Did Capitalism Really Kill Millions?

I’ve seen the ludicrous assertion that capitalism has a body count comparable to that of socialism bouncing around the internet with regularity.  That assertion has also become the central theme of far too many college courses. 

To begin the research necessary to debunk this myth I did a Google search for the phrase “capitalism body count” and chose the first article listed, which would be the one most often read.   The title of the article I selected is If Communism Killed Millions, How Many Did Capitalism Kill?.  Others articles I read were very similar.

The first major deadly sin laid at the feet of capitalism was slavery in the United States.  According to the author:

Let’s start in an obvious place. 13 million slaves were sold to the “New World” — America, North and South. In the United States, by 1860, just 400,000 North American slaves had become 4 million new ones, born into slavery. That’s 17 million people, and we’ve barely begun — and it’s incomplete, because there are no statistics on how many people were born into slavery after their parents sold in South and Central America. Still, let’s leave that aside for now, because 17 million’s plenty to begin with.

Slavery was, and continues to be, a very barbaric and hideous institution, however, slavery is in no way a component of capitalism.  Slavery predated capitalism by many millennia and existed in a great many regions of the world where capitalism never existed.  Capitalism is all about the voluntary exchange of goods and services, the antithesis of slavery.  The institution of slavery in the United States required the direct protection of the governments of southern states.  It existed in the southern states which were agricultural while never making inroads into the northern states which industrial bastions of capitalism.

The next supposed deadly sin of capitalism is the Great Depression which lead directly to World War II, causing 80 million deaths.

Fast forward a century. A world war erupted — thanks, in large part, as historians agree, to a global depression. But what caused the Great Depression? Capitalism — the speculative frenzy and inequality of the rip-roaring 1920s. Capitalism poured the fuel of fascism all over the world, in nations like Germany and Italy, who were heavily indebted by that point, and it only took a handful of demagogues to set the world alight. How many people died in World War II? 25 million — just soldiers. 50 million — including civilians. 80 million — including famine, war crimes, and disease. We’re getting into some spectacular numbers, aren’t we? Let’s take the middle one, just for conservatism’s sake. We’re already at about 70 million.

Is the author justified in blaming all of the deaths of World War II on capitalism because of the claim capitalism caused the Great Depression? As you can see from this article by Walter E Williams Dangers of Government Control, government intervention, not capitalism, caused the Great Depression.

We are a nation of 325 million people. We have a bit of control over the behavior of our 535 elected representatives in Congress, the president and the vice president. But there are seven unelected people who have life-and-death control over our economy and hence our lives — the seven governors of the Federal Reserve Board. The Federal Reserve Board controls our money supply. Its governors are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate and serve 14-year staggered terms. They have the power to cripple an economy, as they did during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Their inept monetary policy threw the economy into the Great Depression, during which real output in the United States fell nearly 30 percent and the unemployment rate soared as high as nearly 25 percent.

The most often stated cause of the Great Depression is the October 1929 stock market crash. Little is further from the truth. The Great Depression was caused by a massive government failure led by the Federal Reserve’s rapid 25 percent contraction of the money supply. The next government failure was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which increased U.S. tariffs by more than 50 percent. Those failures were compounded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Leftists love to praise New Deal interventionist legislation.

Also check out the book New Deal Raw Deal and the book The Forgotten Man for more information on how government intervention caused the Great Depression.   Not mentioned by the author of the original article is the crucial role the Treaty of Versailles played in the rise of Adolf Hitler and the other events that lead up to World War II. 

The Cold War, and the resulting deaths, is also blamed on capitalism.

After the great war, immediately, came a new one. The Cold War. But the Cold War wasn’t just the intrigue of spies, as we think of it today. It was real and lethal war — war by America, for a single purpose — to preserve and expand the frontiers of capitalism. No capitalism, no Cold War. Let’s start, then, with the Viet Nam war. How many died? Another 2.5 million, roughly. Before that, though we don’t discuss it much today, was the Chinese civil war, in which America and Soviet Russia fought by proxy. How many died? About 8 million. Just those two hard wars of the Cold War — and there were many more — add another ten million to our tally, making it 80 million.

The author has things backwards.  The Soviet Union and other socialist nations were attempting to spread their deadly collectivist philosophies across the globe and the United States was trying to check the spread. 

Mercantilism and capitalism are too often conflated when it comes to the  supposed body count of capitalism.

In between World War II and the Cold War though, lies a period of history many of us have forgotten. The end of colonial empire. This, too, was capitalism — empires were built to obtain cheap labour and raw materials for mercantile capitalism. It wasn’t the kind of globalized, “free-market” capitalism we practice today — but it was very much self-interested, profit-maximizing, shareholder-capitalized companies engaged in commerce, just under different rules about who could trade what, where, how, and when.

How many people died in the course of colonial mercantile empire? We’ll never know — it’s astronomical. How big? In the Congo alone, 10 million died

Here is the definition of Mercantilism from the Merriam online dictionary:

an economic system developing during the decay of feudalism to unify and increase the power and especially the monetary wealth of a nation by a strict governmental regulation of the entire national economy usually through policies designed to secure an accumulation of bullion (see bullion sense 1), a favorable balance of trade, the development of agriculture and manufactures, and the establishment of foreign trading monopolies

And here is the definition of Capitalism

an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

As you can see they are not the same at all.  Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, wrote his masterpiece The Wealth of Nations as a refutation of Mercantilism.  Capitalism is an economic philosophy that was meant to replace Mercantilism.  Where this took place there was freedom and prosperity, where it did not there was pain and misery.