The Wealth of a Nation: Why Capitalism Works

Politicians and policymakers don’t understand where wealth comes from. They don’t understand the very basics of why capitalism works, they don’t understand how the wealth of a nation can increase – and as a result, almost every single policy is counterproductive to a country’s competitiveness. This is despite the observation that the free market builds wealth due to one of the simplest of reasons, and once policymakers understand this, a completely different support structure would emerge.

Politicians and activists frequently regard the economy as a zero-sum game, where somebody must lose for another to gain. This is despite the quite trivial observation that we have built quite a lot of wealth from the Ice Age up until present day, and almost nobody is as bad off today as everybody was during the Ice Age. In this, it is baffling why politicians and pundits focus on redistribution, when the focus should be building of wealth.

But it’s counterintuitive for politicians to focus on building wealth, because doing so requires relinquishing control. Regulators can’t build wealth and competitiveness. They can only destroy it to various degrees. A lot of this comes from not understanding just why, and how, capitalism and the free market works to increase overall wealth, and not just redistribute it.

The free market brings 179,000 people out of extreme poverty every day. Not politicians. Not foreign aid. Not seized and redistributed wealth (minus the usual cuts to the redistributors). In my work in the European Parliament and elsewhere, I have rarely met a politician who understands the very fundamentals of why capitalism builds wealth – despite it being so ridiculously simple.

Capitalism works because it is voluntary.

It works because people seek to maximize their wealth, on a completely subjective basis. Some people value free time, some value money, some value happiness, some value rare Pokémon. That’s fine, all of it. The only thing you need to do as a politician is to get out of the way of millions of people trying to maximize their own value by trading something with other people.

In order to maximize overall wealth, you want to maximize the quantity of voluntary trades. That’s it.

Since every trade is voluntary, both voluntary parties consider themselves gaining in value from the transaction. This is key. As a result, a voluntary transaction adds value to the nation as a whole. Every voluntary trade adds a small bit of value, with both parties having gained from it, and maximizing wealth is about merely maximizing these voluntary trades on a purely quantitative basis. The more trades you have, the more increases in value you get.

Now, every person’s perception of “value” is arguably subjective. Some of it can be measured in terms of GDP, other subjective value is just happiness in various forms. The good part about the many forms of value is that you don’t have to concern yourself with this at all; people’s completely subjective understanding of value is much better than yours when distributed across millions of people.

The distributed free market is better even at determining and valuing the precise definitions of “value” than any bureaucrat has ever been.

Now, compare this with how politicians today try to “build wealth” or “create jobs” and thump themselves over the chest about it.

It usually involves creating horrible burdens on every single transaction. At a minimum, a receipt must be created (usually with penalties for not offering it). Moreover, transactions must be summarized to some kind of tax authority at regular intervals, and often to more than one authority. Meticulous bookkeeping is required – not for your sake, but for the sake of authorities. All this creates a wet blanket of unhappiness smothering the will to make voluntary transactions.

And then, of course, other politicians have the idea that regulated transactions are good for wealth, transactions which aren’t voluntary and therefore contain at least one losing party, if not two. These don’t build wealth. They may make the politician or regulator look good, but they aren’t a transaction in the free-market sense because they’re not voluntarily agreed upon by two consenting parties.

To top this off, all of the burden is usually directed toward subsidizing obsolete industries because they’re a vested interest and/or contributed a lot to somebody’s election campaign.

Politicians basically behave toward the free market and wealth-building like drunken elephants trumpeting about in a porcelain factory.

No, I don’t have an illustration for that.

Let’s do a thought experiment if we really wanted to create wealth in a nation, and just quantitively maximize the number of voluntary trades. How far can we go in making a nation competitive in this measure?

We’re eliminating all requirements to tell authorities about your transactions. No wet blanket of despair. That means no income taxes, no sales taxes, no bookkeeping requirements. You let people trade and be happy. This means you can’t have a corporate registry, there’s no regulation of employment (as that’s a special form of regular transaction), there’s possibly not even a concept of a corporation at all. There’s just people trading and taking entrepreneurial investment risks. Such risks can be detailed contractually in a project-by-project basis to eliminate the need for bankruptcy law and therefore the need for corporate legal entities and the heavy supporting authority bureaucracy.

There is still a need for a social safety net of some kind, not for compassion reasons, but for straightforward competitiveness reasons. You could solve this with a universal basic income like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have suggested. That would also be cheaper than building a bureaucracy for somehow determining who’s “worthy” of support. With such a general safety net, you create competitiveness for the nation overall as a lot more people will try out business ideas in entrepreneurship.

Society as a whole benefits from a risk-positive environment, and if you can provide a mechanism where anybody can try any stupid commercial idea without risking becoming homeless and indebted, more people will innovate and take risks – and the society using this mechanism will get a competitive edge.

