A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Calmly Considered: Socialism vs. Capitalism-- Getting Beyond the Memes

In this month's episode of "Calmly Considered," Michael Kruse and I discuss the complex realities of socialism and capitalism that are so often distorted by simplistic social media memes, caricatures, and politicians seeking re-election. (Related reading is at the bottom of this post.)



Related articles


Chris Eyre said...

It's wrong to eqate socialism with state ownership of everything. Socialism demands that the *means of production* are owned by the workers, and can be accommodated by cooperatives. Personally I favour cooperatives as a mechanism.

Michael Kruse said...

Thanks, Chris for the feedback.

As noted, socialism vs capitalism can be understood as extreme “ideal types” that do not exist in reality but serve as useful anchors on either end of a continuum.

Yes, a socialist government would not need direct ownership/control of means of production. There are ways a socialist government may delegate a degree of decision and control. A couple of thoughts.

Private ownership of the means of production is essential to capitalism. A voluntary combination of private resources into a worker-run firm is consistent with capitalism. Mandatory structuring of all firms into worker-run firms is not. It is effective state control of the economy. No person is permitted to build a business beyond what they can achieve via their personal labor. They must surrender their ownership into a state-sanctioned collective to grow, which is de facto ownership/control of the means of production by the state.

An economy of worker-owned firms would still need to exchange with other firms, and indeed international firms, in order to secure resources and sell goods. Would those exchanges be based on prices arrived at through the interplay of supply and demand, or on direction from state entities? To what degree are workers who own the firms truly free to produce what they wish, to sell to whom they wish at whatever price they wish, to switch industries altogether, and to hire and fire workers? Answers to those questions will reveal whether there is socialism with delegation or some hybrid model. But if there is no private ownership we are decidedly on the socialism end of the continuum.

But here is the larger point. I enjoy getting down into the weeds of socialism vs capitalism as much as the next intellectual. You may indeed be embracing a variant of socialism. And to be sure, there are thought leaders who are genuinely and coherently promoting socialist alternatives. That is not the case with most socialism vs capitalism dicussions.

“Socialism” as it is bandied about by self-proclaimed “socialists” in much of social media, in the public square, and in surveys, is not truly a reference to socialism. If one’s sense of socialism is we need to become more like Denmark, they are not a socialist (see third article above). If one believes in the fire department, the police department, and social security, they are not a socialist.

Per the first article Allan has inked, many people are frustrated with the present state of American capitalism and want reform. “Socialism” becomes an abstract catchall for saying “I want reforms.” Too often, declaring myself “socialist” is a way to be edgy and provocative. It shows my superiority in having risen above the complacent masses while simultaneously antagonizing opponents. It is political theater. It drives us away from a productive conversation about concerns and productive reflection about responses.

Chris Eyre said...

I must have missed notification of your reply (for which thanks!). I do note this, however: "No person is permitted to build a business beyond what they can achieve via their personal labor."

I might ask why anyone ever should be permitted to build a business on the back of other peoples' labour. Of course, that's somewhat simplistic, but does underline what I consider a potential flaw in your argument.

In point of fact, I prefer a mixed economy - the point about doing things communally which are done well communally (I've changed that from "government") and privately which are done privately is an excellent one. I would just differ from the US norm in what I considered was best done communally; certainly any undertaking which had a natural monopoly should be communal, as even Adam Smith abhorred monopolies (actually, Smith would probably have cringed at the state of most modern societies' economics). Our government in the UK has attempted to semi-privatise a number of things like energy supply, and the result has been something of a disaster - let's face it, only one company is ever going to have wires and pipes laid to my house! Healthcare is something which I also consider should be communally provided - there really is no room for, for instance, two A&E hospitals in my area to compete with each other (and the damage if one went bust would be horrendous). I don't actually like the insurance model much - that, it seems to me, introduces a level of profit-taking which is entirely unnecessary to what should be an universal system.