American society is experiencing extreme ideological polarization. This back and forth about isms is nonproductive because political truths are never black and white. Best practices and real solutions are nuanced, not sound bites. Our choices are not simply capitalism v. socialism, we have many resources for devising a system that serves us well, if we are willing to engage in dialogue. My position is assembled from the thinking and writings of John Locke and John Rawls and time spent living in the Balkans.
First, Locke famously offered a support of private property with his labor theory of property. His ideas of life, liberty and property influenced our founding fathers in their justification for government. The United States was formed to protect the inalienable rights of the citizenry, including the right to own and defend personal property. A simplified version of John Locke’s theory of property begins with invoking the imaginary “state of nature” where everyone just uses the land at will. In this environment, you can own something by working on it. According to Locke, when you add your labor to an unowned natural resource, more benefit can be derived from it than when it lay untouched and undeveloped. However, this ownership of property is only true when The Lockean proviso was met: “at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others”.
1. Don’t take more than you need.
2. Don’t waste what you take.
3. Leave enough for others.
Satisfy all three requirements and you can justifiably own what you took. In Locke’s time that meant you could fence it off and use it as you like. You can even keep the profits derived from the labor you ‘added’ to the undeveloped land. But remember, Locke wrote during a time when there was still ample wilderness to be discovered and claimed. His arguments also justified colonial seizures of indigenous lands, and slave ownership. He also assumed that wealth creation was more desirable than any inherent value natural resources may hold.
While it seems obvious that today there is not enough land to justify unlimited ownership, proponents of Locke’s theory will say that there are many types of “properties” to be owned and kinds of power to be had. Intellectual property can have equivalent value to tangible goods; therefore the endless frontier for “wealth” creation remains. I’m not interested in how Locke serves apologists for capital exploitation, but I like his three original limitations - that need, waste, and sustainability, ought to guide our economic policies.
The potential contents of a given economy, all the things we want to buy or own, can be divided into two categories: 1. basic needs for human survival and 2. everything else. Those basic things are generally agreed to be — water, food, air and shelter. Non-essential goods are everything else that may contribute to the comfort and enjoyment of life, but are not necessary to subsistence. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places these physiological needs first. Humans care little for higher order social goods until their basic needs are met.
Moral philosopher John Rawls thought that a just society would be arranged such that the basic necessities would be accessible to all citizens, either by reasonable economic means or socialized services, the goal being that no one’s life would be unlivable. In Rawls’s theory of social justice, the conception of “goods” is different from Maslow’s, but still pertinent. He describes two categories:
1. Natural Primary goods are things like intelligence, imagination, and health.
2. Social Primary goods are civil rights, political rights, liberty, income, and the social basis for self-respect.
Both Maslow’s basic needs and Rawls’s social primary goods are important for a minimal level of human dignity. These things must be maintained for the least among us to justify the existence of those who own, and earn, more.
An economy that works for everyone begins by prioritizing the right of each person to access drinking water, food, air, and shelter necessary to live. More complex societies may expand the class of essential goods to include other things, like education, healthcare, and Internet access. Non-essential goods are the objects, services, cuisine, entertainment and experiences that constitute culture. These facets of the economy are intrinsic parts of our heritage and personal identity. People, like crows, collect shiny things for their nests. Non-essentials can feel essential. People want new shoes for a special occasion, extra food on a holiday, things that are beautiful or unique, pretty objects and comfortable domiciles, which is why market economies arise naturally. People like stuff.
It was my good fortune to spend time in the Balkans between 2003–2006. I lived in Ljubljana, Slovenia working as an English teacher. All my research in Slovenia was absolutely casual, so these conclusions are unscientific assertions gleaned from personal conversations with people I met during my stay. The trends I saw in their experiences are anecdotal and incidental, but insightful nonetheless.
Slovenes I met generally agreed that socialism, as it existed under dictator Josip Tito, was fairly benevolent. Socialist/communist Yugoslavia did many things effectively, like provide basic life necessities and education to the populace. It also maintained peace between numerous different tribes that had been warring with each other for millennia. There were negative aspects as well, and when Tito died, Slovenia chose independence from Yugoslavia. Slovenia’s newly formed government decided to incorporate a limited form of market economy into their society, while retaining public health and education. My Slovene acquaintances expressed a general satisfaction with the new arrangement, although opinions differed between generations.
