Ism: Social & Capital

We hurl words around when convenient in our society; we seldom know the definition of our tools of anger. Branding has become the primary tool of modern campaigns, and is built on the principle of intentionally misused words. This column is about two words of which few Americans have a good understanding; socialism and capitalism.

Capitalism-an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

Socialism-any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.

These two words are the centerpiece of the conservative straw man that we live with everyday; the evil Socialist agenda versus the God-approved, Constitutionally-sanctioned capitalist economy. As I wrote the previous sentence, I wondered whether it constituted hyperbole. Perhaps, but this column is about the hyperbole we live with, and vote on, every political cycle. Make no mistake about it; I am a capitalist, and I believe that most Americans are as well. Capitalism is the economy of private choice and upward mobility; what it is not is a perfect system.

Capitalists have long sneered at the naivete of socialists, deriding their hope for a democratic utopia as so many childhood dreams. In their hubris, capitalists have ignored the distopia that unregulated capitalism has wrought on our nation. God makes no mention (that I am aware of) of capitalism in the Bible (although Jesus seems less than fond of bankers and merchants), and the Constitution also takes the 5th on the issue (although “providing for the general Welfare” is important enough to be in the Preamble). So with no God or Founding Fathers to look to, we must take our own wise counsel for the betterment of our own posterity.

Here is a simple thought to begin with:

Since the Constitution is entirely about the construction and maintenance of the American Democracy, and makes no mention of, nor prescribes the use of capitalism as the economic system, it follows that where democracy and capitalism come into conflict, that democracy must always prevail.

Democracy and capitalism come into conflict over the rules of campaign finance, where the financial muscle of a corporate entity grants that entity more than its constitutionally-appointed one vote per person. Democracy and capitalism come into conflict over public utility; services that the entire democracy relies on, but that have little in the way of near term profit potential. In other words, it is bad for business (to borrow the phrase) if raw sewage flows and roads are little more than the ruts left by covered wagons. So the democracy uses elements of socialism to fill the gaps left where profit plays little role. Just as I believe most Americans are capitalists (whether they know it or not), I know most Americans are socialists.

Police, fire, and military protections are elements that we Americans have little interest in privatizing. Schools, thankfully, are also elements that we would rather see free to all. To my everlasting relief, and despite the message that Fox News seems to believe, we Americans actually prefer that the entire nation have a good, basic education, lest we become as ignorant as the Europeans believe we are.

These facts in evidence, it follows that most Americans believe it either unfair or inefficient that all Americans can’t get basic, preventative healthcare. After liberals tried to create a universal scheme for healthcare in 1993, conservatives produced, in 1994, a near-universal alternative that leveraged the forces of capitalism through democratic action. In 2006, a conservative passed the measure into law at the state level, and in 2010, the same measure was passed at the federal level. Both laws, the Massachusetts reform law (RomneyCare) and the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) have been roundly assailed as Evil-Godless-Socialism-Come-To-Get-Us-All; among the assailants, The Mannequin himself, Mitt Romney (psst, he was the conservative that passed RomneyCare).

Conservatives, in their moments of clarity when they reach out for logical argument, would respond that a little socialism can easily become a lot of socialism. Too many things can be run by the Democracy; that is an unassailable fact, and one of the few fair examples of the slippery-slope argument. The flaw in the argument is the idea that we shouldn’t try the right path because it might, someday, become the wrong path. Talk about apologizing for America, there would be no “sea to shining sea” with that thinking. This nation had more elements of socialism in its laws and tax codes in the 50 years prior to the Reagan Revolution, and managed to;

  • Defeat the Nazis and their allies in World War II
  • Defeat the Soviets in the Cold War
  • Build an inland waterway system that is the basis for our entire agricultural system
  • Build a superhighway system that is the basis for our entire consumer economy
  • Bridge the gap between the Earth and the Moon
  • Revolutionize orbital missions and our knowledge of the Solar System
  • Dominate the world economy for 7 decades
  • Generate increases in annual media household income that dwarf anything we have seen since

We were doing fairly well with a little larger share of socialism and the tax code that supported it; in fact, we were doing better (and by we I mean both our working class and the very notion of an American business) between 1930 and 1980 than we have done since 1980. So why did we abandon that path? Because a clever group of very wealthy people (not all of them mind you) decided they wanted to be even more wealthy still. Small business isn’t doing better now (and wasn’t doing better in 2006) than it did in 1980. Families are doing no better, workers are doing no better, American companies (the ones that are left, anyway) are doing no better…no one that any of you know is doing better under the supply side conservative system.

So why would we vote to give the experiment another chance? Leave your thoughts on the comments below, or on the post page at the Rational Middle on Facebook.


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2 thoughts on “Ism: Social & Capital

  1. Eh. If an economic system is so fundamentally flawed that average people require ever-increasing protections in order to combat the new and evermore innovative ways the owning class seeks to exploit us in order to grow their profit, should we really continue to champion its virtues? I want a say in my economy that doesn’t require that I turn myself into a commodity to sell to the highest bidder. Capitalism is, at its core, antithetical to democracy. The protections and regulations you talk about can — and quite obviously have been — removed by various politicians in office who are bought off by corporate interests. Sure, we could reinstate Glass-Steagall, we could raise taxes on the wealthy, we could go right back to the so-called “golden years,” but all it takes to go right back to where we are now is a repeal of those laws and regulations.

    And, unless you own the means to production, you’re not a capitalist, and while I can’t find any numbers at the moment, I strongly doubt that “most” Americans are, in fact, capitalists.

    • Does an individual not own the means to produce what they can? Do labor unions not own the right (to the extent that those rights haven’t been eroded by union-bashing legislation) to sell their production? In a fully socialist society, the democracy would determine individual roles; it would have to in order to efficiently guide the economy. And the disadvantage there becomes the notion of fairness; all it takes is a simple majority to dictate what an individual’s prospects are. I believe that is too far in one direction, just as I know we are too far in the direction of unregulated capitalism.

      Thank you for your comments, and welcome to The RM.

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