Here’s something I posted on facebook:
I’ve recently heard people accuse President Barack Obama of leading the nation to become a new Sodom and Gomorrah because of his stance on gay marriage. This tends to come from the same types of people who are virulently opposed to rich people paying more taxes and to the poor having access to state-sponsored medical care. Shows how much they know about the bible. Do you know what the sin of Sodom was? It wasn’t that they had gay sex. It was that they did not care for the poor. Ezekiel 16:49: “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” If anyone is leading our nation towards Sodom, it isn’t people who are pro-gay marriage. It’s the extremist republicans who want to deny socialist benefits to the poor and keep helping the rich grow even more obscenely wealthy than they are now.
A gentleman from my local freethought group commented and said that he respectfully disagreed with socialism, although he also said that he was in favor of “safety net” capitalism. If you don’t know already, “safety net” capitalism basically means that we have free enterprise but that we also fund government programs to provide those without with food stamps, basic living quarters, and so on. This got me thinking that I ought to write a post clarifying socialism and capitalism and what my position on that issue is.
First, definitions. I’ve posted Wikipedia’s definition of Capitalism and Socialism, and also my own summary of what communism is, which, contra popular confusion, is not the same as socialism:
“Capitalism is generally considered to be an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit or income by individuals or corporations.”
“Socialism is an economic system characterised by social ownership and/or control of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy, and a political philosophy advocating such a system.”
Under communist regimes, no one is supposed to really own anything, or if they do they are supposed to have the same amount that everyone else has. Karl Marx summarized his idea of communism as “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In other words, you do what you’re able to to contribute to society and you take whatever you need or want. Your giving more or doing more doesn’t get you more stuff and likewise doing less doesn’t mean you lose anything.
In short, capitalism is a system in which goods are distributed based on what you sell (note that when I say “sell” this includes working a job, because when you work you are naught but selling your time to your employer and also that when I say “distribution of goods” this includes monetary payment because money is just the means to buy goods) whereas communism is a system in which goods are distributed based on your needs. Put this way, it’s clear that the two aren’t mutually exclusive: you can have an economy in which goods are mainly distributed based on the value of what you sell (which includes higher values for the college-educated when they sell their time to a company and work in their speciality) but which also has some built-in sensitivity that distributes goods based on needs (i.e. foodstamp programs).
Today “Socialism” has become something of a curse word amongst most people, witness Barack Obama being renounced as a “socialist” by his political opponents. I think this likely just a hangover from anti-Soviet campaigns that went a little too far back in the day. It’s time to wash all of that away and startover with a more rational conversation in which we can discuss ideas without being afraid or overly dismissive of them. I’ve got news for you: if you’re an American citizen then you have lived in a country with socialist programs and policies since you were born, and have used them yourself many times. Even if you’ve never been on welfare, foodstamps, or anything like that. Have you driven on a public highways? That’s a socialist system. Socialism means the state or society owns the means of production. The state owns the means (the roads) not private companies or corporations. Would anyone really want to get rid of those?
On the other side of the coin, however, the profit motive (i.e. people’s desire to make more money) and the direction that regulated capitalism tends to channel this motive (the only way they can get it is by providing and goods and services that other people want, hence making them an asset to the community, and by competing with others driving all entrepreneurs to create better and better stuff for us to purchase) has clearly improved all of our lives dramatically. Over the course of his career, TV reported John Stossel’s primary thesis has been that free market and competition are great things, and that those have resulted in dramatic success, efficiency, and progress compared to government-run organizations trying to do the same thing (see his latest book No They Can’t: Why Government Fails But Individuals Succeed). He’s shown a spotlight on many examples to support that thesis, and I agree with it, at least in general.
The free market works on principles similar to that of Darwinian evolution: lots of variations in the product are tested and tried out by companies, they compete against one another, and the only ones that stick around are the ones that can make a buck because those are the only ones that people want. Free Market eneterprise naturally selects for products that we like. And just like evolution, it drives progress up a hill such that companies are forced into constantly producing goods better adapted to the desires of the people, because they have to compete with one another and are always looking for a way to make just a little bit more money. There is a catch: just as evolution produced a ton of great things (dogs, fruit, humans, dairy cows) it also produced a lot of predators and parasites too (Tigers, Sharks, HIV). Likewise, a free market can produce predators and parasites if we don’t have laws to stamp them out, or at least minimize their negative effects.
Here is the reason I wrote all of the above: since socialism and capitalism are not truly mutually exclusive, and since I think the vast majority of us would agree that it wouldn’t really be a good idea to get rid of all of our socialist (or capitalist) policies and programs, where the discussion and debate needs to take place is: when is it a good idea to have socialist programs? When you should we privatize an existent government-run entity? This is a discussion I want to pick up on in a future post concerning American Health Care.