Everyone agreed that the previous lack free speech was terrible. In Yugoslavia, the sentence for criticizing the government in public was three years, and citizens were disappeared without a trial. That law was immediately scrapped by the newly independent Slovenes, as well as the laws that compelled citizens to “show papers” on demand from government officials. When I lived there, Slovenes were not required to carry ID, and could not be ordered to produce it without notice. They also granted themselves robust privacy rights, something we no longer have in this age of mass digital surveillance and manipulation.
The elder generation of Slovenes waxed more nostalgic about former Yugoslavia. They praised the peace that held between different regions, and the 100% employment rate. In Yugoslavia, each citizen was granted a job and small flat upon reaching the age of work, 18. Notably, the older people expressed a strong dislike for the drug and ‘rave’ music culture that had flooded over the borders to infect their youth since the end of the war.
My younger Slovenian friends liked the new independence and mixed economy, but they exhibited high levels of stress about finding jobs. Competition, having been newly introduced into their lives, was foreign, awkward — not all of them took it well. Many felt that this kind of striving for capital was not what life should be about, and resented the onus to compete for well-being. Like most European countries Slovenes have long holidays away from work, including extended summer vacations. In Slovenia life did not center on work. The real business of living happened after work, with friends and family.
The most common complaint about socialism from all age groups, regarded the lack of non-essential goods. Everyone wanted what they couldn’t have: chocolate, bananas, good coffee, or any coffee, nylons, a special gift for their child’s birthday or a wedding anniversary. They didn’t like having only one brand of yogurt, one color of lipstick, fake chocolate, or a lack of shoe styles and sizes. They complained about the boring look of the state-issued men’s shirts and the one scent used for all household cleaners. These seemingly minor details of life added up to a lot of despair. Slovenia is bordered by Italy to the west, which made the lack of goods all the more palpable. During Tito’s rule there were strict controls at the border. Yugoslavia tried to deter the flow of contraband, which proved nearly impossible. Slovenes with binoculars could actually see extravagance just across the border in Italy: pastries, fashion, liquor, foreign cars, makeup, music and opulence. Everyone chaffed under the enforced austerity of socialism.
As a result of my reading in economics — Locke and Rawls and conversations with Slovenes and other Balkans people, I have come to support the maintenance of some type of mixed economy. People want to ply their trades and make money; it is understandable and hard to prevent. If markets are unavoidable aspects of civilization, the question becomes how best to design them?
The caveat in any market arrangement must be the preservation of access to basic necessities for the general population, and stewardship of the ecosystem. This can be accomplished through social services, or using a chained ratio to limit the degree of wealth inequality. Solutions may vary, but the goal is a modicum of dignity and self-determination for everyone. These provisions can be a starting point for determining how a market economy can exist in harmony with human flourishing. An effective government acts as a caretaker of the balance between commerce and compassion.
The power of capitalism is undeniable, it works as an engine and it has momentum. Capitalism at its zenith is a catalyst for innovation, prosperity and change. Unfortunately, the abundance of power comes with temptation. As Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For this reason, it is imperative that the momentum of a capitalist economy be bridled to the common good. Without the limitations of civil society, infinite profit seeking becomes a vehicle for unspeakable cruelty and planetary destruction.
Capitalism is a force: like a horse it can be put to work for a society. It can pull us forward, but only if we harness it to pull the cart of civilization toward progress. Conversely, if the cart becomes too heavy, laden with excessive tax or regulatory burdens, then the horse can’t pull. The art of economic statehood is a sustainable balance between capitalism and socialism.
There are reasonable capitalists, and there are reasonable socialists, at the intersection of their ideals we can find pragmatic solutions to wealth inequality and toxic tribalism. The cart goes nowhere without the horse, and the horse’s power is destructive without the cart. We need both to flourish.
(Thank you to my editor Pamela Daley for her assistance with this piece.)