Vietnam, America and the Moral Virtue of Capitalism

No theory has done more to reduce poverty and empower social mobility than capitalism. It’s a practical theory that actively makes people’s lives better. No one understands that better than capitalism’s beneficiaries. Just ask the people of Vietnam.

According to two recent Pew research polls, 95 percent of Vietnamese support free market economics and 76 percent have a positive view of the United States. It’s not hard to understand why. Benefiting from a young population of entrepreneurially dynamic citizens, foreign investment and powerhouse export markets (the United States is Vietnam’s top export destination), Vietnam’s economy grew by nearly 6 percent in 2014. This year, Vietnam is on track for gross domestic product growth above 6 percent.

Capitalism, in short, is working wonders for the people of Vietnam. And they’re feeling that wonder in their pockets.

The World Bank reports that Vietnam’s per capita GDP (measured in current U.S. dollars) increased from $433 in 2000 to $2,052 in 2014. If the United States had experienced the same remarkable growth, America’s per capita GDP today would be about $175,000. The comparison isn’t perfect—Vietnam is still an emerging market, after all, while the United States is a massive and mature economy. But it goes to show what capitalism has won for the Vietnamese.

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The per capita increase of Vietnam’s GDP has skyrocketed over the last 15 years, thanks to its new embrace of capitalism | Downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Photo: iStock

Vietnam’s economic success offers two broader lessons for Americans, however.

First, Vietnam should remind us of the tangible virtue of free markets. These days, critics of American exceptionalism often go unchallenged. But the truth is that without America, Vietnam’s empowerment likely would have been impossible.

Whatever one thinks about the Vietnam War, Vietnam’s present condition proves the moral virtue of the broader U.S. struggle in the Cold War. Had the Soviet Union triumphed, Vietnam would have remained a place trapped under absolutist communism—a place where most Vietnamese would remain impoverished and destined to live short, unhopeful lives.

Instead, Vietnam’s life expectancy has risen dramatically over the past decade. New wealth has brought new opportunity. With risk taking and wealth creators, jobs and improved services have followed.

Again, this is something that deserves closer attention. From Venezuela to France to Scotland and beyond, socialism continues to spread misery. Vietnam’s history and its new success exemplify how capitalism serves humanity’s interests.

“Vietnam’s history and its new success exemplify how capitalism serves humanity’s interests”

But Vietnam also should remind Americans that our diplomatic, economic and military power requires our global commitment to free-market ideals. Consider: Vietnamese love the United States, their erstwhile enemy, but large segments of Vietnam’s population hold negative views towards China (another old enemy). Why the dichotomy? Simple. Where American offers honest trade and partnership, China spreads great dissatisfaction and, in Vietnam’s case, war.

China today is actively stealing Vietnamese territory and harassing Vietnamese commerce (especially fishermen). Vietnam proves that by embracing the rule of law, fair contracts and generally honest investments, America offers a mutually beneficial trading relationship. In contrast, developing economies around the globe are learning that China offers only imperial domination.

Yes, Vietnam has its problems. Its people continue to be led by a one-party government. Its military wields far too much power over the economy and government. The Vietnamese population, though young at the moment, will require greater and more expensive services as it ages. Nevertheless, these challenges are minor compared to what the Vietnamese people are gaining from their dedication to rule-based capitalism. And one day, when capitalism has empowered a strong middle class, Vietnam will follow capitalism to its inevitable destination: democracy.

Tom Rogan is a contributor for Opportunity Lives and writes for National Review. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.