Make Capitalism Fun Again!

How good sportsmanship can help

Full disclosure: I don’t love capitalism.

But you know what I do love? Games!

Games are enjoyable because there are set rules, defined objectives, and players who generally start out with an equal shot at victory.

If capitalism were a game, it wouldn’t be very fun to play.

There are rules, but they’re often neglected. There are goals, but they’re not always desirable. There are players, but they don’t start the game on equal footing.

I could spend this article bemoaning the lack of regulations that would keep things fair, or whining about how greedy tycoons should have “value” rather than “profit” as their objective, or making a fuss about the inequitable distribution of opportunities and wealth inequality.

But I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I want to focus on an aspect of games that capitalism should borrow: good sportsmanship.

Good sportsmanship goes beyond the simple prescription not to cheat. It’s an unspoken agreement that applies to every game we ever play: treat your opponents respectfully, accept victory or defeat with equanimity, and above all, optimize for fun!

In Settlers of Catan, it’s not cheating per se if I only trade with one player and ignore everyone else, but it certainly isn’t sportsmanlike, and it makes the game less fun for everyone.

At least Catan boards can’t be flipped in frustration like Monopoly boards can.

Thankfully, good sportsmanship remedies that concern by calling on our better angels and asking players to treat their fellow gamers with courtesy.

Good sportsmanship is an ethos that should permeate every game we play, and capitalism would be a lot more enjoyable if we as players demanded that others act in good faith.

There’s a very important concept in economics known as externalities.

Externalities are the costs or benefits to a third party generated by a process in which the third party has no control. For example, a fisherman who overfishes a pond and depletes the supply for other fisherman may not pay any cost for doing so (and in fact may be rewarded by his customers who are so happy with his vast selection).

We see externalities all the time, especially when it comes to environmental costs. A cattle rancher isn’t charged for his contribution to the buildup of antibiotic resistance, a factory owner isn’t fined for the polluting smog he creates, etc.

I argue that externalities are unsportsmanlike. A transaction isn’t legitimate if there are externalities that are unaccounted for. It shouldn’t have been allowed to have happened in a fair game, and a good sport would at the very least recognize the flaw in the game’s design.

The climate crisis is a good example of externalities run amok. If businesses were charged for the amount of carbon they released, much of the CO2 in the atmosphere would have been largely averted since it would have been prohibitively expensive to pollute with abandon.

Some business owners might argue that because emitting carbon isn’t illegal, there’s nothing wrong with unchecked emissions. While they aren’t violating the letter of the law, they certainly aren’t acting sportsmanlike, and we all bear the cost of their refusal to play the game of capitalism in good faith.

Another example of good sportsmanship being violated by large corporations is the principle of respecting your fellow players’ autonomy and free choices.

For instance, there’s nothing wrong with people freely choosing to drink Coca Cola, but it’s unsportsmanlike to spend millions of dollars on PR campaigns and hire expensive neuromarketers to optimally hijack people’s brains. Advertising may be a fun and creative aspect of capitalism, and I’m not arguing that all advertisements are bad, but intentionally seeking to exploit your fellow players and convince them to play in a way that goes against their interests isn’t sportsmanlike. (Coca Cola also produces externalities in the form of increased healthcare costs due to the obesity epidemic.)

Above are just two examples of poor sportsmanship in capitalism, but there are others as well. When pharma companies price gouge on rare drugs, when student loan companies issue debt that can’t be dissolved in bankruptcy, when weapons companies stoke fear into their customers in order to get them to buy more: all of these are cases of poor sportsmanship. They are symptoms of a game that was designed by a confluence of accidents, not intention and care.

If we think of capitalism like a game, then holding our fellow players accountable to rules of decorum and generosity isn’t wishful thinking, it’s par for the course.

While you don’t need to model good sportsmanship when playing games, you’ll quickly learn that if you don’t play in a way that is respectful, civil, and fair, no one will want to play with you anymore, and you might just wind up with a board flipped in your face.

I’m approachable!