The case for capitalism

I have just received through the post a first edition copy of Hartley Withers, The Case for Capitalism. The preface is found below but comes with this one warning which to modern sensibilities can set them off in every direction but towards trying to understand what the author was saying. This was written when the most wealthy countries in the world were the capitalist economies of the British Isles, northern Europe, North America along with Australia and New Zealand. His reference to the Anglo-Saxon nations only refers to their social and economic organisations which anyone else is free to adopt, as some have since the 1920s, with exactly the results he describes. But the effect is moral rather than just economic since, as he makes clear, people who are challenged to do their best become better people. This is a moral statement even more than an economic. Written in 1920 just after the Russian Revolution, the book has not lost a beat in its ability to articulate why free enterprise is beyond all doubt the only system capable of providing prosperity and human freedom, not just together but you cannot have either without a free market economy in place.


To make a better world we want better men and women. No reform of laws and institutions and economic systems will bring it unless it produces them. Institutions and systems that turn men and women into machines working under the control of officials or of monopolies will not make them better even if, as is very far from likely, they make them better off. It is only through facing life’s problems for ourselves, making our own mistakes and scoring our own hits, that we can train and hammer ourselves into something better. Individual freedom, initiative and enterprise, have been the life-blood of the Anglo-Saxon nations and have made it what it is, pre-eminent among the nations of the world because its men and women can think and act for themselves. If we throwaway this heritage because we think that regulation and regimentation will serve us better, we shall do a bad day’s work for ourselves and for human progress. And yet this seems to be the object to which many earnest and sincere reformers are now trying to lead us, when they ask us to accept nationalization of industry or its organization under Guild monopolies, as a remedy for the evils which are evident in our economic system. If they succeed life will cease to be an adventure and become a drill; the tendency to variation which, as science teaches us, is the secret of development, will be killed or checked, and we shall be standardized, like Government boots.

This book is written to show that the greater output of goods and services on which material progress depends cannot be expected with certainty under any form of Socialism that has yet been proposed; that Capitalism, though a certain amount of robbery goes on in its backyard, does not itself rob anybody, but has wrought great benefits for all classes; and that, if improved and expanded as it may be without any sudden change in human nature such as other systems demand, it may earn for us the great material advance that is needed to provide us with a better, nobler, and more beautiful world.


London, January 1920.

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