Archive for January 14th, 2009

Socialism vs. the Free Market?

(This is a continuation of sorts of my “Capitalism, Communism and Humanism” entry, spurred on by the discussion there, as well as some other net debates I’ve been reading).

Popular in parts of the blog world and amongst a group of people who see themselves as completely and totally devoted to liberty is a belief that the one and only way to have a moral and functioning society is to operate with a completely free market.   To them, that means no coercion in physical terms, and minimal government involvment, usually to prevent fraud and force.  Some take it to the extreme of anarchy; others simply want to turn the tide of history away from more spending towards a freer market.

What has always struck me in talking to committed socialists and committed free marketeers, is they have at base the same kind of vision of the future: humans free, voluntarily producing, exchanging and living actualized lives.  Each posits a nemesis.

For the Socialist, the nemesis is capitalism.  But not the capitalism of the free marketeer.  Remember, Karl Marx’s favorite economist was Adam Smith, he thought that socialism would allow the economy to function the way Adam Smith wanted it to.  But free markets don’t work, socialists argue, because of the nexus between big money (capital) and business.  This coopts governments and creates a situation where, rather than an Adam Smith like version of labor and capital negotiating in a fair manner, one group is structurally advantaged and lives off the work of the other.   This exploitation is a direct denial of freedom, it is the theft of the labor of others.  And, even if it seems to be voluntary, the structure of society constrains and empowers; depending on where you are in the social structure, you have different possibilities and opportunities.  That leads to as sure a denial of freedom as does taxation or anything a government does.

For the free marketeers, the nemesis is big government and regulation.  The market is posited both as a superior means of communicating demand and promoting flexibility in the economy, and as a moral imperative, whereby choice is posited as superior to coercion.   In some ways, the nemesis of each group is similar: free marketeers not only decry governmental bureaucracy, but also how big money and big business use government for their own advantage.  Many of the complaints from the socialists are mirrored in complaints by free marketeers, even if the lingo and emphasis differ.

Each also has a common weakness: they don’t have a real path of how to get from where we are to where they think we should be.  Socialists posited government as the way there, but that failed miserably with Soviet style bureaucratic socialism.   Scandinavian Social Democracy has fared better, but isn’t that much different than other western economies.  Free marketeers are vague; the market simply functions best if unhindered, they claim.  They have no real historical evidence to back up these claims, and even less of a sense of how to convince people to suddenly trust the market.   In the real world lack of government regulation leads to mafias, corruption, and the ability of the wealthy to exercise even more extreme power.   Or, at the very least, it leads people to demand a stronger government.

What both sides miss, I think, is the fact that they really want the same thing.  They want humans to be free, they want a moral (i.e., just) system, and they see and are appalled by the vast injustices and corruptions of our current system.   They each build ideological arguments supporting their position, and interpret reality through their ideology, thereby making it coherent and non-contradictory.   Yet they can’t both be right.  Or can they?

Perhaps socialists who see a withering away of the state, and free marketeers which see a minimalist state, each envision a time where people voluntarily choose to make communities, choose to help others who are in need or require  a hand, and treat other people with respect.   That kind of world seems like it should be so easy — we see that kind of behavior every day in the actions of friends and people in our community.  Why then do outcomes in the “real world” get so warped?

There is a real difference between individual choices, and social outcomes.  That’s created a lot of debate in philosophy — aren’t outcomes simply aggregates of individual acts?   But individuals do not act completely autonomously.  People act on beliefs, values, understandings, interests and expectations that they learn living in a culture.  At some level we’re programmed to think and act a certain way.  If one travels one sees starkly how different cultures produce different ways of perceiving the world, different customs, and different notions of self-interest, morality, and beliefs about human nature.   And, while humans can reflect on their beliefs and at some level try to figure out their program and “re-program” themselves, that’s not as easy as it sounds — those learned cultural values are deep inside of us, they feel normal and seem self-evident.

The only way we’ll ever get to a society where there is real freedom, with neither governmental power nor exploitation from the elite, is when our culture as a whole reflects the values of human rights, human dignity, and a sense that every human has value, should be allowed freedom, and should not be exploited.  If we could develop that kind of culture, we wouldn’t need to worry about ideology or what kind of economy we’d have — that would flow naturally from the culture.

So I’ll leave the ideologues to their debate.  There is value in such discussions.  But the bottom line is to work for a better tomorrow is to work to try to support core values in every day life.    They key isn’t what the legislature passes, but how we raise our children.  It’s not what the regulation of the day is, but how we treat others.   If we treat others with love, it will spread, and slowly, perhaps over generations, the world will change.  And, though they may deny it, the fact that both sides of the capitalism vs. communism debate share a common vision of a liberated, free and peaceful humanity gives me some hope that we can make it.