Author: Axel Lieber
This is part 1 of a 3-part series on animal advocacy and market economics. Part 1 explores the relationship between traditional left-wing causes and market forces.
The "vegan movement" is dominated by people from the political left. This shouldn't be surprising. Those familiar with Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory will know that, while conservatives tend to value Loyalty and Authority, the left side of the political spectrum is united by a concern for Care and Fairness. In short, "leftists" want to improve the lives of the weak and helpless and are appalled by various kinds of inequality. Given the current treatment of animals — cruel and unequal — the cause of animal liberation aligns closely with left-wing, egalitarian values.
Many vegans, then, share the left's resentment of free-market capitalism, ranging from categorical rejection to more subdued forms of criticism among moderates. The latter seem to be at a loss for appropriate alternatives but look to government to deal with the perceived shortcomings of capitalism.
The aim of this series is to win over left-leaning vegans to a more enthusiastic view of market forces. Rather than fighting capitalism, or at least trying to restrain and regulate it as much as possible, vegans should learn to harness the power of markets for their own goals. I will argue that there is no inherent conflict between free-market capitalism and the goals of egalitarians and animal advocates.
Capitalism isn't going away. No real alternative exists that has any chance of finding majority support. What the majority supports, in varying degrees, is what the moderate left has promoted for many decades. That is, capitalism combined with government interventions to make it more palatable — such as social security and universal healthcare — and to prevent excessive accumulation of power in the hands of a few corporations and ultra-rich individuals — such as trust-busting regulations and progressive taxation.
The dominant instinct on the left is to push for ever more of such measures: more regulation of corporations; subsidies for desirable industries; higher minimum wages; rent control; more welfare; more affirmative action, etc. Focused on lamenting, regulating and constraining capitalism, they lose sight of the opportunity markets offer them: to achieve their goals fast and sustainably.
Consider an example where markets have achieved a goal most dear to the left: the near eradication of absolute poverty and its extreme manifestation in child labour.
Our species managed to widely adopt complex language and tools about 50,000 years ago. Let's consider this rough date the beginning of humanity as we know it. For practically the entirety of those 50,000 years, humans lived in abject poverty and children were drafted to work as soon as they could. Average life expectancy ranged in the 30s, child mortality was extremely high, and people literally lived hand to mouth. Abject poverty and child labour, then, were the default mode throughout most of human existence.
And yet, in the West, extreme poverty disappeared within the span of 150 years, or arguably less, and was gone by the mid-20th century. By the time child labour was made illegal, markets had already significantly reduced its prevalence, nearly to the point of vanishing.
150 years is 0.003% of the entire existence of our species or, analogously, four minutes of a 24-hour cycle. Ten minutes earlier, you wouldn't have known that it was going to happen. Two hours prior, it would have been beyond anyone's imagination.
This change of our fortunes eluded us for almost the entirety of human history. That it happened was the result of specific developments that were causal, not coincidental or merely correlated. The ideas of the enlightenment led to feudal societies transiting into capitalist ones. People became freer to engage in commercial or professional activities of their choosing and to trade freely across the borders of class, castes, guilds, fiefdoms and states. Contracts became reliable, no longer subject to the whim of church or state. Capital could be accumulated without fear of confiscation. Interest could be charged, and profits booked, leading to better functioning capital markets. It became immensely profitable to take risks with one's capital by, for example, starting businesses and developing new technologies. As a result, social change went from snail's pace to rocket speed. Where over the course of many millennia barely anything had ever changed, we have seen astonishing social change in the past two hundred years.
The thing to focus on here is the dynamism of free-market societies and the speed with which things change in them. To individual observers, the rate of change as we go through our daily lives may seem slow. But if we look back on our 50,000-year history, we become aware that we live in extraordinary times. The difference between feudal and socialist societies on the one hand and capitalism on the other is that, in capitalism, we are all players. We can save, borrow or pool money with others, and use it to start businesses and invent new products or services when and how we choose. We do not need the approval of a feudal lord, or the church, or some committee of comrades or government bureaucrats. We can act on our own, now. Capitalism, then, presents an immediate and powerful opportunity to help the most vulnerable among us — including animals.
Any alternative to the socio-economic model that has brought about such unprecedented change for good would have to be immensely persuasive. Do such alternatives exist?
Various brands of socialism have been advanced, the most popular one being Democratic Socialism. Others are more interesting to me — for example, Mutualism — yet those models receive little traction in the popular imagination. In Part Two of this series, I will, therefore, take a closer look at Democratic Socialism and see whether that model offers better prospects for the animals than capitalism. In Part Three, I will return to capitalism and highlight some of the ways in which it can be leveraged for the benefit of our fellow Earthlings.