The Ferengi – the ultimate strawmen of capitalism

You don’t have to have seen Star Trek or even like sci-fi to find this relevant. This isn’t just about bad writing, which is an artistic crime by itself – and when the very thing you’re trying to denounce is so obviously a ludicrous strawman not only do you fail to make the point, you end up undermining your own position. It’s also about propaganda.

I am a geek, I admit, so I can unapologetically say that if you’re not, I’ll do some quick back-story for you: the Ferengi are an alien race in the Star Trek universe, introduced way back in The Next Generation’s first season. Since the Federation (sort of like all the best parts of the United States in space; in Kirk’s words a place where people had “the full exercise of individual Rights” source) finally made friends with the classic bad guys the Klingons, the show needed a new nemesis for our heroes. Now, when you consider that even someone who hasn’t watched Star Trek probably knows who The Borg are, this should give you an idea of the impact a truly terrifying enemy can have…and how far off the mark the writers were with the Ferengi. They are ugly apish buffoons (the Ferengi, not the writers – though I don’t deny the similarity). After only a couple of episodes it was clear they couldn’t be taken seriously, so much so that almost every “Ferengi” episode of DS9 and Voyager to come was written as a “comedy episode”, with one exception.

The Ferengi were shown to be a technologically-advanced intelligent species (appearances to the contrary) who could rival the Federation in space exploration and/or conquest. As I said, this didn’t last long and they instead devolved into the ultra “capitalist” exploitative bigoted idiots that would crop up every now and then to beat us over the head with the “too much capitalism is bad!” mallet. I could attribute this to just bad writing, but the problem is that the Ferengi are a caricature of everything the Left believes about capitalism, beginning with a most profound and basic misunderstanding. Of course, it’s not the Left I’m addressing this to, but the everyday person who doesn’t know any better and whose only understanding of capitalism comes from false generalisations and clichéd movie villains.

Capitalism in one sentence

“Do not initiate force against an innocent rational being.” Got that? Good, because this is the basic premise of capitalism. Of course, people will disagree and they’re welcome to. You are welcome to define capitalism as you like, but you have to justify your definition and show how it’s logically derived. This is the job of philosophy, but I don’t intend to go into that much detail here. The best philosophical defender of capitalism was Ayn Rand and it’s her understanding of the term I’ll use. Even if you totally disagree with Ayn Rand, I don’t see how someone can object to me invoking her here. After all, when I attack communism and socialism, I don’t attack what I think they are, I attack what they actually claim to be! I am happy to take a socialist’s definition of their own system and roll with it, so no one should object to me using Rand’s definition of capitalism here.

Why does it matter? Well, the “profound and basic” misconception of capitalism that I alluded to is of capitalism saying “make money!” But it doesn’t. Don’t confuse an economic consequence with a political principle. I attack socialism, not because it says “surrender all your values to the State!” (although that is a logical consequence of socialism) but because it says “the Rights of the individual are secondary to the needs of the State.” I think capitalism has proven that wealth and profit are its corollaries (hard to argue with, even if you don’t like capitalism), but the political principle on which it stands is: “leave people alone”, or “don’t initiate force against others.”

We’ll see that every distasteful aspect of the Ferengi, who are supposedly the unavoidable consequences of rampant unchecked laissez-faire capitalism, are false and even precluded by capitalism.

Sexism

In Ferengi society females are treated like second class citizens. The men run everything and exclude Ferengi women on the grounds that they are useless in business, and all the Ferengi care about is profit. This is probably the biggest non-sequitor of them all. I don’t know how someone gets from “leave people alone” to “treat women like useless house-bound tools”. Capitalism’s principle of leaving every person free to pursue their own life, liberty and happiness surely encourages respect for our fellow creatures, recognising that they are just like us and have the same potential as we do. Also, with the use of force banned, how could women be forcibly restrained from having jobs and earning money? The Western world has proven (most memorably during WW2) that having half your entire population not sitting around doing nothing, increases production and profits. Imagine if today women were suddenly forbidden from working – almost every business where gender is irrelevant would collapse! Yet we’re supposed to believe that a society so obsessed with profit as the Ferengi wouldn’t take advantage of a worker base which could in theory double its workforce? Isn’t a common criticism of laissez-faire capitalism that would it end up employing too many people that it shouldn’t, not excluding them?

