I have a regular weekend routine that provides quite the yin-and-yang experience: every Saturday, I’ll spend some time at the gun range, followed by a yoga class. One of the unintended benefits of this routine is that I get to interact with two groups of people who are generally on opposite ends of the cultural and political spectrum. My commute from one to the other is no more than ten minutes.
In a time when many are reporting that Americans are more divided than ever, I continue to be awed at just how well this divided country functions. Don’t get me wrong: I put up with some lighthearted jeers of “hippie” when the guys at the gun range hear I’m heading to the yoga studio, and a few gawks from my fellow yogis upon discovering that I was just firing a gun. But these two businesses—whose clientele possess vastly different politics—are able to operate in the same town, completely peacefully.
This peaceful diversity is a benefit of capitalism that we take for granted today. In an economically free country, you can find a business that caters to your specific interests. If that business does not yet exist, you can create it. And a business with a fundamentally different philosophy can open up right next door. (To my chagrin, a donut shop recently opened shop across the street from my gym—every morning, I get to test my self-control for free.)
In centralized economies, such diversity of choice is impossible. These economies deny their citizens the ability to satisfy even the simplest of desires. For example, in their new book Socialism Sucks, economists Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell irreverently detail the difficulties they encountered of merely finding a decent beer in socialist countries.
The lack of good beer is the least of the concerns of citizens stuck in a command-and-control economy. Take, for example, the Soviet Union, the largest attempt to create a socialist utopia. Instead of promoting equality and choice, as many had hoped, Soviet economic planners could not even keep their own people fed. In today’s western culture today, our biggest food problem is that we have too much of it.
Not only do planned economies create material poverty and starvation, they exterminate individuals’ very right to be free. In countries that attempt to plan their economies, those who aren’t on board with the plan are cast out. Venezuela, for example, was long hailed as a success of socialism. During Venezuela’s 2017 election—as the country’s economy was collapsing—workers were threatened with firings if they did not toe the party line. Even in the face of abject failure, Venezuela’s socialist government demanded its citizens swear fealty. One can find an endless number of stories similarly detailing the destructive cost of socialized economies.
Some may argue that the relative peace and prosperity we enjoy domestically is due to our political democracy, not to economic capitalism. But Friedrich Hayek argued in in 1944 book The Road to Serfdom that democracy could not exist without capitalism, and that once a country becomes “dominated by a collectivist creed, democracy will inevitably destroy itself.” History has shown time and again that political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom.
Philosopher John Stuart Mill called for a society premised around “experiments in living.” Mill believed in a world where every individual could pursue his idea of the good life. For all of the talk today about the value of diversity, there is little acknowledgement of how socialist economies deprive millions of people of diversity—diversity of choice, thought, and lifestyle. In a socialist economy, those in power wield great influence over the decisions of their subjects. In a free society, it doesn’t matter who the president is, or what party is in power. People making peaceful economic choices can choose to do so, even if those in political power don’t like those choices.
Maybe Sam at the gun range and Daphne at the yoga will never be friends. But in a world where they are free to choose, they don’t have to be. Sam and Daphne can live their lives, agreeing to disagree and never needing to be in conflict. And at some point, maybe one of them will have their curiosity piqued about the other’s hobby. Sam, with his arthritis, could certainly stand to learn a few poses that would improve his hip flexibility. And Daphne, who probably won’t be able to stop an attacker with a well-time chaturanga, would benefit from learning some form of self-defense. Thanks to the diversity of our marketplace, Sam and Daphne may one day cross paths. And the world could end up a little better off because of it.