One of the problems we have in debating economic systems (e.g. socialism v. capitalism) is not so much that we debate apples and oranges, but rather that we debate apples and non-existent apples. And if you will permit me to press the point, there isn’t that much of a difference between a non-existent apple and a non-existent orange. They both weigh about the same and, just to make things a little riper, grocery stores in Venezuela have tons of both.
Allow me illustrate what I mean, and then attempt to get myself out of the fix some might think it puts me in. These debates invariably pit the disaster that is the other guy’s actual system over against your own ideologically perfect version of your own system, the latter being what I referred to earlier as the non-existent apple. Thus, Venezuela—not so much a failed state as it is a dumpster fire state—is compared to this libertarian paradise right here in my head. Or, to flip it around, the fetid smells of cronyism wafting off Wall Street are compared to a glorious communitarian New Atlantis, also around here somewhere in somebody else’s head.
Thus socialism has never been “genuinely tried,” even though it has been tried. Repeatedly. And while there have been a few brief moments of capitalist glory, the businessmen involved in it invariably get together, as Adam Smith predicted they would, in order to conspire against the public weal. So, as history shows, capitalist ventures also have a tendency to go off the rails, resulting in crony capitalism—a phenomenon that I have previously honored with the name of crapitalism.
And so lefties point to the real crapitalist outrages and compare it to their imaginary happy place. And free market advocates will sometimes (unfortunately) do the same thing—point to the smoking crater that is attempted socialism and compare it unfavorably to VonMisesville, not yet populated with actual people.
Even though people on both sides do this, please allow me to explain why it is a far more significant blunder when the socialists do it.
Socialism, as described in the instruction manual, actually has been attempted numerous times. And starry-eyed liberals have frequently “seen the future,” and, for them at any rate, it always seems to be “working.” I am old enough to remember when all the progressives were praising Venezuela to the skies as being the real deal. Until one day, suddenly, it wasn’t.
But when it comes to capitalism, we have a most unfortunate confusion created by the nature of our language. We refer to socialism, the system, and socialists, the advocates of said system. Then we refer to capitalism, the system, and after that the capitalists . . . but these are not the advocates of the system at all. They are, rather, the ones with capital, the businessmen who believe it their responsibility to ransack the public while getting Congress to pass laws protecting them from any future competition, competition which they would consider impudent. What is called socialism is usually run by socialists, while what is called capitalism is usually run by mercantilists.
Capitalism, the system, is thus routinely called upon to defend the behavior of their representatives, when said representatives don’t know the first thing about the nature of free markets, and who would be against it if they did understand it.
It is as though we were to judge the performance of a communist state after we installed high-ranking members of the Moose Lodge to all their important economic posts. Though, come to think of it, under those conditions, communism might perform pretty well.
When someone defends the free market system, as I am currently doing, with all my strength, nobody calls him a capitalist. I am not a capitalist because I don’t have any capital to speak of. I do know and understand that economic coercion is a very great evil. What do you call that? I call it Christian. Thou shalt not steal, as the fellow off the mountain once said.
As P.J. O’Rourke put it, most aptly, “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”As P.J. O’Rourke put it, most aptly, “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”
Thus socialist economies are generally run by advocates of socialism, which means they give their ideology a fair shot. They really are true believers. We will do the magic thing, they promise breathlessly, and wealth and for all will rise from the ashes. Capitalist economies, on the other hand, are not run by advocates of free markets. They are run by businessmen, who know how to keep their eye on the main chance.
Remember, pro-markets and pro-business are not synonymous in meaning. The survival of free markets requires the non-survival of numerous businesses, regardless of how many times their executive team golfed with congressmen.
Second, even with all this said, if we insisted on comparing actual apples to actual oranges, this would mean either that we would have to compare a socialist utopia with a capitalist utopia, or we would have to compare an actual socialist failure to an actual capitalist failure. We would have to compare real time socialism to real time crapitalism. But any way you do it, socialism still loses badly.
In the battle of the utopias, on the one hand we have imaginary-cradle-to-grave care, which creeps me totally out, made tolerable only by all the free soma-supplements, and on the other hand we have a minuteman, holding his musket, scanning the horizon for approaching tyrants. The breezes of liberty ruffle his hair—in a manly way, not in that shampoo commercial kind of way. In short, my ideal biblical republic fashioned according to the tenets of theocratic libertarianism can handily beat out any ideal socialist land of lotus-eaters. I much prefer sturdy yeomen of the Shire to fornicating potheads.
And in the battle of the actual failures, if we compare Venezuela, home of no toilet paper, and America, home of three CostCo rows of it, the socialists still lose. So I despise crapitalism—I really do—but it is still way better than full-fledged socialism. (Of course, returning to our earlier point, it is way better in same way Stage I cancer is way better than Stage IV.) Detroit used to be a prosperous city, and I wouldn’t have minded living there before their lunacy laid them low.
So if I might, let me make this whole thing a whole lot simpler. Whether or not we want more or less government in our daily economic affairs is a pretty simple choice, limited to three logical options. We either want more, or we want less, or we want it to remain just the way it is.
Referring to our illustration at the top of this post, if water were government, we either want to leave the handle alone, turn it to the left, or turn it to the right. Let us, to keep the illustration simple and binary, eliminate that handful of people who want things to remain exactly the same. In every election, with every bill that passes and is signed into law, with every regulation handed down from the bureaus, or eliminated by the president, we are either turning the handle to the right or to the left. We are either trying to get less water or more of it.
Now I certainly know what I have wanted my entire adult life. “A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left” (Eccl. 10:2, ESV). Turn that baby off.
Progressive socialists, when confronted with all the problems associated with how soaked we all are, propose to address this by turning the handle all the way to the left. And I never, ever, want to go along. And it doesn’t much matter what the problem is—their solution is always to involve the government more. That means more funding is required, which means more taxes, which means more regulations and more inane laws, which means more accumulation of moronic policies for Congress to try to fix in their next wave of reforms.
We want to dry out, and therefore the solution is never “more water.”
We want to dry out, and so we are not impressed with those who argue for turning the spigot handle left, only this time we will do it with a different expression on our faces. Or we will do so with intentions that are significantly more pure. Or we will do because the crisis we face (climate change, all rise!) is totally unique in the history of the world. We know it is unique because it is a crisis we made up ourselves. Never in the history of the world was an imaginary crisis better suited to reinforce arguments for turning the spigot left.
So notice that I am arguing from where we actually are, and I am arguing for a particular direction. I do have an abstract system in my mind, and I could write a utopia if some publisher asked me to. But that is not what we are dealing with.
Water, if I may be so bold, is no good as a towel.