Of course, as any real life rational businessman knows, there is no profit in unnecessary discrimination.

You might say that this is just an example of an alien race which is ultra-capitalistic and also happens to be ultra-sexist. But every single aspect of the Ferengi revolves around profit, so the implication is clear that their horrifically-sexist society is connected to their capitalism. But even if it wasn’t, it’s guilt by association. For example, imagine if Trek gave us an alien race who are all black, oh and it just so happens they’re thieves and rape isn’t a crime on their world. Who would dismiss this as innocently exploring ethical issues in a science-fiction format and not racist?

Exploitation

The Ferengi are open to and encourage bribery, and forever force money from their customers by upping prices, lowering wages, and denying basic commodities to their employees, since without a regulation from some Progressive bureaucrat of course, this is what would obviously happen in all companies. Naturally, all unions are banned.

Leaving aside the government support that unions have had in the Western world (which only gives one side an unfair advantage in negotiations, but since that side isn’t the evil businessmen it’s ok), with the use of force banned, how could unions be prevented? They are an obvious and natural means for employees to pool their (economic) power and lobby their employer for change. If we drop the premise that businessmen are James Bond villains or irrational scrooges, it’s clear that no reasonable employer is going to lose his staff when by making acceptable changes (or losses) he can keep them here and happy. On the other hand, he isn’t going to needlessly cut into his profits if he doesn’t have to. And implying that this is necessarily a bad thing isn’t an attack on capitalism, it’s an attack on the very inescapable nature of human trade itself!

Also, it’s simply daft to assert that a businessman can keep upping his prices to extremes. Of course, in the heads of anti-capitalists, prices are set in a vacuum and buyers are at the whims of sellers. But prices reflect costs, overheads, the affluence of the customer base and competition. Yes, if there is little competition you can get away with upping your prices, but it doesn’t mean that, for example, if I’m the only pub within a 50 mile radius I can charge $20 for a pint of ale. No matter how rich my customer base is, no is going to pay that much for a pint. And even if a tiny minority could, would that handful keep my business running? If only 1 person a day buys a $20 pint, it does not follow that if I cut my prices to $2, I will now get 10 customers a day instead of 1; in reality I’d probably get many times that, because not only will more customers be attracted to my pub, they will each spend more because the prices are good. ‘Good’ here being within the context of my customers’ affluence; in some regions I could up my price to $3 and not lose customers. In other regions I’d have to drop it to $1.50 to (counter-intuitively) make profit. But to say that the customer is irrelevant and an unchecked businessman would just irrationally up his prices is pure fantasy. Which would be fine if this was just another alien race and not an unashamed caricature of a genuinely pro-human political system.

(Incidentally, in my experience pub managers and owners resent raising prices because it simply drives customers away, which means they lose the atmosphere in their premises and lose business. Ironically, the ever-increasing costs on alcohol are imposed by government taxes, something that wouldn’t exist in a truly capitalist society.)

Corruption

The Ferengi give and take bribes like we shake hands. This is bad, naturally, because the affairs of two private consensual individuals are of course the concern of the rest of society. Oh wait…

A bribe is a bribe if it’s a way to circumvent honest trade. For example, if you’re a buyer you could be bribed to accept some poor quality stock that you normally wouldn’t, and which your company wouldn’t normally want – but you get a brown paper envelope and press the Confirm button anyway. This is a bribe. Similarly, you could be a politician with the power to use force against your own civilians, and be bribed by a business to grant them special privileges. This is a bribe. (By the way, whilst the former could of course still happen under capitalism, the latter could not. Remind me again why the Left doesn’t like it?)

But saying that any private settlement reached between two free individuals is a bribe is just ridiculous. By this reasoning, any bargaining or negotiation at all should be viewed as a bribe. Offering to give someone a bit more for something you want isn’t a bribe, it’s called trade! But presumably this is frowned upon by the Soviet Federation of Planets because all transactions are the concern of the State.

It’s either fraud, in which case it’s illegal (even and especially under capitalism) or it’s not fraud in which case it’s no one else’s business.

Obsession with profit

Everything the Ferengi say and do revolves around profit. Their version of the bible is “The Rules of Acquisition” and even their afterlife myths involve a latinum-plated vault where treasures await them. How many businessmen do you know whose every topic of conversation concerns money? How many of them actually dream about it? How many of them see it as an end in itself?

