Lessons on capitalism, socialism, communism and fascism

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 6, 2021, 12:08 PM | comments: 0

One of the problems with the Internet and those attracted to ideologues is that they tend to view the world in a binary fashion, or they simply don't go deep enough to understand the basis of their opinions. Too often, they're hooked on something, sometimes willingly, without a complete picture.

The banter about capitalism versus socialism is probably the worst of it, in part because they believe the two ideas can not coexist, or they don't see that they've been a product of both since the day they were born. Every modern democracy has embraced both of these systems to varying degrees and balance. Ideologues will tell you that they're incompatible opposites because, well, because they're ideologues. They are not mutually exclusive, and societies have developed social contracts that describe the balance of the two.

First off, capitalism describes a system where private ownership of for-profit businesses do stuff, as opposed to the state. Socialism suggests that some portion of the system is controlled by the broader population, which in a democracy is the state. (It's worth noting that Marxism takes socialism to an extreme that suggests all production should be state controlled to eliminate capitalism and embrace communism, which is not the same thing. I'll get to that.) We can look at American society today and draw pretty clear lines about what fits into each of these buckets today.

From the day an American is born, there's a chance they were born in a subsidized hospital. From that hospital, you drove home on roads built by the government. You grow up eating food from farms that were subsidized. Most people go to public schools, and if they didn't, their parents paid taxes to fund public schools. Police and fire are also provided by the government that you pay taxes for. National defense happens because of the military operated by the federal government, and in fact, no one spends as much on military as the US. Medicare and Social Security help to take care of us when we're old.

So why would we embrace socialism at all, in many of those cases? I believe at a fundamental level that there are things that capitalism is not inherently intended to do because there is no profit or motivation to embrace it without creating the kind of destructive inequity that brings down a society. History is littered with this kind of carnage. One of the reasons often cited for the fall of Rome was the gross inequity of the rich and the poor, which weakened the whole system. England saw it in the 15th Century, France in the 17th Century. The strange thing is that the modern democracies that have recognized this risk, especially the Nordic nations, have on average happier people and there are still rich people.

Public school is a great example of why we partially embrace socialism. A purely capitalist approach would not favor making sure that every person has a basic education. However, this basic education entitlement provides for a better chance to become a contributing member of society, and certainly contributes to a broad outcome of a society that can compete well with others.

This is one of the reasons that I happen to believe healthcare should be in that bucket. The current system is not inherently built to create better outcomes because it tends to limit and in some cases prevent healthcare instead of pay for it. People who want to keep the existing system in favor of a single-payer system seem to completely ignore this.

Ideologues and their fans tend not to acknowledge that we enjoy a hybrid system of capitalism and socialism, and right-leaning and "conservative" factions tend to be just as willing to ignore that they embrace socialism and government spending on things they deem worthy. Where they go really wrong is in two areas: One, they regularly compose slippery slope arguments about the effects of socialism, and two, they confuse socialism with communism and exhibit a total disregard for what is actually fascism. Healthcare exemplifies this.

On the first point, they're quick to say that, "Socialized medicine will lead to decline and government control of everything, just look at Venezuela!" Hugo Chavez rose to power by adopting a populist theme around providing for everyone, including on the issue of healthcare, but intent matters. He seized control of everything through his popularity, and brought fascism to his government, silencing his opponents and anyone who questioned his authority. When the oil demand dried up, the thing making the nation temporarily rich, people stopped tolerating fascism because they were suffering. Fascism destroyed Venezuela, not socialism, and definitely not socialized medicine.

In fact, if that's your slippery slope argument, it's pretty poor when you leave out the success of Canada, Japan, UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands, Ireland, France, Germany... basically all of Europe and western civilization but not the US. Not only that, but our rates of disease, infant mortality and longevity are worse than almost all of those nations. Look it up, these are facts. There's a whole lot of correlation between outcomes and the system. You can't make a slippery slope argument when literally all of the developed nations in the world are successfully doing what you fear.

Another problem is that people seem to confuse socialism with communism. They're not the same thing. Democratic societies using some principles of socialism tend to use government as the means to produce certain mutually beneficial enterprises. Infrastructure is of course one of the largest components, but so is public education, public safety, the military and already in the US some parts of healthcare, mostly for older folks and those with disabilities. No American says, "I don't want to pay for the fire department just because my neighbor's house burns down!" Individuals still own property in this system. Communism, on the other hand, means the government owns everything and there is no private property. Sure, Marx believed that communism was amped up and ultimate socialism, but in practice, people don't want that.

Demonstrating America's poor history education, and the silliness of people on the Internet, some will equate socialism with the Nazis. If they cracked a book, they would discover that Hitler ran the socialists out of Germany or had them killed, because that's what fascists do. Fascism is an interesting thing in history, as it's possible for it to arise from the left and the right.

If you were able to drive on a plowed road in a blizzard this year, that's socialism. Does it feel like a dirty word in that context? I'm all about making my own economic destiny, provided it's fair and equal for all, but it doesn't mean there aren't certain moral obligations like public safety, infrastructure and healthcare that aren't well suited for taxpayer-funded operation. There are important debates to have about things like subsidized college and other progressive causes, for sure, and I'm still not sure where I stand on those, but I'm not going to avoid the debate because of some misunderstanding around the "S word" that is already an important component to our society.


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