In the aftermath of one of capitalism’s greatest failures following the collapse of the housing bubble built in large part by Wall Street’s failure to regulate predatory loans that required no credit checks for buyers, many purist of capitalism were dumb founded after it became necessary for the federal government to bail out these mismanaged institutions. It became a shame that’s unbearable to those who believe that the invisible hand of the free market will correct all wrongs. The worshippers of the holy grail of for-profit industries were forced to acknowledge glaring weaknesses with their system and were left to find some modicum of salvation for it that really proved it was no better than the people who operated within its imaginary hallowed walls.
Since the collapse of the market, beginning in late 2007 and carrying into and beyond the election year of 2008, many proponents of this failed system have been licking their wounds while their steely eyes have been searching the ruins for some glimmer of hope that would assist in the renewal of capitalism’s image, like the Phoenix rising from its ashes. Grasping at straws and taking huge leaps with rationality, many free market devotees have often been left to criticizing their adversaries for their blasphemy towards capitalism in the hopes of removing the blight that has hurt the promise of free markets. When situations arise that capture the imagination of the world these apostles of wealth are ready to find a story they can use to validate their need for unfettered capitalism and reclaim its lost glory. Such is the case of Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal following the tragedy and eventual victory of the Chilean miners.
In his report on October 14th unapologetically entitled “Capitalism Saved the Miners” Henninger bestows the miraculous recovery of these men on one simple principle, what he calls “the profit = innovation dynamic”. By grasping at straws and stretching the imagination of starving capitalist everywhere, the WSJ reporter would have us believe that most important of all, the ability of a small company to produce their product via the profit motive saved the trapped miners. To Henninger it was this dynamic that allowed the tool to be developed that would penetrate 2000 feet of stone, allowing the trapped miners to escape. Without this innovation they would mostly still be there but hardly left alive. Strike up the band, raise the banners and sing praise on high to the “down-the-hole hammer drilling” method” developed by a small Pennsylvania company called Center Rock Incorporated (CRI).
It struck most observers I’m sure that many nationalities and their products played a part in the release of the trapped miners and I personally took a little pride in the part that NASA and some other American entrepreneurs like CRI took in helping to achieve this monumental feat. But unlike Henninger who places the onus for this victory squarely at the feet of an economic system that takes from people as much as it gives (capitalism is responsible for victims and beneficiaries of the gun, pharmaceutical and health insurance industries, to name a few), I felt what was worth noting here more than anything was the place human compassion played here of people from various cultural, political and economic stripe to step out of their self-serving roles and work to save the lives of low-income, hard working people that they would have otherwise not had any regard for.
Henninger makes two crucial mistakes I feel in his assessment of the roll capitalism plays in this human drama of rescuing the miners. First, it’s true the CRI’s product played an important role in helping rescue the trapped men but there is nothing in the free-market scheme of things here that instills the need for one human to aid another with their invention outside of the profit motive. In fact one of the main principles that is supposed to motivate entrepreneurs according to both Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, and Ayn Rand, the modern day guru of laissez-faire capitalism, is the need for one to fulfill their own self-interests.
Henninger didn’t make clear if Center Rock Incorporated offered their product free of charge or were motivated by the publicity they would likely receive even if the Chilean government or the capitalist mining company the trapped miners worked for didn’t compensate them for it. Hopefully that was not the case but if it was then how glorifying would it be for this bit of free-market innovation if the price was not right for CRI owners or even if there were negotiations about compensation before offering it to the Chileans?
The point to make here is that if CRI did this for selfless reasons, then human compassion found outside of free-market practices motivated them and Henninger’s grasp to connect it with capitalism is like a wounded animal baying in the wilderness. Henninger’s compulsion to defend the principle of the profit motive becomes clear when we see his attempts to belittle those who would dare to challenge capitalism’s claim to being the “economic model that lets our innovators rescue the rest of us”.
Henninger’s second mistake in his report was his veiled attack at non-capitalist systems in this story as exposed by Steve Rendell of the FAIR blog. Rendell’s report points out that not only was the mine tragedy a failure of a capitalist owner (much like our infamous Don Blakenship, CEO and owner of West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine where safety failures were responsible for the deaths of 29 men whose lives were not saved by the likes of CRI) but that the men’s true survival that carried them through their first 17 dark days after the rocks around them collapsed was the result of one amongst them who held all together until outside rescue did come.
According to Rendell’s report Luis Urzúa was responsible for “implementing food rationing and a 24-hour watch to listen for rescuers.” He also was able to unify the men and mediated conflicts in this desperate situation. Urzúa was a trained “topographer who took a job at the San José mines as a shift foreman while awaiting the start of new a job in his field” and was picked as a “natural leader” by the NASA officials present to help in the rescue. Rendell conveys to us that as “a topographer, Urzúa also had technical expertise useful to the rescue team. He was the last miner to be brought up because of his value to the effort”
What’s interesting here and is counter to Henninger’s glowing report on capitalism’s role in this was the fact that Urzúa’s “father was a Communist leader murdered by the Pinochet regime, and whose stepfather, a Socialist mining union leader, was in turn killed by anti-left government violence”. Urzúa attributed his leadership skills “for keeping the men bonded and focused on survival was majority decision-making”, a trait he attributes to speaking the truth and believing in democracy. “Everything was voted on…. We were 33 men, so 16 plus one was a majority” Urzúa tells reporters as he was recovering in a hospital bed. Rendell concludes that “the hero of our story, a mine foreman, says he discarded corporate, top-down decision-making in favor of workplace democracy.
Perhaps the saddest commentary to Henninger’s WSJ report is the urgent compulsion expressed by many in his field to defend capitalism by slandering socialism. The view by Republicans and extremist on the right that we need to “take our country back” from those who would deprive us of capitalism’s virtues is a reactionary response from people who are the worst sorts of capitalist. Not all of us who favor government intervention into the excesses of corporate greed see capitalism as the enemy or its prospect for profits as something to avoid. Like any system it is as good or bad as its leadership and those that favor the “me over thee” theme, inherent in the Libertarian’s “self-interest motivation behind laissez-faire markets.
Like the owner of CRI that provided the technology to drill the Chilean miners’ escape route and who willingly gave his product to save labor class, non-Americans, not for profit but because it was the right thing to do, many good men and women can see the value of utilizing aspects of different systems to accomplish a unified goal. It is the belief of Henninger and many like him, including all who are associated with the Tea Party, who are the real threat to capitalism. Capitalism is an important element within democracies but it is not at the top of the pyramid in the schematic of life.
The worthy goals that Adam Smith addressed nearly three-hundred years ago when he founded what free-market values evolved from included the need to monitor the actions of greedy men who destroy the livelihoods of other for selfish reasons. Capitalism is not an equitable governmental model compared to democracies and profit alone will not rescue all of us. There is something in us all that connects us as humans and members of this planet that is and never should be something we monetarily profit from.