Like everything else with the propaganda of the Left, it makes no sense. Anti-capitalists think that just because capitalists want to be left free to pursue their own selfish values, which includes making money, that “making money” is therefore all they care about. I’ve seen scarecrows with less straw than this argument. It’s like saying that just because someone thinks drugs should be legalised, his ulterior motive is getting high on anything he can get his hands on. I happen to think all drugs should be legalised, but if they were I wouldn’t take them. So why assume that someone who wants property rights fully respected automatically wants to stand on the necks of the poor to make some extra cash? It’s because the Left frames every anti-capitalist argument as a matter of money, and not the principles that political systems should be based on. It is here that anti-capitalists reveal that they are the ones obsessed with profit. But whereas the Ferengi are obsessed with having more money, the Left is obsessed with making sure no one has too much of it!

Greed

This ties in with the above: that just because capitalists want to be left free, which includes having no limit or checks on the profit they can acquire, they are “greedy”, an adjective related to excessive consumption. The difference is: rational people eat until they are full, because there is a logical and practical reason to eat and cease eating when that biological urge has been satisfied. The difference with money is, there is no logical or practical point in life at which it becomes pointless to acquire more money (especially since wealth isn’t finite, it’s created). Ok, in theory you might have so much money that literally nothing is an obstacle for you – but if your productive effort reaps money then the only way to stop making it, short of refusing to get paid, is to sit on your hands and watch TV for the rest of your life, a position itself that is contrary to human flourishing. Also, the incredibly rich do seem to be quite generous with their money in real life, a fact borne out by billionaire philanthropists and mega-corporations who are the largest contributors to charity in the world.

In fact, if greed is the irrational pursuit of objectives, then why would we assume that a person who continues working with no end in sight to what he can achieve or acquire is being irrational? We don’t see the best sports stars earn enough to live comfortably and then retire, do we? And we don’t criticise the likes of Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Stephen Hendry and Lionel Messi for continuing to blow the opposition away even after achieving everything “reasonably” necessary in a career, do we? So why are businessmen with the same ruthless determination to win viewed as greedy? The best sports stars make  fortunes for themselves in exchange for a relatively limited return to their “customers”, the spectators. They smash the hopes and dreams of their rivals and seek to conquer everything and hope the other guy loses. Even assuming a businessman of equal ruthlessness, he at least brings a product to the world, not just a group of fans, and gives how many others a career and purpose along the way? And unlike a sportsman’s titles and records, the businessman’s practical achievements will live with humanity forever.

And yet, it is the charity worker which is held alongside the sportsman and businessman as the model of humanity.

Public welfare

Towards the end of the Ferengi story arc, which we see in the last season of Deep Space Nine, the leader of the Ferengi Alliance (though what he leads and how, in a system where government force is supposedly banned, is a mystery) has introduced taxation (pretty much a swear word to the Ferengi) and instituted various social reforms such as “free” healthcare and pensions. Ironically, a society where energy is free and unlimited and all matter can be “replicated” from thin air is probably the only one where socialism would actually work. But even then it wouldn’t, unless doctors and scientists could also be replicated…

Yes, the immoral Ferengi slowly begin to learn the true meaning of Christmas; that profit is a vice and the true calling of all sophisticated beings is of charity work to any potential number of other individuals they may never meet and might care nothing about.

But the funny thing is that despite the Ferengi being deliberately stacked as caricatures, they still manage to get things done! Throughout Trek, the Ferengi are never involved in any wars and their business interests are allowed to continue without interference from any aggressive power. They have an impressive military and aren’t slackers when it comes to exploration and invention. We are never shown the Ferengi homeworld in ruins, resource-deprived, impoverished or with people enslaved. In fact, in the words of Trek’s most famous Ferengi: “You’re overlooking something, Commander. Humans used to be a lot worse than Ferengi. Slavery, concentration camps, interstellar war; we have nothing in our past that approaches that kind of barbarism. You see? We’re nothing like you. We’re better.” And despite the Trek writers giving us the kind of alien history that we can only dream about, we’re still told “but if you want all this, you going to have to take corporatism and sexism too.” One can’t help but think that if ultra-capitalism produced a world without war, slavery and genocide, maybe it’s worth a few greedy businessmen.

