Americans need to get beyond their hang-up over “socialism vs. capitalism.” We need to learn to discriminate: we need more socialism in health care and wealth distribution, more capitalism when it concerns bailing out the rich. Today we are getting the bad aspects of both socialism and capitalism without the good aspects of either. [See also Governing Ourselves, Dec 12.]
It’s not about socialism vs. capitalism. Both the childish American terror at the mention of the word “socialism” and its childish worship of the word “capitalism” only show the ignorance of Americans. The idea that a government policy is good because it is capitalistic and bad because it is socialistic is just as idiotic as the opposite argument, which for 70 years was made so vociferously by America’s mirror-image, the Soviets.
Capitalism is the pursuit of profit, which at its best generates marvelously efficient markets but at its worst generates child labor; wars of imperialism; and waves of unrestrained, depression-producing greed. Socialism is the pursuit of fairness, which at its best generates security, justice, and equality but at its worst protects industries that deserve to fail and condemns people to living in communal flats with shared bathrooms, dependent on government handouts for economic survival purchased at the price of loss of freedom. The great academic theories underlying each are equally vulnerable to abuse by greedy captains of industry and elitist politicians. The pollution of Soviet industry and the pollution of Western oil companies are equally poisonous. Soviet imperialism against East Europe in the name of Marxism and Western imperialism against oil producers in the name of democracy are equally dishonorable.
This fall’s bailout of Wall Street was not bad because it was socialistic; it was bad because it bailed out rich people who were knowingly gambling and should have been allowed to fail just as the unproductive industrial dinosaurs of Soviet industry should have been allowed to fail. Protecting the incompetent just because they are powerful is one of the evils of socialism. When the government of a capitalistic system does that, it is practicing socialism for sure, but that is not why the practice is bad. It is bad because, regardless of the system, incompetence should not be rewarded.
The issue in the U.S. today is not capitalism vs. socialism. The current economic crisis illustrates what happens when too much wealth is held by too few; the wealth needs to be spread around. The post-Reagan years of intentional government irresponsibility show that capitalism, by itself, is a lousy, dangerous, immoral system that we cannot afford. But the opposite extreme of letting the government control everything—economic choices, living style, politics, choice of reading material—was shown by the Soviet experience to be equally bad.
We need to become a little bit more mature. We need to learn to discriminate. When the issue concerns health care, economic security, or the behavior of entities with enormous power over people, a dash of socialism is essential to producing a well-flavored social stew:
- Health care must be for everyone.
- Minimal economic security must be granted to everyone (even mental patients, who otherwise become a public danger helplessly roaming the streets).
- Entities with power (be they financial firms, automobile manufacturers, or ministries of internal security) must be regulated, inspected, checked, balanced, and made to behave transparently.
- the government needs to keep its distance from controlling what people say, read, write, or advocate;
- the government needs to keep its distance from telling people what they can buy or sell;
- the government needs to keep its distance from controlling all sources of production.
The problem in the U.S. today is not one of capitalism vs. socialism. Washington has for generations designed all manner of property protection, wealth preservation, foreign policy, trade policy, tax policy laws and actions with the express intent of giving rewards to the rich. Sure, that is socialism – but it is the bad side of socialism; socialism for the rich plus capitalism for the poor. Even the incredibly wealth oil companies get all manner of under-the-table socialist rewards from the Government. Of course, the government has also done much for the poor (otherwise, we would have long since had our own communist revolution). But the 40% of Americans without health care need more socialism, while Wall Street millionaires and oil companies deserve less.
The problem today in the U.S. is that Washington is practicing the bad aspects of socialism and capitalism while evading the good aspects of each. We are increasingly getting the worst of both worlds.