Capitalist Excess? A Review of Michael Moore’s “Capitalism”

Love him or hate him, or his films, there’s no question about where Michael Moore stands ideologically: Left-wing, “progressive,” populist, socialist. In some ways Moore’s newest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” muddies the water. But in the end, all it really shows is that Michael Moore doesn’t actually know what capitalism is.

Apparently, Moore thinks that capitalism is a system where the government bails out and controls the financial sector, or one whereby a few rich people dominate the entire structure and keep everyone else poor. Both are leftist caricatures that have nothing in common with capitalism properly construed, as best described by its first and best exponent, Adam Smith.

So Moore’s film needs a new title. Perhaps something like, “Corporatism: What the Left Thinks Capitalism Is.”

Watching Michael Moore rail against corporate bailouts in the early scenes of his latest movie, a free marketeer might wonder if perhaps the film maker has inadvertently blundered into the truth. Among other things, he rips apart the notion that government and big business partnering up is good for the little guy. About half-way through the movie, I actually caught myself thinking: Do Michael Moore and disciples of Adam Smith actually agree?

Eventually the film predictably drifts leftward, criticizing “excesses” such as high foreclosure rates, individuals hurt by (downward) stock-market swings, problems with a privatized jail and, of course, the fact that rich people are, well, rich (this from a guy worth millions himself). Moore also makes a faux-religious argument, asking some priests, “What would Jesus do?”

Many on the left similarly cite such “excesses of capitalism” as their reasons for opposing a free-market system. The reality, of course, is that most of these excesses have nothing to do with capitalism. Indeed, things like high foreclosure rates are the result of government policies that subsidized and virtually forced banks to give mortgage loans to people who couldn’t afford the home. The financial and stock-market crashes of one year ago were byproducts of the inevitable collapse of that house of cards.

But alas, excesses and villains are what sell movie tickets. Perhaps Moore will expand on the theme with films on the excesses of non-capitalist systems? How about these?: The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (two million murdered), the Soviet Union (65 million dead), Communist China (70 million dead), and so on. Now, those are some excesses, and gripping ones at that.

Michael Moore incoherently argues that we need to replace “capitalism” with a true American system: “Democracy.”

Ironically, a true capitalist system is the best and most pure system of the democratic ideal: individual consumers and producers engaging in purely voluntary and mutually beneficial exchanges. This could not be more different from government and politics, the hallmarks of which are coercion and dishonesty.

Here’s how economist Walter Williams defines capitalism and the proper role of government in such a system:

“Capitalism is an economic system characterized by private ownership and control over the means of production. The distribution of goods and services and their prices are mainly determined by competition in a free market. Under such a system the primary job of government is to protect private property, enforce contracts, and ensure rule of law.”

Capitalism is a system that has pulled millions upon millions of people out of poverty, but Michael Moore is profoundly ignorant of that. When pressed in an interview, he said he “doesn’t want to get caught up in titles.” He apparently doesn’t want to get caught up in truth either. Yet, condemning a system without understanding its basic principles sells movie ticketsi.e., it makes moneyand earns the praise of others who share Moore’s ignorance.

Before this film was released, Moore wrote, “The time has arrived for, as Time magazine called it, my ‘magnum opus.’ I only had a year of Latin when I was in high school, so I’m not quite sure what that means, but I think it’s good.”

Michael Moore may have had one year of Latin, but he either skipped or flunked Econ 101.

Jarrett Skorup

Jarrett Skorup

Jarrett Skorup is a 2009 graduate of Grove City College and former student fellow at The Center for Vision & Values. He is the research associate for online engagement for Michigan Capitol Confidential at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Centers are properly cited. Mr. Skorup can be reached at [email protected].

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