We use the terms mostly as pejoratives these days, but socialism and capitalism are not just ideological labels used to divide liberal and conservative positions in policy debates. They are distinctive ways of life and governance that shape how we view ourselves as individuals, how we function in communities and the choices we make to best ensure that society can thrive and flourish.
The debate about socialism and capitalism, in other words, is not academic, it is existential. And the better we understand the strengths and flaws of each system, the better we can discuss and discover the best solutions to our current problems.
A good place to start is “The End of Socialism,” a book by Wake Forest University professor of economics James Otteson that is anything but a dry college textbook. With a clear and accessible style, Otteson delves into the philosophical and moral underpinnings of each system. This his economics but also history and ethics.
And even better, Otteson will be in New Orleans next week as part of the Free Market Speaker series sponsored by Metairie Park Country Day School and Isidore Newman School and supported by the families of Greg Rusovich and Jay Lapeyre.
Otteson will talk to various groups at different venues during the week including a presentation Tuesday (April 24) at the Weinmann Auditorium at Country Day that is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6 p.m. with the program beginning at 6:15 p.m. at the school, 300 Park Road in Metairie.
The title of Otteson’s book and his participation in the Free Market series should be a tip-off as to where he lands on the spectrum between socialism and capitalism. But he approaches the topic generously with understanding and empathy for the altruistic lure of socialism.
“My first goal is definitional,” Otteson said in an interview last week. “Capitalism and socialism are used in a lot of different ways. I want to clarify what each looks like, the distinctions. And then, how do they match up with the moral values we desire? You’re not just talking about economics, you’re talking about equality and fairness.”
Otteson examines whether the self-sacrificing approach of socialism really is morally superior to the self-interested focus of capitalism. At the initial level, socialism certainly sounds better, especially for those who hear daily about the issues of income inequality and are more removed from the real world failures of socialism in the last century.
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Otteson provides powerful evidence through logic and history as to why the highly centralized economic control dictated by socialism is doomed to collapse in trying to predict the complicated and sometimes irrational actions of millions of human beings living far from the center of government planning.
But that doesn’t always overcome the belief that socialism’s failures can be corrected with a few tweaks in the system. An honest desire to improve the lot of many is often used to argue for government intervention with little or no understanding of its consequences, intended or otherwise. The move toward socialism requires a surrender of some individualism and liberty.
Otteson concedes that the desire for material equality is “perhaps the single strongest motivation driving socialist inclination” these days, especially among the students that he encounters in his classes and at speaking engagements. And he does not doubt their sincerity or their compassion.
“But if you have your choice between solving the problem of material equality and the problem of poverty, which would you choose?” he asked. “I would choose to solve the problem of poverty. You can have people who are equal but equally poor.”
And in the historic comparison between centralized planning and free markets, the free-market system has been overwhelmingly more successful in creating wealth that lifts the quality of life across the board. The economies produced through socialism do not compare.
“We have a skewed perspective in the U.S.,” Otteson said. “But in places like China and India and other parts of the world, inequality is shrinking as more people are rising out of poverty. And the status of the poor in the United States is much better than for poor people historically.”
And a state that was shaped by the “Share Our Wealth” policies of Huey Long might benefit from a reminder of why socialism is something that only sounds good in theory. It didn’t work then, it doesn’t work now.
Tim Morris is an opinions columnist at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tmorris504.