Adam Smith (The Muir Portrait), ca. 1800, oil on canvas, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

They’re demonstrating in Seattle about “capitalism” again. Young people, presumably of the hip variety now famed for supporting Bernie Sanders, rioted there on May Day.

The Seattle Timesreported nine arrests and several injuries to police, including one officer who was bitten. Meanwhile, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, noting that a recent survey found 51 percent of young people, aged 18–29 described themselves as not supporting capitalism, wondered if the c-word “really isn’t the right word for the free enterprise system, the deep magic that has made America the richest, most powerful nation on Earth.”

I hope it will not sound immodest in me if I mention that this is what I have been saying for years. As I wrote back in June of 2002, “capitalism” is simply the socialist word for life. You can tell because even under socialism there is still capitalism, in the form of the black market. Like life, markets will generally find a way to survive. Socialism can harass and suppress what it calls capitalism—now, often just by calling it capitalism—but it can never replace it. You can’t replace an organic growth of human enterprise and ingenuity with a merely theoretical system designed by intellectuals to transform fallen humanity into a perfect society.

Mr Pethokoukis’s point is to promote Bourgeois Inequality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Made the Modern World, by Deirdre McCloskey.

According to Ms. McCloskey,

The system should rather be called “technological and institutional betterment at a frenetic pace, tested by unforced exchange among all the parties involved.” Or “fantastically successful liberalism, in the old European sense, applied to trade and politics, as it was applied also to science and music and painting in literature.” The simplest version is “trade-tested progress.” Many humans, in short are now stunningly better off than their ancestors were in 1800 and the rest of humanity shows every sign of joining the enrichment, the “innovism.”

That sounds sensible, though it makes the author herself sound uncomfortably comfortable with the jargon of the intellectuals. As I mentioned in that piece from 2002, that jargon only begins with “capitalism”—the first of the -isms invented by would-be social engineers as part of a concerted attempt to convert our experience of the world from a moral to a political one. This effort involved the invention of several imaginary systems analogous to “capitalism”—“imperialism,” “colonialism,” “racism,” “sexism,” and others—all of which were invented to take the place of human moral agency. And they succeeded because more and more people were persuaded that these supposed systems, supposedly overthrown by some supposed alternative, would naturally be replaced by utopia. We further their project when we use any of these words.

Utopia, of course, means “no place” in Greek, which shows you what its inventor, St. Thomas More, thought of it. At the heart of this left-wing project was the Leninist assumption that every society—except, of course, the socialist ones—could be divided into oppressed and oppressors as a preliminary to persuading the oppressed to rise up against their oppressors. Thus when this template was imposed on the family, it was found that the oppressed were women (and sometimes children) and the oppressors their husbands or fathers who represented an equally theoretical entity called “the Patriarchy.” Any husband or father who resented being regarded as an oppressor merely for exercising an authority over his family that stretched back for millennia of human history therefore became automatically a “sexist” and presumptively ripe for deposing by those who had been persuaded to see themselves as the victim of his oppression.

You’ve got to wonder how, for all those centuries, nobody realized that they were either oppressed or oppressing merely by marrying and having children—just as it never occurred to either employers or employees that they were part of a system, whether called “capitalism” or something else, until patently self-interested socialist theorists came up with a rival system that, they said, would solve all their problems. People with some experience of the world have tended to be naturally skeptical of such claims, but the young people of Seattle, as in many other parts of America, many of them with brains addled by strong drugs and having been sheltered from such experience by doting parents, are still suckers enough to believe the utopian promise. Mr. Pethokoukis is right. We should help them by refusing any longer to join them in subscribing to the myth of “capitalism.”

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