Orson Scott Card, a proud Democrat, has come down hard on the radical leftists in his party. Today, he writes about unions. (link)
His overall message is sound. There is a cycle, not just in business but in politics. Unions are on the downfall because of their greediness. But he also tries to justify government regulation and control of the free market because of the “evils” of unrestrained capitalism.
I want to share with you a few thoughts I have about the incorrect assumptions he makes about free market capitalism. I have a different view than most Americans because I have seen the 1920’s first hand—in the tiny country of South Korea.
In South Korea, people work back-breaking jobs without any assurances that they’ll even get paid. Fraud is common. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard of someone doing a job and then never seeing a won, or someone loaning a close family member a few thousand dollars and having that family member squander it on alcohol or gambling. Managers abuse their workers, workers abuse their customers, and overall, it’s a pretty glum picture. That’s the way freedom is. It’s messy. It hurts. Some people fail while other succeed.
Unlike the US, or rather, more like the US that most people live in but you don’t see on TV, the predominant industry in South Korea isn’t the major manufacturers you’ve heard of. That operation is big, but it doesn’t compare to the countless millions of tiny mom-and-pop shops that are in every nook and cranny in that country. Heck, you don’t even need land or capital to go into business down there. Just find a sidewalk and spread out your wares. And that’s the way the vast majority of the country has done it.
My mother-in-law remembers raising her family in times of absolute destitution. Starvation was common. There were no such things as jobs. You worked all day long in the rice fields and you barely had enough rice to make it through the winter. She remembers going into the mountains just to cut some wild vegetables before the sun came up. Then she’d take them down into the town square and sell them. When she came home at night, she used the money to buy essentials—medicine, food (precious protein), and saved the rest. That was how she got money.
And money was scarce! The Korean government was just learning about how to manage the money supply. For centuries, the government had kept a strict control on money, failing to expand it when the economy grew. The Korean people are known for pinching pennies and accumulating vast hordes of wealth—wealth they never spend. Trying to get people to pay for something was harder than pulling teeth.
These were hard times, times when bad things happened and death wasn’t uncommon.
But you know what? Things started to change. Little by little, the economy started to figure itself out. Soon, there were trains that ran everywhere, allowing the fruits and grains and vegetables grown at home to be sold in Seoul. Eventually, trade with other countries started to open up, and their prize-winning Asian pears could be sold in Japan, Taiwan, and even America.
Yes, there were labor unions and labor strikes and bad management and all those things. But most of the country couldn’t care less because the vast majority of the country didn’t work in a factory. They worked wherever they could find work, doing whatever they could to survive. The reforms that the government made had very little effect on the common man living in the country. But you don’t need a strong government or a massive tax base to create wealth.
The South Koreans had the one essential and only necessary ingredient for wealth. They had freedom—in particular, economic freedom. That’s the freedom to buy and sell, the freedom to make and destroy, the freedom to use your brain and figure out how you will convert your time and labor into food, clothing, and shelter for you and your family. The freedom to work for almost nothing, or to quit your job, or to hire someone with promises and a wink, or to pay them as much as you could afford.
Today, the South Koreans are not wealthy compared to the Americans. No one is. But they are vastly more wealthy than they used to be. Everyone has more than enough food, more than enough clothing. Even poor people have cars and apartments and computers. This isn’t because of unions or because of social welfare, it’s because everyone has the right to work in that country, and everyone has the right to buy and sell as they see fit. They have their freedom, and they enjoy it.
I wish I could take you to the open-air markets where 80-year-old grandmothers sell produce they grow along the streets near the hovels where they live. I’d encourage you to ask them what they think of their life. Yes, their back hurts, they can’t get more than a few hours of sleep each night, and they’ll complain about thieves and people not coming to the markets anymore to buy their vegetables. They may even complain about imports competing with their goods. But if you ask them how they are doing financially, you’d be surprised. One may have sent her sons to college. Another has saved up several hundred thousand dollars for a wedding gift for her daughter. These people aren’t poor, and they aren’t hopeless. For the relatively few cases where things are genuinely bad, neighbors and family step in, quietly, to help out whatever way they can.
In my mind, a lot of what we hear about the early 20th Century is propaganda. Communists trumped up the plight of the common man and exaggerated the wealth of the rich. They wanted to tell Americans a different story than the story they had grown up with throughout the industrial revolution and before. They wanted Americans to believe that unless they accept draconian controls in their economic life, they could not experience wealth.
Which was a really odd thing to believe, since at that time, and for all of our history, America’s poor have been richer than the vast majority of the world. America has always been a land of plenty and productivity where starvation is virtually unknown. And we’ve done it by applying plenty of freedom and a only a tiny bit of regulation and control.
If you ask me, I’d have told the factory workers that maybe they weren’t cut out for factory work. Maybe they’d have been better off to move back out to the country and work to owning their own land. Or maybe, just maybe, they preferred the work in a factory or the mines to the work of the farms, because it was easier to work in a factory to earn your food than to sweat under the sun. Maybe they weren’t prisoners at all, or the type of prisoner who stays in his cell even though he is free to go whenever he pleases.