Capitalism Flourishes When People Are Left Alone
MARCH 01, 2002 by SHELDON RICHMAN
The day after the Taliban abandoned Kabul in Afghanistan last November, the New York Times‘s David Rohde reported on the quick revival of commerce in the capital. “Food appeared plentiful. A central market that lines the road leading into the city had large amounts of fresh meat for sale, fruit juices from Iran and even Coca-Cola, a testament to the strength of smuggling networks in the area.”
This is yet another tribute to the resiliency of markets and the people who animate them. Kabul had been under the thumb of a repressive, reactionary regime for years. Then it was thrown into chaos by massive U.S. bombing and fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Yet the moment there is calm, commerce flourishes. Merchants were selling CDs along with the victuals. One man sold satellite dishes.
I’ve long thought that the best definition of capitalism is: the moral-legal-economic system that results when people are left alone. It’s the default position. Every time some ruler has sought to abolish or severely restrict the market, he’s had to set up a secret police to keep an eye on the population lest they act like capitalists. There is nothing more natural than for people, of virtually any culture, to look for ways to improve their lots in life through investment, production, and trade. Governments may squelch that activity and even execute its practitioners, but they can never wipe it out. Given half a chance, people find a way.
The Afghans have managed to find a way amid the most adverse conditions. A good word should be said for the smuggler. He’s gotten a bad rap historically. But the smuggler is the one who risks life and limb to satisfy consumers when the government refuses to permit “anything that’s peaceful.” He was an admired figure in America’s revolutionary days. It was the customs officer who got tarred and feathered.
Long-term, permanent economic progress in Afghanistan will require the security provided by formal property rights and the rule of law. That in turn will depend on the attitudes of the people there. But it is inspiring to see what people can do on short notice under less-than-optimal conditions.
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