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The Moral Inversion in Seattle

"Global Capitalism" has improved life for hundreds of millions of people. So why are thousands of protesters denouncing it?

By Robert W. TracinskiChairman

The Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism


The rioting and demonstrations at the World Trade Organization in Seattle offered us a view of a world in which everything is upside-down and backwards.

It is a world in which hordes of middle-class students and $25-an-hour union workers band together to take away economic opportunities from third-world peasants making 60 cents an hour—while claiming that their goal is “social justice.” In this world, American protesters oppose unrestricted trade because it is bad for poor countries—while the actual representatives of those countries plead desperately to remove restrictions on trade.

In this nonsensical world, protesters scream their opposition to the authorities and the “establishment”—yet the most established authority in the country, President Clinton, declares his sympathy with the protesters and derails the trade negotiations by backing their demands. This is a frightening world in which rioters break windows, loot shops, and forcibly close down the center of a major city—while the police boast, not about their ability to protect public safety, but about their restraint in dealing with the rioters. Meanwhile, student anarchists scream that “rent is theft”—and proceed to occupy a privately owned warehouse, stealing it from its owner.

But all of these contradictions pale in comparison to the central irony of the week: the fact that tens of thousands of protesters, inflamed with a sense of moral idealism, screamed their hatred at the one social system that ought to claim the moral high ground: “global capitalism.”

Consider the record of capitalism over the past two centuries, in those countries that have adopted it.

Hundreds of millions of people in Europe and America have been lifted from poverty to abundance—or, rather, they have been left free to lift themselves out of poverty. Capitalism leaves every entrepreneur free to develop new ideas, to put them into practice, and to profit from the results. It leaves every worker free to choose his career, develop his skills, and spend his hard-earned money to improve life for himself and his family.

The result of this liberation of productive effort has been an unprecedented explosion of wealth—the automobiles, skyscrapers, airplanes, computers, and all of the other products that have made our lives safer, easier, and better. And that is above and beyond the matters of life-and-death importance—the agricultural innovations and medical technology that have caused the average lifespan in the West to nearly double in the past few centuries.

Just over the past 50 years, capitalism has demonstrated its merits in so dramatic a manner that it could not have been invented in fiction. Who can forget the side-by-side comparison of West and East Berlin—of freedom and prosperity on one side of the Wall, versus servitude and squalor on the other? Or consider the way in which, over just the past few decades, free markets have spread across the Pacific Rim, lifting millions from the hopeless lives of peasants into the modern office buildings and apartments of newly industrialized nations.

Given this historical record, shouldn’t global capitalism—the spread of free markets and free trade to the Third World—be considered the greatest possible boon to the well-being of billions of people? Why would anyone want to oppose the spread of such a beneficial system?

The answer is that, although many people now grasp the practical value of capitalism, virtually no one grasps the moral value of capitalism. Free markets are viewed, at best, as a mere pragmatic mechanism for producing wealth—a necessary evil that must be limited, controlled, and offset by some element of “compassionate” socialism.

But capitalism is not just a system for producing wealth. It is, above all else, a system based on the noblest moral principle: the protection of the individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Free markets are founded on the individual’s right to pursue a career, trade the products of his effort, and enjoy the wealth he has earned—without having to seek permission from others or pay ransom for the privilege of living. Thus, capitalism has not just made people wealthy; it has also liberated them from the tyranny of the guilds, the aristocrats, and the commissars.

What has been the left’s response? Have they re-evaluated their hatred of capitalism? Certainly not. The screaming protesters in Seattle want to reverse the progress achieved by capitalism by subordinating individual rights to the demands of American protesters and trade bureaucrats. “Teamsters and turtles,” reads one of their signs, expressing their demand for labor and environmental regulations—and also naming the two entities for whose sake the freedom and livelihood of millions is to be sacrificed.

The real inversion in Seattle is the fact that there were no voices to protest against this assault on freedom and progress. What America needs is not another rally of unkempt youth condemning capitalism. Instead, we need a movement that will stand up for capitalism and for the moral and material progress it represents.

"Robert W. Tracinski is co-founder and Chairman of the Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism and is editor of The Intellectual Activist. Tracinski has written and lectured on a wide variety of topics, from Alexis De Tocqueville's analysis of the America character to the multiculturalists' war on science."


Continue to Know Thy Enemy