Real Life Capitalism Whack-A-Mole

A couple of years ago, I introduced the concept of Capitalism Whack-A-Mole. Capitalism Whack-A-Mole is an argumentative habit of libertarians where they shift between various mutually incompatible philosophical frameworks in order to deal with successful critiques of capitalism.

I taped a TV segment today with the Ayn Rand Institute’s Don Watkins about his book “Equal Is Unfair.” My sole goal going into the segment was to see if I could produce a Capitalism Whack-A-Mole in the wild. Initially, after he passed on my baiting about the authoritarianism of private property, it seemed like I wasn’t going to be able to make it happen. But, eventually, it did.

Being a Randian, Watkins advocates for the government to create economic institutions that distribute the national income solely to “producers.” This is a standard desert theory line about how distributive justice requires that each person be distributed that which they produce. At some point in my standard critique of desert theory, I got to the part where I explain that the existence of capital income — rents, interest, dividends, capital gains — violates desert theory because it provides capitalists income even though they did not produce it. Capital income is definitionally income from owning not income from producing.

From there, the glorious Whack-A-Mole began.

Watkins first rebuttal effort was to say that in fact capitalists do produce the income because they match capital with talented labor and such. So, at this point, he was endorsing the basic idea that income is only justified by production, but saying that capitalists do actually produce.

I then clarified that he has mistaken entrepreneurs for capitalists. It is entrepreneurs who match capital with labor, not capitalists. And entrepreneurs receive labor income for doing so. To illustrate the difference, I used my own retirement account as an example. Last quarter, I had $200 of capital gains in my retirement account, but I clearly did not produce anything to earn that income. It just came in passively from the index fund.

Confronted with the fact that desert theory cannot justify capital income, Watkins then shifted. His new argument was that capital income is a reward for abstaining from consumption. The experienced will understand this as the “wages of abstinence” argument. I called him on the shift, noting that abstaining from consumption is not producing and that he had said people are only owed what they produce.

At that point, he shifted again. His third argument was that capital income was necessary to incentivize savings and capital investment. Why would you save your money and put it up for capital investment if you did not get a return for doing so? I called him again on the shift, noting that he has now made a utilitarian argument for why paying rents to non-producing capitalists is good for general prosperity. But, once again, this does not show that the capitalist earns their rents through production.

From that point, the last word swung to him and he actually shifted yet again, focusing this time on the “voluntary” nature of the manner in which the capitalist secures his unearned, passive rents. I was not able to respond to this, but it’s obvious how one would do so. As with the other shifts, the voluntarism argument still fails to deal with the problem that capital income is unearned. Randians promise that they can show capitalism distributes out according to the principle “to each according to what they produce.” But they can’t show it because it isn’t true. Also, capital income is not derived through voluntary means, but instead extracted through coercive property relations.

So, by the end of the little back-and-forth, Watkins shifted from desert to “wages of abstinence,” from “wages of abstinence” to utilitarian incentives, and then from utilitarian incentives to voluntarism. As always, the erratic philosophical shifting on the matter of capital income is a solid indicator of the fact that libertarians have no way of justifying it coherently. Marxists have always been right on this. The best shot they have is the utilitarian framework, but that framework also supports the welfare states that they loathe.