So what you need is a population register with people who qualify for UBI (citizens or similar). You also need a land registry, for reasons I’ll be returning to. But that’s it. All other registers can be scrapped. Every one. Car plates, driver’s licenses, corporate registers, boat registers, every other database that requires data collection, and therefore puts obstacles in the way of maximizing the sheer quantitative amount of voluntary trades.

All this is perfectly doable today. It’s just that politicians think that Regulating More is the answer to creating wealth. It’s not, obviously. They Regulate More instead of focusing on something really simple – like the mere quantity of voluntary trades – and just doing everything possible to maximize that number, to get rid of obstacles for voluntary trades. As it turns out, you don’t even need taxes. Taxes require paperwork. There are ways to fund a state-construct maintenance that don’t require taxation and therefore don’t require paperwork.

I’ll be returning to that with a proposal for a Simplified Taxless State in a three-part series over the coming days.

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This article was previously published on Steemit with almost a hundred comments.

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. He lives on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, roasts his own coffee, and as of right now (2019-2020) is taking a little break.


  1. Penelope

    Great article and great explanations! It still a zero-sum game only if it is kept in house. Think about trading outside the game, then it became profitable. It can be a zero-sum game if the entire earth play the game. Then it will show some rich and some poor!

    1. Lori

      Consider the game called international trade. Not some international trading bloc like WTO, but the more de facto phenomenon of international trade “writ large,” or simply the global economy. Is there a way in which the sum of the trade surpluses of those countries running a trade surplus somehow exceeds the sum of the trade deficits of the countries running trade deficits? I think not. Everyone talks about “buy low, sell high” but no one “buys low” without someone “selling low.” Maybe that’s why Buccaneer Rick wants to abolish double-entry bookkeeping.

  2. Thijs

    I think regulation is not so much for creating wealth as it is for creating safety. If we’d get rid of speed regulation and driver’s licenses, I fear we’d be getting a lot more traffic accidents.

  3. Rick Falkvinge

    Test Ignore

  4. LennStar

    Sorry, but I prefer having some registers. I (aka police in this case) do want to know who the idiot was that crashed in my car and drove away.
    Same for other things – an UBI would never pay for seriously sick people. You need a system there, too.

    I think its more important to get away from the “we need to create more jobs so that people can buy more so that more can be sold so that more jobs are created” to a “robot based UBI”.

    Less regulation is far more easy to do then.

  5. mkai

    Rick Falkvinge wrote: “it is baffling why politicians and pundits focus on redistribution, when the focus should be building of wealth”.

    While I do not care much for governmental control on any level, I think the redistribution of wealth is still something that’s worth doing, at least for now. The anarcho-capitalist ideal state where the market, or the people, will vote with their wallet and play out unfair players (whether their sin is faulty or dangerous products, bad environmental policies, degrading HR management or whatever) has many what-ifs and potential pitfalls that would be difficult or impossible to foresee – and would only manifest in a real-life test environment.

    My point is, there’s a pronounced risk of corruption and abuse from the get-go in a truly free market, even if we started from a clean slate. As it is now, the game is rigged in favor of multi-national companies. Therefore, as long as we’re playing by the current set of rules, I think it’s justifiable that the government skims a portion off of the companies’ profits and spends it in favor of the have-nots. (Although it does suck that the current system employs an army of bureaucrats in their silly sinecures.)

    I appreciate your argument as to where things should go, or be taken to, but focusing on “A” (redistribution) doesn’t have to mean not focusing on “B” (building wealth) – both must be possible simultaneously, at least during a transitional phase where an economy or a society would shift to a less regulated state. Of course, this phase wouldn’t have to last all that long, as you described in part 1 of “A simplified taxless state”, where the Tier 2 land owners could be “liberated” of their claimed ownership by a change of law. I am skeptical, however, of seeing something like this place in a modern society with big money players and their legacy.

    Larken Rose had something to say on the point to brought up. You’ll find his interesting writing in the link below. It’s been a while since I read the thing, and what you worry about came to my mind as well. Regrettably, if my memory serves me right, he didn’t offer a clear answer to the dilemma, but rather argued that people, in the form of smaller communities or more widely recognized international private organizations, would be able to organize the necessary control on their own, driven by a common need and provided by whoever does the best job at it. That is, “no governmental regulation” does not equal to “no regulation at all”.

    1. mkai
    2. mkai

      To bring my way-too-long reply to a classy conclusion, I wish to kind of object myself while I’m at it:

      Demanding well thought-out, ready-made solutions to the problems we see in our societies is at most times preposterous. No one can offer such solutions. Nevertheless, we must work towards a fairer state of things, whether it happens in baby steps or in sudden leaps. And this we can try to achieve by getting rid of bad legislation that creates inequality and enables corruption. (Is this Chomsky?)

  6. kristy
    1. happy wheels

      This is despite the quite trivial observation that we have built quite a lot of wealth from the Ice Age up until present day, and almost nobody is as bad off today as everybody was during the Ice Age? Really?

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