An Introduction to Socialism vs. Capitalism
We certainly live in interesting times. One the one hand, based on numerous criteria we are living in the best of times. Whether we measure longevity, literacy, lifesaving drugs and medical procedures, liberty, or a long list of other things that matter, we are now at levels never seen in human history.
There is more real wealth in the world now than there has ever been, and the proportion of humanity living in absolute poverty—which the United Nations defines as living on approximately US$2 per person per day—has never been lower.
On the other hand, there is income inequality and unequal enjoyment of the wealth and benefits of society. There is increasing production of carbon dioxide and growing concerns about climate change. There is human trafficking. There are people who can’t get the medical treatments they need, who face employment insecurity, who suffer from loneliness and anxiety and depression, who have broken families, who have little social support or little connection to society, and who are trapped in poverty—if not “absolute” poverty, then in circumstances far more challenging and difficult than the circumstances of the rich.
A growing consensus holds that capitalism is behind both the good and the bad. The dawn of capitalism in the late eighteenth century led to an explosion of material prosperity, which continues to this day. And yet, at the same time, capitalism is alleged to have torn asunder the social and communal bonds humans have enjoyed and from which they derived their identities throughout their history; divvied up the world’s natural bounty, concentrating the lion’s share in the hands of a lucky, rapacious, or greedy few; inflamed our appetites, titillated our lowest sensibilities, triggered a restive insatiability, and, in the end, reduced humanity in all its dignity and preciousness and nobility to factors of material production—descending from Imago Dei to “human capital.”
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that so many are searching for an alternative to capitalism, and that socialism, in one guise or another, is gaining favour. One recent poll, among many similar polls, found that fully half of all “Gen Z” Americans—those born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s—approve of socialism.
One could multiply such examples, but their point is clear: increasingly many people, especially younger people, believe that capitalism has either allowed or caused diminishments in the quality of human life, rewarded and thus encouraged vice and misery, and perhaps now poses an existential threat to democratic governments (the rich have undue influence) and even to all life on earth (climate change). Now, do those who are asked whether they support socialism or capitalism have clear or consistent ideas about what those terms mean? Are they aware of the empirical results of historical experiments in socialism and capitalism? Perhaps not. And framing makes a tremendous difference.
Because people have differing views about what “socialism” and “capitalism” are, they often find themselves talking past one another. A supporter of socialism might claim that capitalism is principally about enriching oneself regardless of the consequences for others or for the environment, while a supporter of capitalism might claim that socialism is about empowering authoritarian government agents to invade the rights of citizens and enrich themselves and their cronies at others’ expense. If those are their starting points, neither of them may have the mental space to agree that the other’s position could have arguments worth considering.
If we wish to enter into this debate in good faith, then, we first need to get our definitions straight. What exactly do we mean by “capitalism,” and what do we mean by “socialism”? We also need to understand what the goals are that our system of political economy should champion, and what the ranking is of those goals. And then we need to understand what means we really have available to us to achieve those goals, or at least make progress toward them, how likely the various means are to make that progress, and the costs or tradeoffs, including moral costs and tradeoffs, that those means entail.