There’s more to life than making money.

Coming of Age in Political America

I was relatively apolitical up until just a couple of years ago. Through age 20 or so my attitude towards politics was basically “Who cares?” It was pretty plain to me that politicians were more or less corrupt. But seeing the USSR collapse, and hearing the conventional Western line on why it happened, basically convinced me that capitalism was plain and simply superior to communism or any other sort of planned economic scheme.

Then I moved to California and hooked up with a crowd of rabid libertarians–the people who are convinced that almost any government is too much, and that taxation is criminal theft. I found myself agreeing with a lot of their points. And yet… something didn’t ring quite true with their hyper-optimism.

The Trouble with Safety Nets

One main libertarian tenet is that if people were not taxed so heavily, they would have much more money to give to good causes, so all the functions currently performed by the government could (and would) be taken over by private enterprise. The difficulty is simply the transition. There is a large gap between eradicating government and establishing a network of institutions ready to take up all the slack. Typical libertarians are much more interested in getting rid of the government than in building effective institutions to replace it.

Beyond this is the general issue of timing and social change. Almost any change in social policy will disrupt some peoples’ lives. The question is always, will they be better off when the dust settles?

Welfare is the canonical example of this kind of problem. Many people rely on it to survive. Remove it, and you force those people onto their own resources–which simply will not be adequate to keep them alive, especially if they have kids. Yet the more welfare you provide, the more people will wind up taking advantage of it. Another big example is Social Security, which is a safety net that is fundamentally bankrupt (ask any Generation X-er how much they plan to get from Social Security) yet which is relied upon by so many politically powerful older Americans that it cannot be dismantled. Safety nets take on a life of their own, once there are lots of people in the net… yet ultimately, all safety nets boil down to special support of one group of people by everyone else.

These issues have only emerged in the last century. The developed world now has enough wealth, in principle, to provide adequate living means for everyone. Concurrently, the social fabric that shaped our lives has started to shift. Now people live longer, so it’s harder to support them for those extra years; families scatter, so there’s no longer such a strong sense of local community; we are more aware as a society of the plight of the needy, yet we are more loosely coupled societally, so the well-off seldom have anything to do personally with the less-well-off. We then try to use government as a mediator to handle all these needs. No wonder the shift is painful.

There is a large gap between “every man for himself” (laissez-faire capitalism) and “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (socialism). Yet the gap is important and not easily dismissable. Capitalism as we currently know it has an awful lot wrong with it.

The Trouble with Positive Feedback

Capitalism enables a dynamic economy, driven by the aggregate decisions of millions or billions of people. A free economy simply is more efficient at distributing goods and services than a planned economy. Yet this should not be the end of the story.

The fundamental metaphor of capitalist society is the production machine. Any business is a factory, producing items and creating demand for those items. The more demand you can create, the more you can sell, and the more you prosper. The difficulty is that it is in your interest to do anything possible to convince people they need what you have to sell. In other words, the more insecure you can make people feel, the more needy and desperate you can convince them they are, the better off you will be. This is deeply rooted in human nature, but capitalism enables it to jump to a new level, by encouraging just this kind of anxiety production.

There is no necessary limit to how desperate or how greedy people will become, when sufficiently motivated. And capitalism has no inherent restraint on how much motivation gets inflicted on people.

Socialism is Lovable

After realizing all the above, it became clear why socialism is an appealing idea. Capitalism does not, of itself, provide for anyone. Capitalism has no conscience. Socialism is the idea that government should be the embodied conscience of society.

The immediate difficulty with this is that government, like all institutions, has its own survival as its primary agenda. The more responsibility you give to government, the bigger it gets, and the more inertia it develops. Government itself becomes a safety net for public employees! This becomes an almost irresistable force pushing government away from its potential role as harbinger of fairness. Conversely, there is no clear decision process for setting social priorities… there is no definite scale on which you can measure the well-being of everyone.

There really is a class war in society; the interests of the well-off are not in alignment with the interests of the poor. Many of these issues wind up being cast in terms of redistribution of wealth–should the rich be made to give to the poor, or what? Yet these may not be the most important issues at hand.

Better Values?

The very word “values” has a politicized connotation nowadays; the politicians who say “values” most are often the most hypocritical of leaders. But it really does come down to what we believe is important in life.

Should there be a limit on how wealthy people can get? How much wealth do people need? When one person can consume hundreds or thousands of times more than another, how much is too much?

Should there be a limit on how many kids people can have? Almost all societies throughout history have had some way of limiting parentage, whether it was a dowry or simply the threat of starvation. What kind of limit makes sense in today’s world, where we can in principle support everyone, but where each child born into a needy family increases the load on the safety net?

Should welfare be tied to education? If the goal is to help everyone become productive members of society, isn’t that reasonable? But how, then, do you deal humanely with the uneducable people? Studies show that worker training is much more effective if entered before the worker goes on the dole. It is very, very, very hard to get people back into the workforce if they’ve been unemployed for years. What can we do with these people?

Technology is a vicious addition to these questions. Without technology, we would not have the ability to feed anywhere near all the people currently alive. But as technology advances, it becomes easier for fewer super-well-educated people to provide for many others. And what then are the others to do, given that education is costly, and not distributed evenly? When the have-nots aren’t even needed as helping hands, what does that do to the capitalist tenet that work is what makes a living?

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that these are the vital questions. And neither the radical capitalists nor the radical socialists have a monopoly on the truth. We will need to find some new paths towards happiness, and it is not clear that government will ever be able to help very much, in the end.