Dynamism and Durability Are Great Features of Capitalism

A lesson in basic economics courtesy of an old Toyota.


The odometer on my 1999 Toyota Camry hit 100,000 earlier this week. It triggered a small family celebration and some reflection on what might be learned from the achievement.

One takeaway is that newer isn't always better.

You don't have to be an adherent of Judaism (older than Christianity or Islam) or a graduate of Harvard (founded in 1636) to understand that friendships, marriages, books, and ideas that pass the test of age often—not always, but often—endure because of quality.

This is a point John Kennedy made in his first congressional campaign, defending capitalism and freedom against socialism and communism, when he said, "We, in this country, must be willing to do battle for old ideas that have proved their value with the same enthusiasm that people do for new ideas and creeds."

One can take that insight to illogical extremes, of course—I'm not driving around town in a Model T Ford, or riding on horseback. But as a corrective to our national obsession with the newest and latest, it's worth keeping in mind.

Status isn't all it's cracked up to be. A lot of the fashionable critiques of modern capitalism fall apart when tested against the hard steel factual counterexample of my beige Toyota. Overleveraged? Nope, I own it outright. Advertising feeding excessive brand-consciousness? Nope, even the "T"-shaped Toyota logo on that would be on the front grille of the car is missing. It was stolen overnight when I had the car parked on the street in Brooklyn (a couple of blocks away from Bill de Blasio's house, but during the Bloomberg mayoralty), and I never bothered either to report the loss to the police or to have the hood ornament replaced.

One thing that matters more than what brand of car you drive is family. I pretty much came by my attitude toward cars from my father, who placed driving a new car lower on the priority list than saving or spending on other things, like education. The Toyota itself came to me originally used as a gift from my mother, who inherited it from her mother.

The Camry made it to 100,000 miles with help from a couple of good mechanics, one in Brooklyn where I used to live, another in Boston where I now live. The relationship of trust between a car-owner and a mechanic is an example of capitalism at its best: voluntary mutual exchange of value, specialization, the accumulation of knowledge.

And so long as we're talking Adam Smith, let's not forget David Ricardo, either. It's a Japanese car, after all, and the opening of the American car market to Japanese competition has improved quality and reduced costs for American motorists while creating jobs and wealth in Japan. That's the benefit of free trade. Camrys, so far as I can tell, are actually manufactured by the Japanese company here in the U.S., in Kentucky. Even American states have their comparative advantages, and Kentucky's "right-to-work" laws banning compulsory union membership made it more hospitable to foreign auto factories than the laws of other places, such as, say, Detroit.

I posted the picture of the odometer at 100,000 to Facebook, a company whose founder wasn't even old enough to drive when the Camry first rolled off the assembly line. On the trip when the digits turned, I passed a truck loaded with brand new Teslas, cars made by another company that didn't even exist when my Camry was first made. Dynamism is one of the great features of capitalism. But so is durability.