It’s no secret that certain words degrade with time as the objects associated with them lose status. Something my sister said to me made me realize that we’re at that point with the phrase “free market capitalism,” and there may be dire consequences because of that linguistic devaluation.
One of the most obvious and painful areas in which language keeps degrading is in the words we use to describe those people in America who are of African descent. They’ve been called Africans, Black people, Colored people, Negro (which comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word “negro” or “black,” which in turn derives from the Latin “nigrum” or “black”), African-Americans, People of Color, and of course the infamous N-word, which is a bastardization of “negro.”
Why so many different appellations? Because each takes on a negative connotation as time goes by. Language usage shows that American blacks have never been held in high esteem, and blacks have therefore constantly tried to skip ahead linguistically, coming up with new words as the old ones grow stale and distasteful.
It’s not just blacks who find language devalued when it comes to them. Women don’t fare so well either. Once upon a time, “spinster” and “bachelor” were complementary words, with the former simply meaning a woman who spins (a task that unmarried woman did during the Middle Ages) while bachelor, a word only slightly older than spinster, referred to a “farm hand” — a job description no higher on the social scale than one who spins.
Over time, however, the word “bachelor” became something of a hip, happening term, implying an unfettered man enjoying the sexual delights of the single life. Meanwhile, the word “spinster” devolved to mean a dried-up, elderly, high-strung, entirely unattractive woman who never married and who certainly will not marry.
Likewise, the word “beldam,” a somewhat dated word for an “old hag,” started out life as “belle dame,” the French for beautiful woman. Somewhere along the line, it became the word for a grandmother and from there it was a short journey to a disgusting, raddled old woman.
The word “slut” too has had a downhill slide. In England, at least as of 30 years ago when I lived there, it was still used in its traditional sense of describing a woman who is a poor housekeeper. I need not explain to you how insulting the term “slut” has become in America.
So why am I boring you with this little side trip into word origins and their depressing stories? Because my sister told me that “free market capitalism has proven to be a failure.” She was referring, of course, to our endless recession, as well as to the constant complaints about income inequality.
My immediate response was “It has not been a failure!” When she started explaining all the ways in which the American economy was failing, I realized that we agree as to substance — the American economy is a disaster — but that we parted ways definitionally. I explained to her that what we have today, in terms of the marketplace, is essentially fascism-lite, and that it bears increasingly little relationship to a free-market capitalist system.
For example, the United States’ maximum rate for individual taxpayers, which can go up as high as 56% (welcome to New York or California), is higher than the maximum individual tax rate is such proudly socialist or semi-socialist countries as the Netherlands (52%), Cuba (50%), Israel (50%), Japan (50%), Norway (47%), United Kingdom (45%), France (45%), Italy (43%), and New Zealand (33%).
The United States fares even less well when it comes to corporate taxes, which play a huge role in attracting or repelling businesses. The federal tax rate ranges from 15% to 39%, with additional state (0%-12%) and local (0%-3%) taxes added on. Again, just think about the difference between California’s inability to hold on to corporate jobs and Texas’s ability to lure those jobs. Meanwhile, as with individual tax rates, ostensibly socialist or semi-socialist countries place a much less onerous burden on companies that want to do business there. Canada, for example,, has a federal tax rate of 11%-15% federal rate plus a highly variable 0%-16% provincial rate.
Other countries have rates that are higher than 15% (the lowest federal corporate tax rate), but significantly lower than 39% (the highest federal tax rate, and that’s not even counting state or local add-ons). Among those countries are the United Kingdom (20%), Sweden (22%), Austria (25%), Denmark (25%), Netherlands (25%), Norway (27%), and so on. It’s more expensive to do business in ostensibly “free market capitalist” American than it is to do business in all of those ostensibly socialist nations.
In addition to the fact that we tax the Hell out people and businesses, we also regulate the Hell out of them. Businesses are not left to make their own market-based decisions about products, prices, sales practices, etc. Instead, federal, state, and local governments micromanage them. To keep a market honest, some regulation is always going to be necessary, but that regulation should take the form of a few big, unbreakable rules necessary to keep markets honest (don’t lie in your financial reports, don’t commit fraud, don’t poison the public, don’t enslave workers, don’t manufacture cars that explode, etc.). Instead, all too often, whether it involves replacing a chair, tiling a floor, installing a machine, or shipping a widget, some government entity or other has pages and pages of rules and regulations detailing precisely how these activities must be done. (For a primer on this circa the early 1990s, when regulations were less onerous than today, check out Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America.)
Oh, and then there’s what we call “crony capitalism,” which is really “fascism lite.” Under full-bore fascism, the socialist government, rather than nationalizing businesses as happens under communism, simply takes the businesses under its wing, directing all of their activities and decisions, while allowing the businesses “owners” to collect whatever profits are available once the government has had its say and taken its cut. Crony capitalism is less formal, with businesses paying the government various sums to encourage it to destroy competitors or provide unfair market advantages for the business. The government still has the ultimate say, but the businessmen have the illusion that they’re calling the shots. As with fascism, the only one getting really shafted under this arrangement is the consumer.
Which gets me back to my discussion with my sister. Whatever is going on here, it’s not free market capitalism. It is, instead, a form of socialism most closely akin to fascism, in that the government gets its cut and gets its say, but allows the illusion of private ownership.
The problem is that if people believe this fascism-lite is free market capitalism, then the phrase “free market capitalism” is devalued to the point of meaninglessness. We’re no longer in the realm of John Locke, Adam Smith, Friederich Hayek, or Milton Friedman. We are, instead, sliding down the Marxist slope, something that never ends well — and Americans, seeing this economic degradation combined with a less of individual freedom have been brainwashed into indicting “capitalism,” rather than putting the blame on “socialism,” where it actually belongs.