Every Dollar as a Vote: The Ethics of Capitalism

First published in 2018 with The Ethics Centre

If the last decade of Australian politics has taught us anything it is this: democracy is a deeply flawed system. Between the leadership spills, minority governments, ministerial scandals, legal corruption, and campaign donations, democracy is leaving more of us disillusioned and distrustful. And that’s just in Australia. Overseas, various ‘democratic’ governments have handed us Brexit, Russian election tampering (both domestically and abroad), the near-collapse of the Euro, the Chinese Government’s Social Credit scheme, and the soon-to-be-impeached Trump Presidency.

It’s not surprising that many are looking for an alternative system to run the country. Something simpler, more direct. Efficient and easy.

Something like capitalism.

This may seem absurd on first reading – after all, how can an economic system replace the political governance of an entire nation? But capitalism is more than how we trade goods and services. It is a socio-economic theory that claims it can better represent people, nationally and abroad, than democracy ever could. It’s known as neoliberalism.

Neoliberals argue that we don’t need to rely on the promises of unaccountable representatives. We can let competition decide. Just as a free market encourages better goods and services, why don’t we let the free market encourage better governance?

If Bob does a better job fixing your car than Frank, employ him and vote for that quality as the standard. Frank either picks up his game or goes out of business. If people value businesses that treat their employees well, those businesses will succeed and others will change their practices to compete. Where democracy asks you to trust in the honour of your leaders, and only gives you a chance to hold them to account every few years, neoliberalism lets you exercise your choice every single time you spend your money, every single day. Where democracy relies on a massive, clunky bureaucracy, neoliberalism only relies on things we all already do.

This is far from fantasy thinking. It is this essential idea that drives ideas like ‘small government’, privatisation of state infrastructure, decreasing business taxes, and cutting ‘red tape’ – remove government interference from the system and leave the decisions up to the people themselves.

On paper it is the perfect system of government – a direct democracy where every citizen constantly drives policy based on what they buy and why.

Great, right? Well, only if you’re a fan of Feudalism. Because that is what such a system would inevitably produce.

Consider this: within Democracy, who is in control? The elected government obviously has the reigns of power during their term (to a frankly frightening degree), but how do they maintain that power? By being elected, of course. Whether they like it or not, every 3-4 years they at least have to pretend that they care about the needs of the people. In reality it’s hardly as simple as ‘one person, one vote’ – between campaign donations, lobby groups, ‘cash for access’, and good old-fashioned connections, some citizens will always have more power than others – but the fact remains that within democracy, the people in power still need to care about the whims of their citizens.

Now consider this: within this ideal capitalist, neoliberal, vote-with-your-dollar system, who is in control? If you express your interests in this system through your purchases, then power is dispersed based on how much you spend, right?

Who does the most spending? The people with the most money.

Here is the critical question and the sting in tail of the neoliberalism: why should the people in control of such a society, where power is determined by wealth alone, give the slightest damn about you? Whether sincere or not, democracy requires the decision-makers to court all citizens at least every election (and a lot more frequently than that, if they know what’s good for them). But in a purely capitalist society, why would the power-players ever need to consult those without significant wealth, power, or influence? Even in a democratic world a mere 62 people already own more money than half of the entire world’s population, and exert titanic power upon the world’s markets that no normal citizen can ever hope to challenge. Remove the political franchise that democracy guarantees every citizen by default, and you remove any and all controls of how those ultra-rich exert the power this wealth grants them.

So while we may criticise Democracy for its inefficiencies, and fantasise how much better it would all be if government ‘were run like a business’, such idle criticisms miss the key value of Democracy; that in granting each and every citizen the inalienable right to an equal vote, none of them can safely be ignored by those who would aspire to power. Perhaps you believe that the neoliberal utopia would be a better system, and the 1% would never decide to relegate the masses back to serfdom. But the fact that such a decision would now depend entirely on their whims, should be enough to terrify any sane citizen.