Capitalism? Socialism? Fascism?

By: - September 4, 2014 1:47 pm


Crude labeling is not helping the debate

There’s a bit of dark humor in the wacky world of online political discourse about how few back-and-forth comments it typically takes before someone accuses his or her adversary of being a Nazi, a communist or some other brand of totalitarian. Judging by some of the tete-a-tetes we’ve hosted down through the years on the NC Policy Watch blog – the Progressive Pulse– five or six comments are often enough to do the trick.

Add to this phenomenon the widespread use of broad and often inaccurate labels like “capitalism” and “socialism” by individuals who are actually attempting to describe complex political philosophies and policies and it’s a wonder that we’re able to carry on civil – much less productive – conversations at all.

People of all views can slip into these traps, of course, but of late, one has to say that the folks on the right side of the political spectrum have certainly had their fair share of labeling missteps.

Next week, the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation will host a speaker on the subject of climate change who has repeatedly attacked those sounding the alarm on the matter by comparing their “demonization of carbon dioxide” to, sigh, “the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.”

A phony straw man

For a classic and much more serious case in point, however, check out this interview that ran on the Locke Foundation website Carolina Journal Online last week. In it, a Locke staffer leads a conservative academic named David Rose through a discussion in which the two attempt to debunk the assertion (which is attributed to unnamed “critics”) that “capitalism is unfair.”

Spoiler alert: Rose rejects the supposed critique.

What’s more interesting and revealing than Rose’s conclusion, however is how he and the Locke staffer cast the debate. Both ascribe the unattributed criticism to the assumption that supposed opponents of “capitalism” are demanding its eradication and “equal outcomes for all.”

Here’s Rose:

So I think that … that’s where the problem comes in. If you equate fairness with equal outcomes, then you’re going to correctly conclude that capitalism is unfair, but it’s because you have an incorrect premise.

The staffer then responds with this question:

If we set aside that premise, that fairness would mean equal outcomes for all, why is capitalism something that we should look at in a more favorable view than those who say, “Oh, it’s unfair so we need to get rid of it”?

To which all a sane person can offer in reply is: Say what? Exactly who in 21st Century America is arguing for “getting rid” of capitalism or the kind of crude Soviet-style leveling that would produce “equal outcomes for all”? To even imply that this is the position of any important progressive in modern America is just silly.

Making capitalism work

Last week in Raleigh, one of America’s most liberal politicians, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (the Senate’s only self-described “Democratic Socialist”) explained what he means when he embraces that almost completely discarded label and critiques aspects of the present-day American economy and government.

According to Sanders, his objective is for the U.S. to mimic many of the social welfare policies of Western European “social democracies” like Denmark and Sweden in which citizens are guaranteed free public health care, free public higher education, paid family leave and numerous other benefits that both leave people freer from fear and want and that spread opportunity more broadly.

But, of course, by so arguing, Sanders isn’t calling for the end of “capitalism” or a plan that requires every American to don a Mao suit. The Senator is fully-aware that all of the nations he cites as examples are home to innumerable giant corporations, thriving small businesses and wealthy individuals (and, moreover, that this is a good thing).

The Senator also clearly understands that “capitalism” is one of the most important innovations in human history when it comes to creating wealth and spurring initiative and innovation. It’s not going anywhere.

What he obviously also understands, however, is that to build and sustain a capitalist economy does not mean that we must turn the nation into some kind of anarchic, survival-of-the-fittest, 300-million person reality show. Capitalism is a marvelous human tool but it is not divine or immune to progress.

As Sanders and countless other observers and advocates have noted (for one especially powerful example, see Robert Reich’s film, Inequality for All), the United States thrived for decades in the mid-to-later parts of the 20th Century as a fully capitalist nation that nonetheless also featured progressive taxes, strong labor unions, nearly-free higher education and significantly narrower gaps in the wealth and incomes of workers and CEO’s.

Simply put, what Bernie Sanders is arguing for is, in many respects, something that was once known as Eisenhower Republicanism.

Raising the debate by getting beyond the labels

The misguided characterization of those who critique 21st Century capitalism is, of course, far from the only example of this kind of unfortunate and inaccurate label tossing. President Obama is undoubtedly the most frequent target of such nonsense – whether he’s being castigated as a “fascist” for advancing a model of healthcare reform originally cooked up by denizens of the Heritage Foundation or derided as a “socialist” for presiding over any number of tax and other domestic policies that are actually to the right of ones advanced by Ronald Reagan.

That said, progressives have, on occasion, been guilty of similar offenses – especially when it came to the attacks on George W. Bush that took place in and around the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s policies were almost certainly disastrous – both in the near term and in the seemingly never-ending aftermath that we continue to experience in the destabilized Middle East – but the man was no Hitler or Mussolini as some knuckleheads claimed a decade ago.

Both of these examples serve to highlight two things that Americans desperately need to do in the current political and economic debate:

1) Acknowledge the existence of gray areas, and

2) Abandon efforts to characterize broad and imprecise labels like “capitalism” and “socialism” as somehow being diametrically and inalterably opposed concepts.

The truth of the matter is that, depending upon the issue, we Americans are all capitalists and all socialists. What’s more, almost none of us are fascists or Nazis or communists.

If we can admit these simple truths, abandon use of crude labels and get down to discussing the substance of the issues and how to make the world a better place, we might just get somewhere (and even, as Robert Reich argues persuasively, save capitalism from itself).

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.