Omniscience and defending capitalism


If you have ever attempted to explain capitalism, you have likely been confronted with a demand that you be omniscient. The demand is seldom, if ever, expressed that explicitly. Instead, it often takes the form of a question: how would some service, such as roads, be provided by private companies? The question is usually accompanied with a series of claims, such as private companies would engage in monopolistic pricing, private companies would be inefficient because of redundancies (such as separate water mains for competing companies), or private companies would simply refrain from providing certain services because they would not be profitable.

To the advocate of capitalism, addressing these issues can be perplexing. After all, we do not have an abundance of examples to which we can refer. How should an advocate of capitalism respond?

Honesty is always the best policy, and this is no exception. “I don’t know” is a perfectly proper answer. We do not know what solutions free individuals will develop to provide the products and services that others want and need. We cannot imagine the solutions that innovators such as Walt Disney and Steve Jobs might develop. Unless you are omniscient, how could you possibly make such predictions?

I hasten to add that we should not use “I don’t know” as an excuse to avoid presenting concrete examples. We should know of a wide variety of examples regarding the operations of capitalism. Not only will this help our case in regard to a particular topic, these examples can often be related to a different topic. For example, consider the private turnpikes in the eastern United States in the early 1800s and in Nevada in the 1870s. These private turnpikes serve as an example for roads, as well as infrastructure in general. Knowing examples of private parks not only refutes claims that privatized national parks would be filled with billboards and fast-food restaurants, but also can demonstrate that the protection of property rights leads to cleaner water.

Defending capitalism effectively does require us to have concrete examples. It is not enough to simply say, “Look at the nineteenth century.” We must have examples of parks, roads, libraries, and other concretes if we are to present a persuasive argument. In that regard, I’ll put in a plug for my book, Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, which contains examples of private companies providing these and many more services. But omniscience cannot be our standard, and we must reject any argument that attempts to make it so.

Thirty years ago, who would have predicted smart phones, the Internet, or flat screen televisions? Why should we attempt to predict what visionaries will develop when they are free to act on their own independent judgment?

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