I’m reminded of the Caldari society in Eve Online, which is supposedly a capitalist state taken to extremes; from Wikipedia: “the Caldari State is organised as a form of statist corporatocracy, where the State itself is owned by and operated on behalf of a few trust-like megaconglomerates.” Whilst I don’t deny that such a State could exist in theory, it isn’t capitalistic. Capitalism is the separation of corporation from State. The Caldari are contrasted with the Gallente, who “favour liberal economic policies, encourage individual entrepreneurship and social democracy, and maintain a progressive approach to social welfare”. The Gallente are very much like Trek’s Federation politically, but the problem is that these “virtues” are reeled off in one sentence as if they are mutually compatible or inevitable. They aren’t. Progressive social reforms are a hallmark of Leftist politics and are undeniably fascist in origin and nature. Individual entrepreneurship is antithetical to social welfare and liberal economics, since Liberalism in the modern sense means socialism, not capitalism. Again, we see strawmen in action: the best of all worlds is a semi-socialist “liberal” democracy and anything else must necessarily be an undesirable radical society which is either fully-despotic and totalitarian or ultra-capitalistic where the mega-corporations are in charge. How convenient. But I say again: this is all based on a simple misconception of capitalism. If capitalism is the society where nothing trumps individual Rights, then please tell me, how exactly could business own the State? How could despotism come about? How could anyone be forcibly included or excluded from any activity against their wish?

Why?

Because I’m so opinionated I can’t just leave it there and point out the flaws of anti-capitalism in just two popular works of fiction. The question is: why is capitalism painted this way? Leaving aside conspiracy theories of the Left (not because the Left is innocent but because not everyone who is sceptical of capitalism is always a Leftist), I’ll suggest this: it’s easy. If capitalism was understood properly it necessarily would exclude most of the nasty stuff that people don’t want to see in politics. The problem though is that it raises a lot of uncomfortable questions that people don’t want to answer, or simply can’t, like: what about education, roads, healthcare, tax? It’s easier to imagine that somehow our society just works with the balance of individual freedom and Statism, and pretend that the two are compatible or can even co-exist for a while, and anyone else must just have it wrong. And how much better does such a Liberal Progressive society look when contrasted to the strawmen alternatives?

The irony is that despite Roddenberry’s Marxist utopia, the United Federation of Planets was supposed to be the United States of America in space, a place where individual freedom was treasured and people of all races would work together, not because they are forced to, not because they are guilt-tripped into it, not because of positive discrimination or ethic-minority quotas, not because of political correctness, but simply because there is no rational reason for us to not cooperate if everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and because there is no profit in discrimination. It was the capitalism of early America that smashed slavery and feudalism and allowed men to flourish (and get rich), and those countries that followed the example (like Britain in Europe) also succeeded compared to other nations. It was the Progressives of the late 19th and 20th centuries that would re-introduce the anti-individualist God-state as the political ideal, whether as expressed fascists, communists and socialists, whether as brazen as Hitler’s Nazi party or as nicey-nice as Barak Obama’s neo-socialism. Rather than being cutting edge thought-provoking television, Star Trek is just another example of anti-capitalist nonsensical clichés. We can blame it on bad writing, but the reason for such an obvious strawman in the first place is sadly more pervasive.

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14 Responses to “The Ferengi – the ultimate strawmen of capitalism”

  1. Len Says:

    I think you need to turn off the television and open a history book if you think “rational” businessmen wouldn’t discriminate against women and would bargain fairly with their employees.

  2. evanescent Says:

    I assume you put “rational” in quotes because you agree that they aren’t in fact rational by being sexist and exploitative?

    My entire point is that rationality would lead one away from discrimination. And there is absolutely no *necessary* connection between capitalism and discrimination. Anyone in the world is free to discriminate, whether capitalist, socialist, communist etc – the point is the political system capitalism is the least likely to point people in such a direction since it is entirely founded on the premise of equality before the law.

