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Life in the Biodome: Capitalism for All Its Shortcomings Has Found a Way to Work with Human Nature

The Bloedel Conservatory, a triodetic biodome located in Queen Elizabeth Park at the highest point in Vancouver, Canada, houses more than 120 free-flying birds and 500 exotic plants and flowers in a temperature-controlled environment. It was financed by a lavish gift from timber industrialist Prentice Bloedel in the mid-20th century and built by the ten Van Vliet brothers, founders of the Double V Construction Company. The donor and builders of the impressive biodome were inspired by a sense of civic duty and love for the city; however, the biodome’s continued existence was by no means underwritten. It was nearly demolished when the Vancouver Park Board voted to close it due to “declining attendance and growing repair and maintenance costs,” but was saved by the Friends of Bloedel Association and other groups that lobbied to preserve the heritage landmark, bolstered by a providentially sharp increase in attendance numbers.

When my wife and I visited a few months back, I was astonished by the avian proliferation, innumerable species of colorful birds—Java finches, lavender waxbills, Senegal doves, reedings, parrots, mannikins, Guinea turacos, Napolean weavers—picking seed and twigs on the labyrinth of paths indifferent to the crowds that shuffled past. Mice scurried back and forth as if they owned the place, harmless and safe. Cockatoos orated on their soapboxes. The purling of the saffron finch was indescribably lovely. Receptacles for food and vessels for water were constantly being re-filled by volunteer attendants; others swept the paths and removed the droppings. The air was redolent with the rich scent of exotic perfumes. Nature had been civilized.

I could not help reflecting that the biodome was in a certain sense a metaphorical surrogate for Western civilization, evolving through a long history of trial and error into a comparative haven for its cultural and national species. It provided a favorable environment for human flourishing, bestowing a degree of shelter, sustenance, leisure and freedom never before seen for those who would otherwise have found themselves in a state of nature where life, as Thomas Hobbes famously wrote in Leviathan, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The Greeks gave us the idea of the sovereign human mind and the Judeo-Christian nexus bequeathed the idea of the infinitely precious human soul. These gifts were the materials from which the biodome of the West was gradually assembled.

At the same time, it was obvious that our parabolic biodome was by no means assured and was always susceptible to dereliction from various forms of dysfunction and the inevitable factors that plague all human constructs and institutions—analogically speaking, “declining attendance and growing repair and maintenance costs.” In real-world terms, the biodome of Western civilization—of the rule of law, however honored in the breach, a free market economy, the separation of church and state, a functioning infrastructure, property rights and individual autonomy—is now increasingly plagued by the ills of cultural exhaustion, historical amnesia and personal apathy. The volunteers are falling away, forgetting that, like a heritage building, the structure has to be jealously guarded and attended to if it is to survive.

Moreover, the actual biodome seemed to me the very antithesis of another and figurative biodome, a fiction of the political imagination in which life would finally become a utopia of collective equality and realized human happiness, a social and economic paradise on earth. It was aptly described in a fascinating play by Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode (1898-1962), titled Christopher Columbus, in which the protagonist draws up an imaginary map of the New World to be discovered that includes: “Strange flowers, oils, palms, gold nuggets. Gold, gold everywhere, rivers of gold, cities of gold, gold and feasting, wines, tall lascivious women! Feasting and sacrifice!...It is understood that no one ever works there. What rapture!” Unfortunately, New World votaries, Columbus laments, “have no idea of the orgies that threaten, of the sins, the dreadful sins that they will commit.”

Socialists, our New World votaries, believe they are working against the inequalities of the capitalist system, forgetting about the even worse inequalities of the socialist system. What they do not understand is that socialism doesn’t work because human nature is flawed; greed and envy will always emerge to corrupt any and every human endeavor, system, or institution. As America’s second president John Adams wrote in 1814, “Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty.” Adams was accordingly pessimistic about the prospects for naked democracy—unless, of course, America abided by its 1788 ratification as a constitutional republic. In the celebrated words of Ben Franklin, “America is a republic…if you can keep it.”

In this regard, lawful capitalism, free enterprise and anti-trust oversight epitomize, for all their defects and contradictions, probably the best of all human attempts at governance, causing the least amount of individual harm and economic distortion. In principle, the best system of social and political administration is doubtlessly an enlightened despotism—one thinks of Marcus Aurelius or of Prussia’s “philosopher king” Frederick the Great—but the problem here is obviously that of a guaranteed succession.

There can be no question that socialism in all its forms is a human and political disaster. The Soviet Union was a gigantic failure. Apart from the members of the Politburo and its scientific echelon, its population faced chronic food shortages, rationed goods, punishing quotas and long lineups—the infamous “empty shelves” phenomenon. Its satellites and clients did no better. No one knows how many millions succumbed in the gulags and died of forced starvation. Cambodia was hell on earth, approximately one-third of its people falling to the murderous whim of the Khmer Rouge. After an estimated  70 million deaths, Maoist China had no option but to eventually install a mixed economy. Venezuela, once ranked the fourth-wealthiest country in the world, now sits at 126th on the Legatum Prosperity Index and is utterly devastated, along with socialist Zimbabwe, a collective basket case. Under the sway of an unelected bureaucracy, welfare state Europe faces high unemployment, declining wages, massive debt and social turmoil. The Socialist Republic of Canada is presently economically stagnant and prey to astronomical debt load, its future likely mortgaged for generations. The socialist biodome is slated for bankruptcy.

Simply stated, individual freedom and collective equality are necessarily incompatible. History has shown that the former is preferable to the latter, producing greater happiness or, any rate, less unhappiness. One might say, then, that the conflict between liberal democracy and centralized state management, between regulated competition and authoritarian technocracy, between conservatism and progressivism, between, in a word, capitalism and socialism could be described as a contest between a real biodome that requires labor and vigilance to ensure its persistence, and a fantasy biodome that exists only in theory and has collapsed everywhere it has been tried. Capitalism for all its shortcomings has found a way to work with human nature and at least to limit the political and systematic incursion into the arboretum of human liberty—to nourish the human spirit, to preserve the beautiful and the fragile, the siskin and the tanager, despite the inevitable social and economic disparities that ensue.

Human nature always wins, but its victory can be tempered. Western civilization is the only antidote, however partial, to the vices and depredations of our nature and it must be defended at all costs. It represents the battle against ourselves which socialism has conceded. The biodome cannot survive otherwise.