You can’t escape it; capitalism has a bad rap.
Last night, thousands of anti-capitalist protestors took to the streets in capital cities across the world. Wearing V for Vendetta-inspired Guy Fawkes masks (most of which are made in China), these self-styled “anti-establishment” demonstrators, who took part in annual Million Mask March, sought to express their dissatisfaction with the capitalist system and the unfair outcomes it allegedly creates. Large anti-capitalist protests like those we saw last night are, of course, nothing unusual. In August, French police resorted to using water cannons and tear gas to disperse thousands of anti-capitalist demonstrators who were protesting in the French coastal town of Bayonne, during the G7 summit which was taking place in a nearby resort.
But it is not just during protests that we see disdain for capitalism. All over our newspapers there are headlines such as, “Capitalism is in crisis,” “Capitalism is failing,” or most recently “Capitalism is dead,” – the latter being a recent quote from billionaire Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff, who amassed his fortune thanks to the capitalist system.
The consistent bombardment of capitalism in our media and on our streets has culminated in a recent YouGov poll showing that nearly half of all Millennials and Gen-Z’ers hold an unfavourable view of capitalism. The same poll also found that more than 70 percent of Millennials would likely vote for a socialist candidate.
It is fundamentally trendy to be socialist, and to decry the alleged ills of capitalism. But does this persistent condemnation of capitalism hold up to scrutiny?
Every year, the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think tank publishes its Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) report in order to find out which countries have the freest (i.e. most capitalist) economies. The EFW ranks the level of freedom of 162 economies, using 43 indices, across major policy areas: size of government, legal systems and property rights, sound money, freedom to trade internationally, and regulation.
The idea behind the EFW report is that if you can find out which countries have the most capitalist economies, you can then use this information to see if more capitalist countries have better outcomes for their citizens when compared to their more socialist (or at least: less capitalist) counterparts. To analyse the correlation between economic freedom and human wellbeing, the EFW splits the 162 economies into quartiles, based on their level of economic freedom. And the results are staggering.
The average income in the most capitalist quartile of countries is an astonishing 6 times higher, in real terms, than the average income in the least capitalist economies ($36,770 and $6,140 respectively). For the poorest in society, this gap widens even more. The bottom 10 percent of income earners in the most capitalist countries make, on average, 7 times more than the poorest 10 percent in the least free economies. Similarly, more than 27 percent of people in the most socialist economies live in extreme poverty (as defined by the World Bank as an income of less than $1.90 a day), whereas just 1.8 percent of people in freest economies live in extreme poverty – a figure that is still too high (the optimal number is zero), but vastly better than the level that persists in the least free countries.
Economic measures aside, people living in the most capitalist countries also live on average 14 years longer, have an infant mortality rate 6 times lower, enjoy greater political and civil liberties, gender equality, and to the extent you can measure such things, greater happiness too – when compared to the least capitalist economies.
Take Hong Kong, for example, which is the world’s freest economy according the EFW report. In 1941, journalist and travel writer Martha Gellhorn visited the city-state with her husband, Ernest Hemmingway and noted “the real Hong Kong…was the most cruel poverty, worse than any I had seen before. Worse still because of an air of eternity; life had always been like this, always would be.” But just a few years after Gellhorn’s visit, the surrender of the Japanese in 1945 meant that British rule returned to the island and with it came a largely laissez-faire approach to the city’s economy.
In 1950, the average citizen in Hong Kong earned just 36 percent of what the average citizen in the United Kingdom earned. But as Hong Kong embraced economic freedom (according the EFW, Hong Kong has had the most capitalist economy every year bar one since 1970), it became substantially richer. Today, Hong Kong’s GDP per capita is a whooping than 68 percent higher than the UK’s. As Marian Tupy, editor of HumanProgress.org, notes, “the poverty that Gellhorn bemoaned is gone – thanks to economic freedom.”
We can see far bigger gaps whenever we pair a broadly capitalist country with an otherwise similar socialist country: Chile vs Venezuela, West Germany vs East Germany, South Korea vs North Korea, Taiwan vs Maoist China, Costa Rica vs Cuba, and so on. (Yes, I know: none of that was ‘real’ socialism. But then, it always is real socialism, until it isn’t.)
Decrying the ills of capitalism on a placard or in a newspaper headline is a trend with little sign of going away any time soon, but when we see such unsubstantiated claims, we should remember; the data simply doesn’t support the anti-capitalists.
This originally appeared in the blog for the Institute of Economic Affairs.