Imagine being there as the Berlin wall fell. Though it might seem like a long time ago, 1990 marked the latest sea change in Earth’s geopolitical climate cycle. Communism, arch-nemesis of democracy and the West, had lost. Or had it?
Over 20 years later, America’s own Democratic Party faced heavy critique from their rivals for proposing public programs that were characterized as socialistic under the Obama administration. For some, it was a frightening sign that the communist threat had returned. For others, it was a friendlier, more altruistic face for capitalism.
Uneducated people can claim one ideology is superior with no factual backup, but in reality, we can’t critique any one worldview without knowing more about it. In any society, there are bound to be expressions of each approach, so why do we feel so compelled to choose just one?
Your third-grader hates capitalism. It’s the least democratic approach of the three, but we view it as the most “free.” The free-market way is the method we love in the U.S., a country that considers itself the spirit guardian of the capitalist flame.
Central to the idea of capitalism is that each person should have the opportunity to make the most of his or her skills. By doing so, people create capital, or spending power, which they reinvest in the nation’s economy.
Capitalism encourages people to work toward expertise in their field, but it also commoditizes them. Instead of viewing people as equal, a capitalist society sees human beings as skilled professionals with greater or lesser potential. The system leads to people with less desirable skills being viewed as less valuable.
Instead of placing a value on each skill, so people feel incentivized to do things they might not otherwise choose, communism seeks to allow each member of a community the freedom to pursue whatever field they desire.
Communist societies rely heavily on the government to distribute goods and services fairly, since the communist society operates under the philosophy of “from each according to his skill, to each according to his need.”
Human nature is the weak link in communism. On paper, a communist society should thrive. In reality, every attempt to create a truly communist society has stopped at the interim stage of socialism. Government officials trade the public good to line their pockets and live a lavish lifestyle. The people lash out, and the result is that neither group enjoys the quality of life the system is designed to promote.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the men credited with creating socialism and communism, would have explained socialism as the transition state between capitalism and communism.
Capitalism is most simply defined as a free-market society. A communist supporter views such a society as morally wrong, but there is no way to smoothly transition from the free market to complete communism, which is why this system has never been realized.
As the in-between state, we get socialism. In socialism, the representative government of a capitalist society remains and controls the means of production. This is intended to discourage the “heartless pursuit of wealth” that can characterize a capitalist society.
Historically, socialist societies have leaned toward the government as the means of production, but there is another option. The free market can be a means of production, which is exactly the model programs like the Affordable Care Act have been critiqued for using.
The Struggle Continues
Before the word capitalism was coined, a capitalist society was known as a free-market society. Communism challenged that idea. It was new, and it was viewed as a superior position.
What becomes clear when we examine the three different philosophies is that each has its flaws. For different reasons, neither capitalism nor communism can be expressed to their fullest extent. Socialism has the potential to deliver a “best-of-both-worlds” scenario, but the U.S. tends to run from it because people equate socialism with communism.
Yet, we may be wise to remember how short our nation’s story is. Free-market living has been good to us for more than 200 years, but can we really afford another 200 without an open-minded approach to new ideas?
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