03.11.19 | The Socialist Seduction

It's not like we've ever shied away from taking a hard look at capitalism. An earlier Member Monday discussion centered around a synopsis of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the unapologetic embrace of the free market (see Capitalism: MM 05/22/17). There was much "energy" about the real-world implications of her credo (Objectivism), especially given today's reality of resource constraints, global interdependence, deepening income disparity, regulatory capture, and a distorted monetary system.

Fair enough. But it's almost as if there's a collective amnesia surrounding the free market's role in powering our country's incomparable economic growth. Yes, respond some, but that was then and this is now. It's a new world. Greed-is-good is so yesterday. There are other priorities now.

Thus arises the temptation of socialism, particularly among the young. Our focus article, "Millennial Socialism" (from The Economist) cites the recent Gallup poll finding that a slight majority of Americans aged 18-29 have a positive view of socialism. To be sure, we need first to understand what we are talking about as the term socialism seems to have broadened beyond the original concept of outright ownership by the state of the means of production. Democratic socialism, for example, can sometimes come to mean a grab-bag of active state involvements in things like wealth distribution and federal preemption of services e.g. medicare-for-all. A left-wing doctrine does not in and of itself make one a socialist, despite the loose application of the terms.

While socialism might not reflect a single coherent ideology, there is a certain underlying assumption among its adherents: the basic nature of people is cooperation; this basic nature can't emerge in full when capitalism (or feudalism) forces people to be competitive. Worthy of discussion is the way the market and the state have sometimes sought mutual accommodation. Per the focus article, Bill Clinton (and, for that matter, Tony Blair) claimed to have found a "third way" to blend the best of both. Democratic socialists, for their part, suggest there be no need for inconsistency between socialism and democracy. On the other side, the "conscious capitalist" might argue certain priorities e.g. environmental responsibility, can be addressed through the market system (though the cynic might point out that the motivation is actually a disguised marketing technique designed primarily to drive higher profit margins).

Yet, there is new energy in town which has no interest in accommodation. The so-called New Green Deal would seem a frontal assault on any belief in the market, even in the idea of progress itself. Or, perhaps, that's the point i.e. progress has taken the world to the precipice. The question becomes whether these deeper issues are amenable to a market-based solution (such as through the robust taxation of externalities, carbon credits, etc.). Come to think about it the Green New Deal fantasy will serve as a good bookend counterpoint to Ayn Rand's dogma.

Finally, we may take a page from history to see how all this might wash out. With the coming of the Great Depression in the 1930s, a sharp increase in protest and anti-capitalist sentiment threatened to undermine the existing political system and create new political parties. The polls back then indicated a large minority of Americans were ready to back social democratic proposals. FDR spent considerable time wooing those on the left in large part to avoid defeat by an incipient national third party. He thereby kept the country stable and, quite possibly, saved capitalism itself.

Steve SmithComment