    Pointing to a businessman who is acting immorally (albeit within his Rights) and saying “there! A rational businessman exploiting people!” is exactly the strawman I am talking about. I never denied that some businessmen wouldn’t exploit people or wouldn’t view their employees as just faceless units, although if by ‘exploit’ you mean get the most out of them for the least pay, I don’t call that exploitation – that is negotiation for trade*. And please think carefully before disagreeing: every single person when conducting a trade seeks to gain the most for the least cost; it’s simple economics. Calling it “exploitation” is unfair and simple untrue. Having said that, I never claimed that all businessmen are morally upstanding people; that wasn’t the point of the article. I also never denied that sexism exists and happens in business; as with other evils like racism, sexism can happen anywhere. But forcing someone to trade with someone they hate, like a black man or a woman, doesn’t cure racism or sexism, it just bottles it and breeds contempt. As I said above, a society which is premised on individual freedom (and its corollary, respect) is the most likely to cure these social ills.

    What I did claim is that businessman qua businessman brings the most to the world (from his own pocket) and his fellow humans for relatively little rewards when compared to a sportsman, charity worker, or politician.

    The point was to refute the belief of your post, Len: that rational businessmen as a rule discriminate against and exploit people.

    (*And with trade, since both parties seek to gain the most at the least cost, there is an agreement point where the gains are acceptable to both with respect to each party’s losses. For example, I might “lose” 37.5 hours a week in work, but I “gain” money. I could try to bargain for more money for fewer hours but it’s unlikely my company would agree. Are they exploiting me?? If they concede, have I exploited them??)

  3. Rodney Brett Says:

    “Pointing to a businessman who is acting immorally (albeit within his Rights) and saying “there! A rational businessman exploiting people!” is exactly the strawman I am talking about.”

    Harold Demsetz coined the phrase “Nirvana Fallacy,” which refers to the tendency of economists to compare the real world with some idealized version that exists only in mathematical models.

  4. Glen Says:

    I find it difficult to fully understand what you’re saying in your “Capitalism in one sentence” section.

    Firstly I have no idea where you got that quote ‘Do not initiate force against an innocent rational being’ as the definition of capitalism, since the definition I go by is “a system under which the means of production , distribution, and exchange are in large measure privately owned and directed”, The Budget Macquarie Dictionary Third Edition, 2002; so I fail to even comprehend how, and why you think capitalism has anything to do with what force, whether it be individual force against another individual or the military and police force from the government to the populace. In fact, by the Online Etymology Dictionary capitalism is: Meaning “political/economic system which encourages capitalists”. It is thus a system that encourages personal wealth and ownership of property and businesses; unregulated this would mean that capitalism allows business owners to have their own set of rules and morality (including that which is concerned with force) for their workforce, even if it’s against the innocent; but by no means does capitalism have something to do with force except in the event when force would discourage entrepreneurs.

    Secondly Ayn Rand by my understanding supports capitalism to further support self interests and eradication of servitude with great affect. I agree that she probably is one of the best defender of capitalism, but she wasn’t just talking about capitalism rather she was talking of an ‘over all’ system that prevents corruption and is good for all; it is similar to the early American ideals – that includes but isn’t only capitalism – that eradicated slavery in America, as you have mentioned. She was for individualism and the belief that through understood selfishness mutual agreement will arise; such as the corn farmer trading with the bean farmer, both receive produce for personal gain, mutual, cooperative and fair. Her work is irrelevant to how much force is applied other than the force used by the government. Source: http://www.iep.utm.edu/rand/

    This is why I find it difficult to understand you, because I believe that your definition of capitalism is Not capitalism; perhaps it is you who confused economic consequence with political principal; that perhaps you are thinking of American Democracy or the belief that the government’s purpose is to serve the people.

  5. evanescent Says:

    Hi Glen. Actually Rand saw capitalism as a political system more than simply an economic one. If one thinks about it, this is clearly the case. For Rand, capitalism is the natural system that arises when you leave people free from force being initiated against them. That is, capitalism as she meant it when reduced to its fundamentals is actually a political institution because it concerns the interaction of people and the government. It has profound and specific economic consequences too.

    In today’s world the definition of capitalism is subject to philosophy. I have no problem really with the definitions you gave. For me it’s a matter of reducing the issues to their principles: what is the most basic fundamental principle that allows capitalism? Freedom.

    I am typing this on a tablet at the moment so cant be as detailed as I’d like until I get home…

  6. Andrew Crawshaw Says:

    “Do not initiate force against an innocent rational being.” Got that? Good, because this is the basic premise of capitalism.

