Column on BBC & Capitalism

BBC’s Biased Coverage of Capitalism

Tibor R. Machan

On the BBC website an interview was featured recently with the famous orthodox Marxist, Eric Hobsbawm, who promptly denounced capitalism as if he had established definitively its inferiority as a political economic system. Is the BBC such an irresponsible news organization that it will feature Mr. Hobsbawm’s characterization of capitalism with no one who champions that system featured responding to him? (If you search, no such balanced presentation can be found on the BBC website.) Or is this happening because, after all, BBC is a state broadcast endeavor and has a big stake in discrediting a system that relies on private initiative?

From a Marxist perspective especially this conclusion is quite reasonable, since we are all supposed to be driven by economic motives and here is an instance that might just fit this idea perfectly. The BBC would be one of the casualties of capitalist inspired privatization! As a creature of the state it relies on confiscated resources for its operations and capitalism goes against that policy big time.

The question that was put to Mr. Hobsbawm by the BBC’s interviewer, had to do with capitalism and responsibility. That is, whether agents in a free market would be motivated to act responsibly and the answer Mr. Hobsbawm gave is “No.” Yet if people act irresponsibly in genuine free markets, this will soon be known and they would lose trust from fellow market agents. Only when governments protect market agents from the consequences of their behavior will they be able to persist in acting irresponsibly.

Moreover, if those who would regulate our economic conduct are, as they must be, human beings, why would they be virtuous while the we would not be? Why would they not use their monopolistic legal power to secure advantages for themselves, just as public choice theory (as per James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock) postulates?

What free market capitalism cannot offer, because it doesn’t control people, is compliance with all tenets of ethics. But neither can anyone else make such a promise and when they pretend they can, this invites the most insidious lack of ethics, namely, tyranny.

The bottom line here is that if you are interested in the nature of capitalism, don’t ask a Marxist but a champion of that system of political economy, such as Professor Richard Epstein (NYU) or Randy Barnett (Georgetown U.) or, yes, me! Then go and find some critics and contrast their different answers and let the audience assess which approach is more reasonable.

The BBC doesn’t appear to honor this approach, the only balanced one, when dealing with the nature of capitalism. Too bad. Failing to let a competent defense of that system be aired on BBC may even promote some major economic malpractice, including the appointment of all kinds of petty tyrants who presume to know how to run our economic affairs.

“As an economic system capitalism has nothing to do with responsibility,” says the Marxist sage, yet this is perverse, uninformed, given that trust and being responsible to fulfill one’s promises is essential to free market capitalism. Indeed, one reason that that system works pretty well when uncorrupted by state interference is that those who fail to be responsible do not flourish in it unless favored with privileges they haven’t earned.

As many have pointed out, the famous association between capitalism and the pursuit of self-interest is widely misunderstood. “Self-interest” in how capitalism operates means nothing more than that people are doing what they want (since they are free to do so). But what they want to do may be for their own or for someone else’s benefit; nothing in capitalist theory spells that out. Indeed, it is a strong feature–not without some problems–of capitalist economic theory that saying that people pursue their self-interest says nearly nothing about what they are likely to do. This is because in that theory self-interest is understood subjectively. Whatever one believes is in his or her interest is exactly what is; but this makes it perfectly reasonable that someone who wants to consume heroin or engage in innumerable other self-destructive activities (by common sense standards) is actually pursuing his or her self-interest.

In any case, the main point here is that the BBC seems not to care to practice responsible journalism even while asking Mr. Hobsbawm to comment on the relationship between responsibility and capitalism. How ironic.

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