An anonymous writer, reviewing a book of poetry in the New Yorker, says the poems probe “the contradictions of desire amid the ravages of capitalism and racism.” That’s an odd juxtaposition. Racism is horribly destructive, but capitalism? People live longer and better thanks to free markets.
The phrase also sounded familiar. Sure enough, with a little help from Google, I found a book titled “War, Racism, and Injustice: The Global Ravages of Capitalism.” The author is Fidel Castro, who left a wide wake of suffering behind him.
Did the reviewer mean to say that capitalism is a purely destructive force like racism? Did he intentionally paraphrase a ruthless dictator? Probably not. I suspect the reviewer didn’t waste much time thinking at all. So much leftist writing is boilerplate—capitalism is driven by greed, narrow-self-interest, materialism, etc.
The New Yorkers’ ads sometimes tell a truer story about the effects of capitalism than its writers do. One ad extols a mobile technology that helps bring “financial products and opportunities to previously underserved people. So they can use their talents to improve their communities, their country, and their world.”
The same issue carries a review of a new Persian restaurant in New York. The owner is an Iranian who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. She has “long been a prolific home cook and caterer,” but this is her first restaurant. The reviewer doesn’t make this point, but in a free market she had access to capital that enabled her to make a living by serving the food she loves.
That’s the opposite of a ravage. Entrepreneurs resist urban decay by opening new stores, restaurants and other establishments. They fight against the agonies of disease by inventing new drugs and technologies. They even combat prejudice by starting new lives and businesses far from home.
To be sure, new businesses drive out old ones and disrupt tradition. Capitalism, Joseph Schumpeter said, entails “creative destruction.” But entropy is a part of every human system. Only capitalism pushes back against it. Ten years ago in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan, where my daughter lives, one street had three vacant storefronts. Now two have become popular restaurants.
If anyone is in doubt, I propose touring countries ravaged by capitalism—maybe Germany, Switzerland and Japan—and socialist experiments like Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. See how they compare.
Mr. Miller’s latest book is “Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole.”