    Nice mantra.

    Lol. But no: it is the the basic premise of all liberalism and anarchism. Capitalism is an economic system, it has neither ethics nor poltics that are not brought to it from other philosophies. Talk about strawman, you don’t even understand the roots of your own stance.

    Unless of course you are talking about Ayn Rand, whose “capitalism” borrows concepts from actual capitalism and various liberal and conservative trends and splices them all together. It is a bit like atheism+ without the understanding that the ethical and political concepts come from without.

  7. Andrew Crawshaw Says:

    “I could attribute this to just bad writing, but the problem is that the Ferengi are a caricature of everything the Left believes about capitalism, beginning with a most profound and basic misunderstanding.”

    This sentence either means you think that the ferengi are a good way to insult the left inadvertently, (by being a caricature of their opinion) or you are making a strawman yourself, by thinking this is what the left actually believe about capitalism. I for one do not think the ferengi represent anything but greedy traders, and this is what some capitalists (like yourself) hate and should therefore see it as a good indictment against the capitalists that would actually act like this.

  8. evanescent Says:

    Andrew, thanks for taking the time to comment.
    Here’s my reply:

    Nice mantra.
    Lol. But no: it is the the basic premise of all liberalism and anarchism.

    The non-initiation of force principle is most certainly not the basic premise behind either liberalism or anarchism. If by liberalism you mean the current political Left, which is founded on the initiation of force against the individual by the state, you are clearly in error. And anarchism is the abandonment of the rule of objective law. Without objective law, it is up to every person to take the law into his/her own hands, and in which the initiation of force isn’t outlawed. How else would you outlaw the initiation of force without a government of objective laws?

    Capitalism is an economic system, it has neither ethics nor poltics that are not brought to it from other philosophies. Talk about strawman, you don’t even understand the roots of your own stance.

    Unless of course you are talking about Ayn Rand, whose “capitalism” borrows concepts from actual capitalism and various liberal and conservative trends and splices them all together. It is a bit like atheism+ without the understanding that the ethical and political concepts come from without.

    On the contrary, you’re attacking a strawman. Like everything on debate here, this is a philosophical concept. Philosophic systems are created by human beings to explain the world. You can disagree with philosophies, of course – but you can’t say I am wrong because you don’t like the philosophical system I’m employing.

    By using the term “actual capitalism” you are begging the question by assuming you have clearly established the sole correct definition of the concept and I am therefore in error by using a different one. But that should be the conclusion of your argument, not entailed in your premises, so you’ve begged the question.

    You need to explain why capitalism is an economic system in and of itself which requires politics and ethics added onto it from some other philosophy. Go ahead.

    Now, Ayn Rand did a brilliant job justifying her definition of capitalism, which was necessarily laissez-faire, because she identified that social institutions are founded on ethical principles. You cannot divorce politics from economics because the economic system of any society is necessarily dependent on its political structure. This is so obvious as to hardly require proof: free markets do not exist in communist countries. Furthermore, political systems are based on moral beliefs. Again, if one believes that human beings are interchangeable cogs in a human sea and that the State takes priority over the individual, one’s politics will inevitably some variation of socialism or communism. If one believes that the individual is an end to himself/herself and should never be sacrificed to some “greater good” one will generally support the non-initiation of force principle, which results in a limited government that protects property rights, and a result, free market economics.

    That’s why she correctly identified capitalism as a political system, one that recognises property rights. The natural result of such a political arrangement is free market economics. If one thinks about this, there is no other way, or perhaps no BETTER way to define it: we don’t really have a word to describe a political system that fully respects individual rights and truly accepts the non-initiation of force principle. You might say that a constitutional republic is a good definition, but is rather vague and isn’t exclusive, and just describes the specific type of government rather than the political system. It is the job of philosophy to identify these concepts and justify them. In my opinion, Objectivism is fully justified in using the term “capitalism” to refer to just such a politico-economic setup. If you disagree, do it philosophically, not by wordplay.

