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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dodge City Business School

There seem to be two ways, in the more or less modern world, of arriving at capitalism. One is the smash-and-grab, Dodge City way in which nothing at all matters except the creation of wealth. The law stays out of the ring, the combatants beat each other up any way they can, and the victors finally emerge, bloody and carrying scalps, and announce that the whole thing was a fair fight after all. They count their spoils, clean themselves up, go straight, and fast become the aristocracy of the new capitalist order.


This might be called the (good old) American way. American history is full of pirates, thieves, claim jumpers, ruthless railroad tycoons and land-gobbling cattle barons whose names are preserved in the cities and towns of the country, and whose descendants became spotless senators and congressmen and the high society of Washington and New York. The process is ongoing, as the Italian Mafias clean up their act and use the money got historically from gambling, protection, drugs and prostitution to invest in computer companies and movies and charities and symphony halls.


There is, of course, a second way to capitalism, though: the up-from-under (rather than the American up-and-at-'em) way. This happens when a whole population is, often suddenly, given the chance to own and trade and barter and deal on more or less equal terms. The result, usually controlled by an authoritarian regime like China's or Indonesia's, is a boot-strap, grassroots, marketplace capitalism which is open to essentially everybody who has any energy.


For example, the towns of Indonesia, from which I have just gotten back, are an endless parade of small-scale enterprises: snack joints, hole-in-the-wall stores and sellers of everything under the hot Indonesian sun. The capital, Jakarta, has seemed to follow more the American pattern. It has real-estate sharks and construction kings and a president's family which is said to have its fingers in an awesome number of commercial pies. But nevertheless, out in the provinces, there is something immensely heartening about the country's busyness, given that the culture, with its traditional gentleness and tolerance, has not (yet) been destroyed.


Russians, fed up now with the American path touted by Jeffrey Sachs et. al., are forever sententiously announcing that the Chinese way is the one they should now take. Unfortunately, as my little foray to the southeast seems to prove, there is just one little problem. The Chinese, and the Indonesians, are long experienced in trade -- they take to it like ducks to water -- and Russians simply are not. Pre-revolutionary Russia's huge and somnolent estates were relatively self-sufficient. The serfs were tied -- no, chained -- to the land. Towns were little more than administrative centers. And any trade there was historically sniffed at, by nobility and intelligentsia alike.


The result, whatever Yeltsin's economists profess, is that the Chinese way to capitalism simply is not an option here. All that is available -- if capitalism is still what they are after -- is the American way: the concentration of capital in the hands of those who are lucky or ruthless enough to get their hands on it. Which is why the comparisons between Moscow and the Yukon are not so far off the mark. Gold-diggers, hookers and gangsters are the natural fathers and mothers of this sort of capitalism. Their success in the future will later allow the history books to palliate and gloss over their dog-eat-dog, murderous past.


I like to think that Western, capitalism-peddling ideologists like Jeffrey Sachs must have realized all this. In which case, they must have scuttled back home, having given their advice, looking forward in glee to the madness and mayhem they knew was inevitable. Perhaps, though, on second thoughts, that is giving them the benefit of too much intelligence. For what they do not seem to have understood at all is that the profits from this latest version of smash-and-grab capitalism would all go abroad. The bankers of London, the hoteliers of Bangkok and Rio and the real-estate developers of Miami and Cannes are all grateful beneficiaries. So are Western metal-brokers and cartels and prospective makers of nuclear weapons. The only people who are not grateful are those of us who remain here in Dodge City, condemned to live through capitalist history recreated. It is not a whole lot of comfort to know that at some point it will all be over -- and that the descendants of Two-Fingers Kuznetsov (or whoever) will some day be building symphony halls.