Religion’s not uncommon opposition to scientific rationalism is an economic barrier in the Middle East today.
But what does this mean for men? By the mid-twentieth century men had thought they could rescue women from the drudgery of labour, with washing machines and vacuum cleaners making home tasks far easier. But most of us want to achieve our full potential, so women entered the workforce en masse.
Men are still judged by their incomes, but are no longer necessary for material support. And because high growth must eventually level off, young men today find themselves on the wrong side of the economic curve.
The men’s rights movement is not economically inevitable the way feminism was. Capitalism freed women from biological destiny while women gained direct access to resources, replacing their indirect access via men’s obligation to labour for women’s support.
But capitalism does not remove a man’s obligation to transfer wealth to others, though capitalism does remove a man’s need to do so directly. Men’s provider role was always direct via marriage, but today it’s often indirect via divorce (alimony, child support) and through taxation (men pay the majority of taxes but women benefit more from social spending).
With women creating their own wealth, or in the absence of that co-opting the wealth of others via the welfare state and taxation (usually stated as necessary for the good of the children), men need something unique to offer.
Yet, for all the talk about flexible gender roles and men being more involved parents, a recent report from Britain found no support for househusbands whatsoever.
With divorce and the welfare state, women only need men on the periphery of their lives. But men’s direct involvement in women’s lives is still necessary, even if briefly, as a quick and low-cost means for having children (artificial insemination is an option, but it’s too expense for most women).
The impending advent (2017?) of a “male birth control pill”, which is not really a pill but an injection into the vas deferens to block sperm (and which can be reversed with another injection), could improve men’s equality with women over reproduction.
How this may or may not change the equation remains to be seen. It could bring men back from the periphery, at least somewhat. On the other hand, women could lobby for government subsidized artificial insemination.