    If you really believe that Ayn Rand borrowed from several ideologies and spliced them altogether, then it’s you who is attacking a strawman. Like many who disagree with Rand, you’ve probably never read anything of hers in detail from the horse’s mouth. Objectivism defines its own metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, and then argues for its politics based on the previous foundation. In fact, your criticism is more suited to modern libertarians who tend to support some free markets without understanding the principles that give rise to the necessity for human freedom. And still, your criticism is more suited to modern Neo-Atheists and Humanists who hold several notions in a vacuum, many of them contradictory, without the philosophical reasons (particularly ethical) to justify them. (E.g. Humanists and New Age Atheists tend to be pro-abortion but also pro-Big Government).

    “I could attribute this to just bad writing, but the problem is that the Ferengi are a caricature of everything the Left believes about capitalism, beginning with a most profound and basic misunderstanding.”

    This sentence either means you think that the ferengi are a good way to insult the left inadvertently, (by being a caricature of their opinion) or you are making a strawman yourself, by thinking this is what the left actually believe about capitalism. I for one do not think the ferengi represent anything but greedy traders, and this is what some capitalists (like yourself) hate and should therefore see it as a good indictment against the capitalists that would actually act like this.

    I don’t think the Ferengi are a good way to insult the Left. And I am not making a strawman either, because most of the unpleasant aspects of the Ferengi are exactly what the Left thinks about unchecked unregulated free markets. This is implicitly stated in Star Trek when the Ferengi are contrasted with the money-free Federation (perhaps the most ridiculous economic concept ever invented), and the “improvement” of the Ferengi towards the end of the Star Trek canon is demonstrated by their introduction of progressive tax reforms, welfare states, social security etc – all of which are hallmarks of the Left.

    Of course, not everyone on the Left really believes that capitalists are like Ferengi. I never claimed that they did. The Ferengi are an extreme caricature of capitalism which is everything the propaganda of the Left historically would have us believe. I hardly need to provide examples of the countless times the “Bad Guy” in Hollywood movies is an evil businessman out to make more money at the expense of the innocent. The Ferengi are often despicable but they are actually mild compared to the usual TV/film representations of businessmen.

    [you]… should therefore see it as a good indictment against the capitalists that would actually act like this.

    I would agree with you, if the Ferengi’s greed wasn’t their defining feature. Let’s imagine a group of aliens who don’t respect property rights – they believe that you should be able to steal whatever you want if you can get away with it. Oh, and they’re all black – and being black is their distinguishing attribute. Or, an alien race that likes to milk the poor for money through exorbitant interest rates on loans, oh and they all speak with Jewish accents – and their “Jewishness” is their distinguishing attribute. Now, we have the greedy heartless treacherous unprincipled materialistic exploitative sexist Ferengi, oh and they are free-marketeers, or “unregulated capitalists” to quote Wikipedia. Contrast this with the selfless egalitarian currency-free Federation which our protagonists are from.

    You might say that the Ferengi are all those things, and the fact they are “capitalists” (which they can’t be really, but that’s another discussion) is just a coincidence. Fine. But the “cure” for the Ferengi offered towards Trek’s closing years was, as I say, a move towards left-wing politics – taxation, wealth redistribution, social-“support” systems etc. Quark’s response to this attack on his society’s soul?:

    “This establishment will be the last outpost of what made Ferenginar great – the unrelenting lust for profit. Broik — water the drinks! M’Pella — rig the dabo table!”

    I would love to believe that the Ferengi are an ironic jibe at anti-capitalists, but I don’t see this being the case at all. It’s no secret that Roddenberry was a Marxist and Star Trek’s politics are invariably Left/Centre-Left. I can still enjoy most of the TV shows despite this, because Star Trek isn’t usually a political show. In fact, when it chooses to make a statement on human affairs, such as individual freedom, the treatment of blacks, racism or sexuality – I tend to agree, and think this is Star Trek at its best.

    It’s funny that, if the Ferengi are a tongue-in-cheek hyper-caricature of capitalism (which, as I say above, cannot exist in an economic vacuum; economies are only as free as governments allow, and governments are only as intrusive as their voters’ morality believes it should be) – we are yet to see the counter: where is the ultra-Marxist society in Star Trek? Where is the Soviet Union in space? What is the end result of Roddenberry’s anti-free-market vision? Oh that’s right: the United Federation of Planets. Perhaps we could give Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, China, North Korea – or any of our Left Wing governments today a chance to reach the 24th century eh? Paradise awaits…

  9. Andrew Crawshaw Says:

    I think we are quibbling over words. What you call capitalism I call right-libertarianism, I think my parlance is easier, and shows more nuance but anyway. Use capitalism like that if you want, no one else does apart from Rand, her followers, and some other kind of libertarians. Mostly capitalism is used to denote an economy based on money and private ownership. you might be able to derive an ethical system from this but it itself has no ethical content, in the natural usage of that word.

