In our hyper-polarized political climate, it’s unusual to find public voices who are willing to challenge their tribe and traditional allies. That’s why recent comments from Bono, the lead singer of U2, were so refreshing.
In an interview with the New York Times, Bono challenged the “degrowth” left that demonizes capitalism. Bono said, “I ended up as an activist in a very different place from where I started. I thought that if we just redistributed resources, then we could solve every problem. I now know that’s not true. There’s a funny moment when you realize that as an activist: The off-ramp out of extreme poverty is, ugh, commerce, it’s entrepreneurial capitalism.”
Bono continued, “Capitalism is a wild beast. We need to tame it. But globalization has brought more people out of poverty than any other -ism. If somebody comes to me with a better idea, I’ll sign up.”
The logic Bono applies to poverty applies in equal measure to the planet. Free economies – societies that respect commerce and entrepreneurial capitalism – are twice as clean as less free economies.
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Comparing capitalism to a “wild beast” may not be the most apt metaphor but Bono does raise the right question. The operative question is who is the “we” that needs to do the taming. Progressives tend to argue government and state power need to do the taming while conservatives argue that individuals and civil society should tame capitalism through virtue, self-control, and voluntary charity.
On this question, Bill Gates also deserves credit for critiquing the authoritarian approach.
“You can have a cultural revolution where you’re trying to throw everything up, you can create a North Korean-type situation where the state is in control. Other than immense central authority to have people just obey, I think the collective action problem is just completely not solvable,” Gates told CNBC.
“Anyone who says that we will tell people to stop eating meat, or stop wanting to have a nice house, and we’ll just basically change human desires, I think that that’s too difficult,” Gates added. “You can make a case for it. But I don’t think it’s realistic for that to play an absolutely central role.”
The better approach, as both Gates and Bono argue, is to unleash innovation and allow commerce and entrepreneurial capitalism to solve vexing problems.
And it’s worth giving credit to Bono’s bandmate, guitarist The Edge, for his intellectual honesty and thoughtfulness. In 1992, U2 joined Greenpeace in demonstrating at the Sellafield nuclear site in the United Kingdom. In recent years, however, The Edge has adopted a more nuanced stance on nuclear energy as a solution to the world’s climate challenges. In 2021, he said, “We have to open our minds to third generation nuclear energy being a possible solution.”
With less than two weeks to go before the midterm elections rethinking assumptions isn’t terribly popular but it’s precisely what’s needed to build consensus around long-term solutions.
The Edge put it well, “Everybody thinks in terms of their election cycle, and everyone’s looking for a result now. We all have the power with our votes to empower politicians to engage in much longer-term thinking.”