Friday, January 9, 2009

Socialism and Capitalism

If we strip the words of their historical context and simply look at what they seem to say as plain terms, I think it is easy to say that socialism intuits as more humane than capitalism. Comparing social (human) and capital (non-human) things as ends seems to be an easy choice to make. The problem is that that basic meaning, plain and simple, isn't nearly enough. I should reveal, as a matter of honesty, that there has always seemed to be a certain empathy I can share with my committed socialist friends that I cannot with my capitalist ones. Putting that aside for the moment, I do know that, in many (if not most) ways, the sentiments of my capitalist friends are similar (if not the same) as their converse socialist opponents. Their issues go back to a basic misunderstanding in the root intuitive appeal of what makes someone decide to "be" a socialist or a capitalist.

I think that socialists and capitalists both want to see a better world. The capitalist, on the one hand, finds the excesses of free markets excusable (to a certain extent) because of the principles of freedom they hold dear. These are principles that clearly desire for the human person to be free and flourish. The socialist reacts against the excesses of modern capitalism and finds the evils of historical socialist states excusable (to a certain extent) because of the principles of solidarity and community that also desire for the human person to exist in freedom and flourish.

Yet, both are deeply misguided, it seems to me. If there were an ideology to be had, I think we would have to move past the individualist vs. pluralist polemics. Truth be told, persons are deeply inscribed with both individual freedom, uniqueness, and dignity that is manifest in their desire for community, solidarity, and relationships. Unless we have a paradigm of politics, economics, or what have you, that accounts for that complex relationship between the person and the community, we will be left with too little.

What we can find some hope in is that, for those not exploiting these ideologies, most of those who ascribe to this or that want the same things: joy, peace, hope, goodness, and, of course, Love.


flightofkatrina said...

I often think what is missing from the socialism/capitalism debate is the element of community. Yes, yes people might say, "isn't socialism a community-based economic structure." Of course, at that point I must add or pinpoint that socialism as a theory versus socialism as practice are two different things entirely.

What I mean by community is that both really fail to address the human condition as it relates to economics. The human need to be a contributing member of his/her society (however that is defined). Interestingly, the UN charter of Human Rights picks up this theme too.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

It shouldn't be surprising that "socialism" should have a better ring to it than "capitalism." After all, both terms were created by proponents of socialism, and the name a group picks for itself is liable to be more flattering than a name picked by the group's enemies.

samrocha said...

I don't find it surprising either, but I find the term descriptive enough. Is there a better term?

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

I prefer whenever possible to speak about free markets rather than about capitalism (though I'll admit that sometimes the latter must be used simply for lack of a better alternative).

"Capitalism" is kind of a weird term, in that it is an 'ism' that isn't quite like any other 'ism.'

A socialist is someone who believes in socialism.

A fascist is someone who believes in fascism.

A monarchist is someone who believes in monarchism.

And a capitalist is a guy who owns a bank or a factory and has a lot of money.

To quote Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other.

I also think that, to the extent people use "capitalism" to refer to a type of economic system or to a set of beliefs about how the economy should be run, the term is broader than what is typically implied by the phrase "free market." One can speak without contradiction of crony capitalism, monopoly capitalism, and so forth, whereas using such adjectives before the phrase "free market" doesn't quite sound right.

John said...

To follow up on BA's point, I've never met anyone who described themselves as a 'capitalist,' but plenty of people describe themselves as socialists. It seems to me that 'capitalism' is a loaded term. The more natural opposite of socialism would be individualism, but individualism has too many other meanings to be useful in this context.

I think the basic difference between the two is about who should control property: the state (or community, if you prefer) or individuals. Pure capitalism consists an fettered right to use private property as you wish.

I think the post is correct that neither socialism nor a dogmatic support for free markets leads to desirable outcomes. Both the individualism of capitalism and the demands of the community on the individual in socialism need to be balanced. Not coincidentally, we have such hybrid systems in most of the world, including the U.S. and Western Europe.

Many of our domestic policy debates are about whether the community or individuals controlling property is best for the common good in response to specific problems.