  10. evanescent Says:

    You must have missed what I said above, and demonstrated what I alluded to: you’ve never read Rand in your life, nor understand the first thing of her philosophy. Which is fine, but then you shouldn’t make claims about her and her ideas which suggest that you do.

    I do not derive an ethical system from capitalism. Rand didn’t. In fact, it is the other way around. It is politics which is derived from ethics.

    I think “capitalism is used to denote an economy based on money and private ownership” is a gross oversimplification, and highly unspecific. Even in a mixed economy, private property is still permitted and is based on money. Under socialism, some property is still left private, in theory. Under fascism, private property still exists – but the State can assume control of it at any time for any purpose. Under communism, there is no private property. All economies beyond simple barter are based on money. But one cannot have an economy based on private ownership if the state doesn’t recognise property rights!

    Rand’s capitalism was “laissez-faire capitalism”, which she herself called a redundancy, but a necessary one – because it was necessary to differentiate her view of capitalism from other opinions and ideas of what capitalism is, was, or should be. Obviously, she thought that her idea of capitalism was the only correct one. She justified this with an entire philosophic framework. Did she succeed? I think so. I think laissez-faire capitalism is the only true notion of capitalism, proper capitalism, if you will – because the sine qua non of capitalism is the full recognition and application of property rights. (Anything else is just a warped corrupted bastardisation of it, like the crony capitalism (which is really crony socialism) that we see today.) This is how capitalism would be practically realised in an every day sense. But how can one fully guarantee property rights? There is only one way: ban the initiation of force against private citizens. So you see, it’s clearly not as simple as saying that capitalism is just an economic system. Again, it is a political system where force is banned and property rights are fully applied. It is derived from the ethical principle that human beings should be left free.

  11. Bob Says:

    What does capitalism have to do with “Do not initiate force against an innocent rational being”? Capitalism is an economic system. It has nothing to do with that.

  12. Bob Says:

    “I am a geek, I admit, so I can unapologetically say that if you’re not, I’ll do some quick back-story for you”

    If someone coming across this blog has no clue about Star Trek, chances are they don’t care about this article in the first place. For your writing in general, I think you can assume that if your readers are interested enough to make it through your nerdulations, they have some clue what topic you are talking about at least.

  13. evanescent Says:

    The kind of economic system you have depends on how a society is governed. Whilst capitalism and free-market economics are used synonymously, it’s clear that they aren’t the same thing. The Cold War is often framed as an ideological clash between capitalism and communism. No one thinks of communism as just an economic system, with good reason. For the same reason, capitalism is not primarily an economic system.

    A free market is one where people are free to trade voluntarily with whoever they want, and likewise are free to NOT trade with someone. There is no force imposed on anyone to act contrary to his or her will in the matter of trade, with the sole exception that the use of force and fraud is banned. Note that these are legal terms: they outlaw criminal activity. Even in a free market, force and fraud are outlawed; they are against the law. This is determined by politics. Politics is after all about how a society is governed. It is not possible to treat the economic system one operates in independently from the political system, because the latter necessarily dictates what type of the former you can have. Under communism private property is virtually eliminated, and the economic results of that speak for themselves. The degree to which a government recognises and protects property rights (a moral and political matter) determines how an economy in that society operates.

    Capitalism is the political system that bans the initiation of force (and fraud) against another person. In such a political environment the ONLY economic system that results is a laissez-faire free market. All other political systems involve the *initiation* of force against innocent civilians (to spell it out: the government against its own people). Using capitalism to refer to a free market is fine – I do it too. But philosophically speaking, capitalism is properly a political system. In such a society we wouldn’t need a special word to describe the economy, it would just be “the economy”. The reason we have so many types of economies in our societies is because our political systems are a mixed bag on rights-violation and rights-protection, and so our economies are equally mixed. How the degree of economic freedom translates into efficiency and human flourishing is another matter I need not comment on; history speaks quite convincingly on this point.


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