Capitalism — to the extent that it has existed — has demonstrated to be phenomenal at raising people’s standard of living in terms of food production, housing, transportation, communication, medicine, exciting careers opportunities, leisure time, recreation, longevity, etc.

This becomes blatantly obvious when considering the stark prosperity-poverty contrast between the United States vs. Russia (or any of today’s Third World countries), or South vs. North Korea, or West vs. East Berlin (before 1989).

Yet today’s self-proclaimed enemies of world poverty are often the most ardent opponents of capitalism. What explains this?

Maude Barlow, a well-known left-wing activist in Canada, has revealed some disturbing answers in her recent attack on attempts by entrepreneurs to commercially export fresh water from Canada. (Our Water: Not For Sale, National Post, 8 Dec 98)

Canada has 20% of the world’s fresh water — a renewable and continuously replenished resource. Foreign countries want to buy some; Canadian entrepreneurs want to sell it; but Maude Barlow said: “Water must never be regarded as a commodity for exchange in the international marketplace.”

Why not? First: “Water is a public trust…. An adequate supply … is best protected by maintaining control of water in the public sector.”

Even if adequate supply were an issue, experience shows that the “private sector” would be far more innovative at finding a cost-effective solution. But supply is a non-issue. Commercial projects proposed to date would export a negligible fraction of the water lost to oceans via Canadian rivers — roughly three trillion cubic meters per year (cmpy). For example, one venture proposed to export via tankers 0.6 million cmpy to Asia from Lake Superior, a rate equivalent to 0.005 percent (50 parts per million) of Superior’s natural outflow. Another venture proposed to export to California 0.002 percent of what flows into the ocean from British Columbia.

Concern about adequate supply can’t possibly be Barlow’s motive.

Her other, and most revealing, objection is that selling water allegedly harms the poor, particularly in “developing” countries. How? According to Barlow:

“Exporting water to the elites who could afford it would reduce the urgency of finding real, sustainable, and equitable solutions to water problems in the developing world.”

In other words, foreigners eager to buy fresh water that would otherwise disappear into oceans are forbidden to do so in the name of finding an egalitarian “solution” to their country’s water problem. Those who are not poor are being harmed simply for not being poor. But Barlow wants us to believe that socialism qua egalitarianism — not capitalism — is the solution to a “scarcity of resources”.

Under capitalism, the combination of high demand and low supply can initially generate high prices — which only those most able and successful at making money can afford. This encourages entrepreneurs to generate more supply at lower cost (or else find a substitute product), which lowers prices and boosts sales. For example, when the computer first became commercial, computing power was scarce and pricy, and only the “elites” could afford it. Now, computing power is plentiful and dirt cheap, and virtually everyone can afford it — thanks to free enterprise. (Or, consider petroleum — where proven reserves keep rising while price keeps falling.)

Under socialism, government would control computing power and distribute what little (if any) it could generate to everyone equally — leaving everyone computationally impoverished. Likewise, forcing “developing” countries to waste time and money on socialist “solutions” to their scarce-water problems harms everyone involved, including the poor.

Given that shortages are commonplace under socialism, what if “developing” countries experience a water shortage crisis? Barlow’s solution is for Canada to supply them water for free, i.e., at the expense of Canadian taxpayers. Thus, she doesn’t want the poor to help themselves via capitalism, she wants to use the poor as hostages for harming those who aren’t poor: foreigners who want to buy the water they need, Canadian entrepreneurs who want to earn money supplying it, and Canadian taxpayers who are already taxed to death.

Barlow’s alleged concern about “adequate supply” and the poor is merely a smokescreen for destroying capitalism — and anyone who is ambitious, productive and self-reliant. This is what Ayn Rand called hatred of ability or “hatred of the good for being the good.”

Unfortunately, many today fall for this deadly smokescreen. Why? Because many today (though not I!) believe that selfless sacrifice to the needy, i.e., altruism, is the standard of moral virtue. (Many may not practice it faithfully, but most people believe it!) Mother Theresa is widely held as the moral ideal — whereas the creative, productive and successful business entrepreneur is generally regarded as amoral or immoral. And, if one shrinks one’s awareness sufficiently — evading who (i.e., productive achievers) and what (i.e., reason, rational self-interest, political-economic freedom) make prosperity possible — one might disastrously conclude that the way to help the “have-nots” is to simply steal wealth from the “haves” and give it to them.

But this merely penalizes those who are ambitious, creative and productive in order to reward those who are not — a monstrous injustice and a perfect recipe for universal poverty, as communism has amply demonstrated. And, as our own experience in semi-capitalist countries has shown, making welfare a “right” (as opposed to private-voluntary charity) merely entices people into dependency and misery rather than self-reliance and self-esteem. Such is the nature of altruism and socialism.

While helping the poor is not — nor should be — the moral justification for capitalism, the poor fair infinitely better under capitalism than under socialism, because capitalism provides more opportunities for them. Capitalism does this indirectly by protecting each individual’s right to benefit from his (or her) creative thought, productive work, voluntary associations and freedom to trade. Rational self-interest combined with political-economic freedom (freedom from those who loot and enslave) is why prosperity rises under capitalism, and why “scarce” resources either quickly become plentiful or else a substitute is quickly found.

Barlow and her ilk actively seek to destroy capitalism for no positive, pro-human reason whatsoever, so let’s stop pretending that any “higher” motives are involved and start giving them the moral condemnation they truly deserve.

Canada has plenty of fresh water — so let the commercial exports begin. The only scarcity threatening Canada (and the world) is the scarcity of reason, rational self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism.

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Glenn Woiceshyn

Glenn Woiceshyn is a freelance writer, residing in Calgary. Visit his education resources website at Powerful Minds.