We’re entering election season in the US of A, so it’s time to pollute the internet’s comments sections with fear mongering, bad arguments, strawmen, and knee-jerk reactions. Of course, these rhetorical techniques and fallacious argument forms pervade all domains of discourse. But when it comes to political discourse in ‘Murica, expect to find these cranked up to eleven with respect to “socialism” and “capitalism.”
As someone who teaches and studies political philosophy, there’s nothing that sends me screaming from the internet faster than how the socialism/capitalism debate plays out in public political discourse. At this point, the way the words are used in popular discourse have strayed so far from their technical definitions that they are essentially unrecognizable. (If you’re interested in how these terms are used by political philosophers and political scientists go here)
But this isn’t even the biggest problem. Deviating from the technical definitions would be perfectly fine if we all deviated the same way. But that’s not what’s happening. When people on the Right use “capitalism” they mean one thing. When people on the Left use it, they often mean something else. When people on the Right use “socialism” they mean one thing and when people on the Left use it, they often mean something completely different. The only thing these words usually have in common when coming out of people’s mouths in political debate is the sound that they make. But it ends there.
Here is my suggestion. It’s what I do in my classes whenever we discuss specific issues to avoid these very problems:
DROP THE FREAKIN’ LABELS AND JUST EXPLAIN THE FREAKIN’ POLICY YOU ADVOCATE AND HOW IT ADDRESSES THE PROBLEM BETTER THAN ALTERNATIVE PROPOSALS.
And when you object to a policy, don’t say “yeah, but that’s socialism!” or “yeah, but that’s capitalism!” Instead, ask your interlocutor to describe the policy they have in mind, then address specific parts of the policy with respect to the various trade-offs it entails compared to alternative policies.
What this confused language obscures is the continuum of views available on an issue and that, depending on the issue, we may advocate different policies along that continuum.
Let S stand for any good or service. S can represent primary education, university education, healthcare, health insurance, housing, food, toothbrushes, transportation, roads, sewage systems, national and state parks, police departments, judicial systems, legal services, childcare, hospitals, prisons, postal service, libraries, social security, and so on.
Some people think that the free market is the only mechanism by which S should be provided. If you can’t pay for it, then you don’t get S.
Other people might agree that the free market is the best way to provide S; however, they also acknowledge that the market isn’t perfect. Where the market fails in providing S to some people, it’s permissible for the government to purchase S from private providers and give some S to people who can’t afford it. Usually this is because having S is really important to flourishing.
Other people might say that the government should purchase a basic level of S from private firms and distribute it to everyone. If people want more or better S, then they can purchase it through the private market. Nevertheless, the government guarantees a basic level of S to everyone.
And other people think that the government–not private firms–should be the main producer/provider of S. Perhaps there can be a small private market. But, generally, S should be funded and provided by government.
This isn’t even an exhaustive list of possibilities. But now go through the above list of various goods and services that are politically important. You’ll notice that the distribution policy you advocate probably won’t be the same for all of them.
Having a toothbrush is important. But not even Bernard thinks the government should be the primary provider of toothbrushes and that workers at private toothbrush factories should seize the means of production.
Similarly, except for a few radical libertarians, not even people on the right think that national defense should be provided exclusively by private firms and only to those who can pay for it.
Dear reader. Please sit down for what I’m about to tell you next because it will
It’s possible to believe that the government should provide some services but not others.
Yes, it’s true. Advocating for the socialization of some services does not necessarily imply that one endorses all or partial socialization of all possible services. Similarly, it’s possible to believe that the private market should provide some services but not others. Yes, it’s shocking but true.
Another thing you hopefully notice is that there’s actually fairly widespread agreement on the way many goods and services should be provided. There are disagreements to be sure, but I’d wager that the majority of the deep disagreement comes from the fringe. In fact there’s been a fair amount of literature suggesting just this (see: Liliana Mason’s Uncivil Agreement).
A related point is to embrace nuance. The idea that there’s a ready-made one-size-fits all ideology that you can plop down to optimally solve every social, political, and moral problem is dangerously naive. Every problem involves different trade-offs.
Similarly, there is no single value–e.g., freedom, equality, wellbeing, or happiness–that trumps all the others combined in every single circumstance. John Rawls refers to people who think this way as monomaniacs. Monomania is a sign of impoverished thinking. It’s dangerous as a political ethos for its failure to (again, to draw on Rawls) recognize and respect reasonable pluralism among free and equal people.
To conclude. If you value your mental health or if you value the mental health of political philosophers or if you’re just foolish enough to seek fruitful discourse online, never use the words socialism or capitalism again.
Just describe how you think a particular good or service should be provided and why, then and discuss it in terms of trade offs relative to alternative policy solutions.