Do We Take Miracles of Capitalism for Granted?

Joseph Schumpeter, in his 1943 book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, was concerned that the people who benefit most from a capitalist economy take its benefits for granted, and cannot be counted on to defend capitalism against its attackers.  This would lead to capitalism’s eventual collapse.  This seemed plausible in 1943, but less plausible in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and there was a worldwide recognition of the superiority of market institutions over government planning.  Today, Schumpeter’s concern is starting to seem increasingly plausible again.

I was reminded of this in a small way last week, when I was traveling by airline.  My flight home was delayed a few minutes because the incoming flight was late.  I boarded and had a window seat.  The window seat at the opposite end of my row was occupied by a passenger who was agitated and vocal about the delay.  He started complaining rather loudly about how ridiculous it was that the flight was not on time, and asked the flight attendant to call the pilots and ask why we were late.  She did, indeed, call the pilots.

As we were taxiing out and almost to the runway the pilots announced we had to turn back to the gate to check something, which elicited even more complaints from my fellow traveler.  He even pulled out his cell phone and called the airline to complain!  Back at the gate, they opened the boarding door… and an airline employee came on to escort the complaining passenger off the plane.  I’ve never been on a flight before that had a passenger ejected.

Once the unruly passenger had deplaned we taxied back out, departed, and eventually arrived 40 minutes after the scheduled arrival time.

Airline travel is one of the great achievements of capitalism.  I see it as more remarkable than landing a man on the Moon.  That was a one-shot deal, where all the program’s resources were aimed toward that one goal.  The airlines, meanwhile, run thousands of flights a day on a schedule that is so dependable that we get agitated when they are even a few minutes late.

If you had told someone a century ago that you could get into an aluminum cylinder and travel 6 miles above the surface of the Earth at 550 miles an hour—that you could cross an entire continent in a few hours—it would have seemed too incredible to believe.  Yet this happens every day, with such regularity that we take it for granted.

The unruly passenger on my flight is an example of the attitude Schumpeter believed would be capitalism’s undoing.  If capitalism’s beneficiaries don’t appreciate our remarkable economic system and won’t stand up to defend it, capitalism’s critics will take us down what Friedrich Hayek called The Road to Serfdom, which is socialism.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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