In the wake of the massive earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, we saw capitalism at its best. Within hours of the quake, doctors, nurses, and rescue workers were voluntarily making their way to the devastated island, most of them at their own expense, to give immediate assistance. Yes, the Red Cross was there too, offering food, blankets, water, and medical care. The Red Cross, pooling private donations, raised over $3 million the very first day, just by setting up a method for people to text a $10 donation through their privately financed and operated phone plans. Brilliant. But for many victims, it was the makeshift triage centers set up by volunteer health professionals in residential backyards that made the difference between life and death.
Why didn’t everyone go down there to help? Because most of us didn’t have the capital to do so. We could donate a few bucks, and maybe set up walkathons and fundraisers to donate even more. But these volunteer angels were fueled by capital.
Contrary to public opinion, capitalism is not a system by which big corporations exploit the masses (although there are certainly some capitalists who take advantage of their workers). Capital is simply the difference between what we have and what we spend. Capitalists use those savings to expand a business, fix up a piece of real estate, invest in education, or extend a loan to someone else. And it’s more than just money. Capital includes time, talent, and labor.
It took capital for doctors to amass the quantities of medical supplies they would need to treat their patients, and more capital to transport those supplies to Haiti. It took capital for rescue workers to be able to take time off from their jobs, dig through rubble for days or weeks, and still be able to pay their bills back home. It took capital for nurses to pay their tuition and learn the skills to become healthcare professionals who could save lives.
Back in the States, many people who lack the necessary skills or time to help directly with relief operations organized fundraisers to help pay for food, water, and supplies to be sent to the victims. Perhaps the most notable was “Help for Haiti Now,” a star-studded entertainment extravaganza organized by George Clooney with telethon phone banks manned by some of the biggest names in Hollywood. For a hundred bucks you could talk to Julia Roberts and make a difference at the same time.
Although its organizers would probably reject the moniker vigorously, this telethon was also an example of capitalism at its best. The entertainers generously donated their time and talent, but it took capital for them to develop those talents. It also took capital to hire the studio, pay the sound engineers, install the phones, and buy the air time. It took capital to pay for transportation, hotels, and food for those working on the project. And when Clooney, Roberts, and others donated upwards of a million dollars each to the cause, that was capital too – the difference between what they earned in the capitalist system and what they needed to pay their bills.
The government did its part as well, but in many ways it was a day late and a dollar short. First it had to set up a taskforce, decide who would serve on the committee, discuss what to do and how to do it. A budget had to be proposed and approved. Personnel had to be notified and deployed. As a result, official relief efforts did not get underway for several days.
Meanwhile, voluntary capitalists of their own free will and choice were already in Haiti, using their own funds and their own skills to make a difference. Let’s hear a cheer for the private, capitalist, individual.