Musician and thinker Joe Berns of Aberdeen went to the Koch Brothers’ free pizza and propaganda show here in Aberdeen last Thursday. Here’s his report on the event:
The organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP) hosted a presentation, “Making the Moral Case for Capitalism,” in Aberdeen last Thursday evening. AFP, as mentioned on Dakota Free Press, is the “grassroots” arm of the infamous Koch Brothers. Curious as I was about the contents of this event, I honestly had no intention of attending until two words flashed before my eyes: free pizza.
Free pizza? AND a two-hour presentation on capitalism? Count me in!
Let me clarify that I am no capitalist. I’m a dues-paying public school teacher who voted for Bernie in the presidential primary and who has recently taken to reading Eugene Debs for fun. However, I do love expanding my knowledge base and I find the idea of capitalism fascinating.
The slide-show presentation covered a few key points including, verbatim, some anecdotes about panties, Sam Walton, milk, and Communist China I had heard in a YouTube video the previous night. Here are the points I got from the show:
- The free market eliminates poverty and raises living standards for all.
- Coercion is impossible in a free market system.
- Capitalism lets you keep the fruits of your labor.
- The only moral economic option possible is free-market capitalism.
As far as actually “making the moral case” for capitalism, they had a few points which made up a generic formula for “making the moral case for X.” Basically: appeal to emotions, refute the opposition’s premises, be polite, and go on the offensive by establishing the moral high ground first.
Very interesting stuff. And they sure sold it. By this point even I was feeling pretty good about all the free-market sunshine and rainbows. I still had a few nagging questions, but I took their advice and politely waited until after the presentation wrapped up to begin refuting their premises.
Civil Discourse part 1: Wage Theft, Magic Numbers, and Swimming Pools
Although the AFP reps offered to take questions at the end, the crowd did not seem particularly talkative or curious. The newly-baptized “activists” filtered out, and I approached the three polo-clad men with my questions.
We discussed the “fruits of labor,” to which I questioned the fairness of employers keeping the profit gained from increased worker productivity. (A concept known as “wage theft” in socialist circles.) When I asked about the disparity between worker productivity and median pay in the last few decades, I was told “Yeah, you can make the numbers say whatever you want.” I thoroughly agreed, considering AFP had just used the following chart to contend that capitalism reduces income inequality:
We touched on profit-sharing, which they supported—provided it was “voluntary” (they repeatedly used the terms “coercion,” “threat of force,” and “at the point of a gun” whenever government was mentioned). I was curious. For whom it was voluntary, and would the workers get any say? However, before I could ask, one AFP rep unveiled his exciting and sure-fire solution for increasing wages: simply increase economic growth. Mr. AFP launched into a short diatribe about the slow growth under Obama. Meanwhile, my mind envisioned filling up a swimming pool, but with only 10% of the water from the hose making its way into the pool. Sure, increasing the water flow would fill up the pool faster, but that’s not really fixing the problem. I shared my analogy and then let the conversation quickly switch gears.
Civil Discourse part 2: Cocercion, Slavery, and Child Labor
I was also not satisfied with the assertion that coercion is impossible in a free-market system. Their logic was that all interactions here are mutually beneficial trades; if I’m buying a gallon of milk, I value the milk more than my four dollars. The store owner values my four dollars more than that gallon of milk. Therefore the trade is win-win. Likewise, workers trade their time and labor for wages in a similar win-win scenario.
Except, sometimes for the worker it’s lose-lose. I see people stuck in under-paying jobs which they can’t leave because there’s nowhere else to go. The economic “choice” they get is either a low-wage job or no means to support their family. The standard AFP answer seems to be that workers in a bad situation should simply find a better job. I’d sure like to visit this magical land where these fabled better-paying job openings abound.
The conversation moved briefly to workplace conditions. AFP claims that under capitalism (which is definitely never exploitative in nature), workplace conditions improve naturally; factory owners strive to maintain worker-friendly environments, which in turn keep workers happy. This is important because mistreated workers aren’t as productive.
Interesting. Just for fun, I made a correlation to plantation owners’ treatment of slaves as farm tools. AFP responded that most slave owners actually treated their slaves quite well, because again, they would not have been productive otherwise. Exactly my point. Their “nice” treatment did encourage higher slave productivity, in addition to helping justify an inherently exploitative system. (They made sure to mention, for the record, that AFP does not endorse slavery!)
Last stop, child labor. According to AFP, child labor laws are unnecessary; capitalism began curbing the practice of hiring child workers long before such laws ever went into effect (a claim that appears partly true but severely lacking*). At one point, as I reasserted my support for child-labor laws, an AFP rep actually asked, “What would you rather see: a child working in a factory or a child starving?” As if to ask how I (or the dreaded State) could have the gall to legislate this poor, hard-working child into starvation. Not until later did the train of logic really hit me—a system which can force such an ultimatum on a child can hardly claim to be coercion-free.
Free trade and markets do some pretty phenomenal things. I am just as amazed as the next guy (though I will admit, a bit disturbed) that I can go up to Kessler’s and buy a tropically-grown coconut at 2:37 am on a Sunday. However, I still see the system which provides all this as imperfect and open to critique.
Americans for Prosperity, the organization which last Thursday boasted of their lobbying success in repealing IM22, promoting “school choice,” and fighting Medicaid expansion, delivered what was ultimately a successful presentation. Their goal was neither to inspire community action nor to seek truth, but rather, to equip their disciples to better preach their hard-line dogma of free-market capitalism—a doctrine which damns innovation and influence from impure (“social-democratic”) or heretical (“collectivist”) schools of thought. They provided a message people wanted to hear and gave them some tools to spread that message whilst sidestepping some logic and real-life facts.
Another small victory for Charles and David Koch.
*Editor’s note: One historian contends that through its reliance on the division of labor, “the unregulated system of capitalist production inherently tends toward substantial employment of children.”