Still, it seems there’s always some new socialist dream on the horizon, while virtually any economic system other than communism is called “capitalism,” no matter how far from a free market it actually is. One of the difficulties that libertarians face is this constant intellectual competition between actually existing institutions and some dreamy vision of a caring, sharing society of equality and community.
Two men who dominated the news in late 2013 remind me of this challenge. Pope Francis issued his “apostolic exhortation” decrying the “new tyranny” of “trickle‐down” capitalism. Obituaries for Nelson Mandela explored his early alliance with the Communist Party and the much more pragmatic policies he pursued as South Africa’s president. Many conservatives and libertarians deplored both men’s opposition to capitalism.
But a few observers recognized how each man’s history might have led him to oppose something he thought of as “capitalism.” Michael Novak wrote at National Review Online that one should read the exhortation “through the eyes of a professor‐bishop‐pope who grew up in Argentina.” More than 200 years ago, he pointed out, “Adam Smith … noted that in Latin America [unlike North America] there were still many institutions of feudal Europe—large landholders, plantations, plantation workers.” The world of Jorge Mario Bergoglio was “a largely static society, with little opportunity for the poor to rise out of poverty.” Inflation eroded savings. The grandsons of great landowners dominated big companies. “Instability in the rule of law undermined economic creativity.”
Argentina was hardly a capitalist society. Indeed, Novak notes, beginning in the pope’s early years, “a destructive form of political economy, just then spreading like a disease from Europe—a populist fascism with tight government control over the economy—dramatically slowed Argentina’s economic and political progress.” But intellectuals and journalists tend to call any economy with private ownership “capitalism.” And it’s no wonder that they and their readers react against such systems.
As for Mandela, my South African–born colleague Louise Bennetts wrote in Forbes: