No, Sabine, Capitalism Is Not Good and Your Explanation Is Nonsense.

After her misguided video about trans people, I was still willing to remain subscribed because I interpreted it more as poorly thought out than malicious, but the latest video by Sabine Hossenfelder made me unsubscribe, it is garbage and I do not want to waste my finite time on her. She might be an accomplished and competent physicist, but outside of that she talks bull – and I am not all that interested in astrophysics.

It is not garbage in the sense that it contains all invalid information (AFAIK). Still, it is definitively garbage in the sense that the conclusion – as summed up in the title – does not follow from what is being presented. It is disappointingly intellectually lazy and poorly argued.

I am not going into an in-depth analysis, I will try to be as concise as possible.

She is basically saying a bunch of good things that temporarily coincided with capitalism being the predominant economic system, declared a causal relationship between those good things and capitalism (completely failing to prove for example that it was capitalism that caused the Industrial Revolution and not the other way around), and called it a day. Several times she mentioned that there were and are bad things happening too, but she either handwaved them away with “that’s another story” or explained them away with “it means we are doing capitalism wrong”.

That is what made me so angry because the same line of reasoning can be used to prove that “socialism is good” too. In fact, that is exactly what some tankies are doing  – they point out the good things that happened in the USSR sphere of influence, handwave the genocides and human rights abuses away as “doing socialism wrong” and call it a day too. I am not willing to give them a pass for this spurious reasoning, and I am not going to give a pass for it to someone arguing against them either.

This line of reasoning could also be used to prove both that capitalism and socialism are bad, just by switching things that are talked about and that are waved away.

As someone who experienced firsthand both “badly performed” socialism and “badly performed” capitalism, I am of the opinion that both words are so broad that without excessive contextualizing they are both essentially meaningless.

This video is a study of cherrypicking.


  1. says

    I’m just gonna say it: ALL of the good capitalism has done has been a result of the regulation on capitalism and not via capitalism itself.

    Take the land/railroad barons. Theoretically they created an important bit of infrastructure that allowed for larger economic development. The problem here is that that larger economic development didn’t come until after the regulation arrived, and in the meantime people were enslaved and worked to death, with occasional mass murders of strikers.

    Again and again you get factories as engines of horrific poverty and suffering, then later comes regulation and POOF lives get substantially better.

    Regulation is the engine of economic development and human flourishing. Sure you can fuck up regulation like you can fuck up anything, but if you don’t regulate capitalism, NOTHING GOOD HAPPENS. NOTHING GOOD AT ALL.

    It’s easy for schmucks living today to say that capitalism is good when they live in places where capitalism coexists with positive regulation. Look! It’s the economic system! And this place I live doesn’t suck! Therefore the economic system must not suck and must be doing something right!


    Your economic system isn’t doing something right. Your regulatory system is doing something right and the economic system is forced to do some good it would prefer not to do while it constantly struggles to free itself from your regulatory system’s constraints.

  2. antaresrichard says

    I generally like Sabine, her humor and such, but the feet of clay and the particular subjects they trample, seriously disheartens me.

  3. bigzed says

    While I generally agree with Crip, I also want to take a somewhat different tack.

    To the extent that our economic system is a successful one, the thing that drives that success is the “free market”; that is, the fact that independent businesses can decide what they are going to produce or sell and for how much. Capitalism, as merely a system for deciding who gets to own said businesses, has very little to do with that success. You could replace every single corporation in our current system with socialist style worker-owned collectives, and the only difference you would have is that everyone (but CEOs and the rest of the “Capitalist” class) would have quite a bit more spending money with otherwise the same diversity and quality of products and services (and the resulting spreading-out of spending money would cure quite a few of the ills of our current political and media systems)

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    For years, I’ve recommended Hossenfelder for her no-nonsense approach to physics (along with Matt Strassler and Ethan Siegel). But lately, I think she’s succumbed to “what can I say which will increase number of viewers?” syndrome. Even some (not all) of her recent physics videos have induced a few “WTF”s.

    Too bad, but so it goes…

  5. springa73 says


    I’m inclined to agree with this. One thing proponents of capitalism often do is treat capitalism and free/open markets as being identical, when in fact they are two different things.

  6. billseymour says

    springa73 @5:  yes, that was my error until recently, conflating capitalism with what Adam Smith suggested in The Wealth of Nations.

    I now see that capitalism has nothing to do with competition (although they can coexist), but is all about ownership (the “capital” in “capitalism”).  The people with the power in society are those who own lots of stuff, and it doesn’t matter how they got it.  The worst parts of capitalism are, at present, somewhat mitigated by such competition as we still have.

    I still like what Smith had in mind, but I’d overlay it with a more up-to-date progressive list of common goods.

  7. says

    @bigzed, who said:

    Capitalism, as merely a system for deciding who gets to own said businesses, has very little to do with that success.

    And in fact, it is disadvantageous for large businesses to allow a free market. They kill the free market everywhere they can, every opportunity they get. They use patents and dumping and any tactic that they can think of to keep entry barriers high. Capitalism, by prioritizing the wealth rather than the people, is anti-free market.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    I’ve observed that among all scientists, indeed among all highly qualified and knowledgeable people (by which I mean not just the sciences but medicine, mathematics, computing, engineering and others), there are few worse than physicists for thinking that because the thing they specialised in is (perceived as) hard, and they’ve found it easy (easy enough to get degrees/doctorates/whatever), then all the other stuff that isn’t their specialism is by comparison trivially easy… so they can speak authoritatively on it, because hey, they’re a physicist and therefore the smartest one. I mean, compared to quantum theory, how hard can economics be, right?

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    sonofrojbake @8: I’ve observed many people making the same “observation”, which, near as I can tell, is based on them reading articles about such-and-such physicist saying something silly or flat out wrong. So it’s an observation about articles, not scientists.

    My anecdote: I was in physics for 16+ years (undergrad, grad, post-doc, research associate), associating mostly with people working in gravitation or particle physics, and I’d say that as a group, they were less likely to pontificate outside their area of expertise than most other people I’ve known.

    If I had to rank those most likely to do so, based only on people I’ve known (obviously a small and biased sample), I’d rank engineers and geophysicists on top. Neither of those groups actually learned much quantum theory, but many of them seemed eager to offer their thoughts on the subject.

  10. Jazzlet says

    sonofrojblake @8 and Rob Grigjanis @9

    When I was at grammar school in the 70s there was definitely a perception that you could rank the sciences and physics was the hardest, while biology was the easiest, which of course as a proto biologist always irritated me ;-)

    My experience is that engineers, and particularly computer engineers do tend to think they can waltz in and provide a cure for cancer in ten years or whatever most often, but that physicists seem to be the next most common group. Very much my perception, not from newspapaer articles, but from comment forums I regularly frequent. And of course at that point I generallly have to go on what they tell me their speciality or profession is so . . .

  11. joel says

    It depends what you mean by capitalism:
    “A system of exchanging goods and services at prices determined by a free market” -- I totally support it.
    “People with money wielding power over people who must work for a living” -- I will burn it down when possible.

  12. sonofrojblake says

    @Rob Grigjanis, 9:

    it’s an observation about articles, not scientists.

    Fair point. I aimed at the wrong target.

    I revise my observation thus:

    Among all scientists, indeed among all highly qualified and knowledgeable people (by which I mean not just the pure sciences but medicine, mathematics, computing, engineering and others), there are few the media like to quote more than physicists, even when they’re flat out wrong, possibly because the people in the media who are in charge of who gets quoted are in awe of physicists way more than they are in awe of e.g. engineers or mathematicians. I further posit that this is because most of the “star” practitioners and communicators of science are identified as physicists of one sort or another -- Einstein, Oppenheimer, Feynmann, Sagan, Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox. People like Dawkins (biology) and Bill Nye (mechanical engineer) are outliers against a general background of media run by humanities graduates who think physicists are best.


  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    sonofrojblake @12: Yeah, but at the risk of coming across as a whiny prat, there’s more than that. Consider two scenarios:

    (1) Physicist says something stupid/uninformed.
    (2) Biologist says something stupid/uninformed (it happens!).

    For (1), it’s pretty much an established meme (is that the right word?) that the author of a critique and/or some of their commenters respond with “damn, physicists think they’re all that and a bag of chips”, often accompanied by an “obligatory” (it really isn’t) link to some xkcd nonsense.

    For (2), the response is more like “that particular biologist is a dumbass”. No reference to biologists in general, and no witty* stick-figure stereotypes.

    *for a dim millennial’s notion of ‘wit’. Pace xkcd fans.

  14. says

    Goodness, that lady really has her head up her ass.
    Not just the constant “capitalism works perfectly if you do it perfectly”. No, Sabine, CO2 carbon trading doesn’t actually work, it’s just greenwashing. She also ruthlessly cherrypicks her data.
    Her first example on how capitalism is responsible for all the good things is penicillin, how it was capitalism that made it possible. Then what about the polio vaccine? If capitalism isn’t only the “best delivery method” of such a discovery, but indeed a prerequisite, how come my grandparents, living in capitalist west Germany took my mum to socialist east Germany to get vaccinated, because they had the vaccine a whole year prior to west Germany.
    The next one is “socialism produces countries that nobody likes to live in.” Now, we can discuss the hereditary monarchy of North Korea at another point (I’d say that the west’s problem with North Korea actually isn’t the hereditary monarchy or the brutal dictatorship, but the issue that they don’t open their markets to western capital, since they are perfectly fine with both monarchies and other brutal dictatorships if they do), but for one thing, I’ve actually lived in Cuba for a while and for another, she conveniently ignores all the countries that are brutally exploited by capitalism and where people are worked to death. but hey, rich people can live happily in all those places, so maybe her and my definition of “people” are simply different.

  15. says

    Her first example on how capitalism is responsible for all the good things is penicillin…

    And who was the first major buyer of penicillin? Where did the demand, and money, come from that drove that invention? The US Army. And the Army needed it, not just for the highest-paid officers, but for all the soldiers who were sent to fight in foreign countries where they might catch diseases they hadn’t got used to at home. This is important, because it means that government demand didn’t just drive the invention of penicillin, it drove the mass-production of same for large numbers of ordinary people.

    Seriously, almost ALL of the life-changing innovations we’ve taken for granted since 1945 have come from either government demand, government spending, or legal/regulatory mandates. Private enterprise had nothing at all to do with any of it, and in many cases, private industry OPPOSED many of the policies that led to all that innovation.

  16. says

    And who was the first major buyer of penicillin? Where did the demand, and money, come from that drove that invention? The US Army.

    Much like chocolate as we know it today being the result of Lindt selling it to all war parties in WW1 as shelf stable emergency rations…

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