06 November, 2013

Why Capitalism (literally) Stinks

John Ralston Saul comments very presciently on the idea that the market works for the general good in his book “Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West” (The Free Press, New York City, 1992).  

Take public heath, for example. In the late seventeenth century Paris was without a sanitary system — its streets were a gigantic latrine for five hundred thousand people. The terraces of the king's palace — the Tuileries — smelled so strong that no one dared go onto them except to relieve themselves.   

At that point in history, the modern administrative structure was in its infancy, limited to little more than the maitres de requétes.  An early form of ombudsmen, they were judges who listened to complaints and requests addressed to the king. Richelieu had not even begun his razing of city walls with the idea of making central administrative control possible.  

One hundred and fifty years later, in 1844, very little had changed. Six hundred thousand of the 912,000 residents of Paris lived in slums. At Montfaucon, in the north of the city, transporters of excrement, who had been collecting door-to-door during the night, dumped their loads into great swamps of the same matter. Men spent their lives living on these shores and wading out every day in search of small objects they might sell. At Lille, in the 1860s, in the working-class district of  Saint-Sauveur, 95 percent of the children died before the age of five.   
Paris Sewer in 1966
The famed Paris sewer system was created over a long period in the second half of the last century. The long delays were largely due to the virulent opposition of the property owners, who did not want to pay to install sanitary piping in their buildings. These people were the New Right of their day. The Prefect of Paris, Monsieur Poubelle, succeeded in forcing garbage cans on the property owners in 1887 only after a ferocious public battle. This governmental interference in the individual’s right to throw his garbage into the street -- which was, in reality, the property owner's right to leave his tenants no other option -- made Poubelle into the "cryptosocialist" of the hour. In 1900 the owners were still fighting against the obligations both to put their buildings on the public sewer system and to cooperate in the collection of garbage. In 1904 in the eleventh arrondissement, a working-class district, only two thousand out of eleven thousand buildings had been piped into the sewer system. By 1910 a little over half the city's buildings were on the sewers and only half the cities in France had any sewers at all.   

Photos of early-twentieth-century Marseilles show great piles of refuse and excrement down the centre of the streets. Cholera outbreaks were common and ravaged the population. In 1954 the last city without, St. Remy de Provence, installed sewers.   

It was the gradual creation of an effective bureaucracy which brought an end to all this filth and disease, and the public servants did so against the desires of the mass of the middle and upper classes. The free market opposed sanitation. The rich opposed it. The civilized opposed it. Most of the educated opposed it. That was why it took a century to finish what could have been done in ten years. Put in contemporary terms, the market economy angrily and persistently opposed clean public water, sanitation, garbage collection and improved public health because they appeared to be unprofitable enterprises which, in addition, put limits on the individual's freedoms. These are simple historic truths which have been forgotten today thus permitting the fashionable belief that even public water services should be privatized in order that they night benefit from the free-market system.

This is one more example, of which there are many, of why this capitalist system has got to go!


L Bergman said...

It is to be conceded that there are flaws with capitalism. Resistance to change by those having an entrenched position is one of them, though it must be said that this isn't unique to a capitalist system. The wealthy classes of societies throughout history have been resistant to progress when it went against their interests. Why make special note of the French property owners of the 19th century?

Regardless, though, there are numerous inventions made possible by capitalism that have contributed to the "cleaning" of our society that easily offset the temporary slowing of progress that may have occurred due to these ornery property owners.

- the invention of the internal combustion engine and the resulting shift from horses to automobiles eliminated the piles of horse manure that were constantly accumulating in urban areas
- household inventions have contributed to cleanliness that previously could be attained only by royalty and aristocracy. Vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, laundry machines, steam cleaners and other appliances were brought to us by inventors and industrialists who would never have come up with these devices without the capitalist structure.
- indoor plumbing and readily available hot water have made it possible for people of even limited means to bathe or shower as often as desired, instead of having to wait weeks on end
- early forms of industrial transportation that were dirty and produced lots of pollution (such as coal-fired steam locomotives) were gradually replaced by cleaner power sources (such as diesel fuel)

Not all of these changes and inventions came about instantly; one can be certain that elements of society having a vested interest in the old way of doing things fought the new-fangled ways with tenacity. With every advance brought on by capitalism, there are winners and losers. However, it's clear that the arc invariably trends upward, as the benefits brought on by individual actors in the capitalist drama are distributed far and wide.

The buggy whip manufacturer would have fought to preserve his business, even in the face of ever-decreasing demand due to the availability of the mass-produced automobile.

The canal owners and operators would have fought similarly against the railroads.

The ice maker would have resisted the obsolescense to his living brought on by refrigeration.

The list goes on and on. With each change, some lose out, but the net effect on society is positive.

In fairness, not all of the progress we have experienced has been solely due to capitalism, which sometimes needs to be constrained. Clean Air and Water legislation is but one example of necessary regulation against the difficulty that capitalism has with dealing with externalities.

On the whole, though, the record is clear: capitalism is an overwhelmingly positive factor in improving the lives and well-being of billions of people.

The Dutchman said...

"- indoor plumbing and readily available hot water have made it possible for people of even limited means to bathe or shower as often as desired, instead of having to wait weeks on end."

Wasn't the whole point of this post that the historical reccord shows that it was govenment, and not the market, that brought sewer and water service to the masses? Your bringing up this point, as if it served your side, makes me wonder if you even paid attention to the innitial post or just reacted reflexively.

L Bergman said...

I recognize the point made in the post, but I wanted to counter that point by saying that the overall record of capitalism is much better than you seem to recognize in raising the standard of living of ordinary people. I also recognized that government plays a positive role, occasionally. So, no, it was not a reflexive reaction. The fundamental disagreement is simply a matter of where we fall on the continuum of good vs. bad for both government and free market. For me, capitalism is probably 8 out of 10 on the "good" meter, while I'm guessing that for you, it's somewhere in the 1-2 range.