I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

Socialism versus Capitalism

There was a poll released today showing that only 53% of American's believe capitalism to be a superior economic system. 20% preferred socialism, and the rest weren't sure.

As expected, right wing talk show hosts were having a field day with this. It's the downfall of America; we're half way to communism.

I think a little perspective is needed.

First, while I suppose that economists may use the terms capitalism and socialism with a clear understanding of what they mean, I think that most people are somewhat fuzzy on the concepts. Polling Americans about economics is a somewhat ill-fated activity. Americans use credit cards to buy pizzas and go to the movies. Any nation where large percentages of the population will go into debt to entertain themselves is a nation that collectively knows nothing about managing its money.

Second, the reality is that it's possible for a nation to be both capitalistic and socialistic at the same time. These aren't like matter and antimatter, destroying one another on contact. It's more like a sliding scale with pure libertarian capitalism at one end and outright communism at the other. America's needle has been sitting in the middle of these extremes for a long time. Business has never had a truly free hand in America, nor should it. Also, I think a lot of businesses would go into a full blown panic if the government really decided to get out of their affairs. If the US decided tomorrow that our agricultural policy was: grow whatever you want, sell it where ever you can, at whatever price you can get, you would see shares plummet in every stock even vaguely tied to food.

Finally, I find in the worship of capitalism flaws similar to the worship of libertarianism. (Keep in mind, I am a libertarian.) Both systems are built around a fundamental idealogy that says that if government would get out of the way, people would behave rationally to further their own self interests. They would make better investments, use better judgment when purchasing products, and generally be able to police themselves. The flaw, of course, is that substantial pluralities of people don't behave rationally, even when there are strong incentives to do so. For instance, for pretty much all my adult life, people have been able to invest money in IRAs. It saves in taxes, it's safe, and there are banks in every town in America that will be glad to set one up for you. Yet, only about 14% of people choose to contribute to a traditional IRA. For the record, I'm not part of that 14%. I've either been to concerned about spending my money here and now, or I've found the fine print in the brochures at the bank a little daunting, or I've just decided that I don't really care if I'm a millionaire when I'm sixty-five, since by then Cthulhu will return and end the world, most likely.

What someone needs to design is an economic system that depends on hedonism, ignorance, and apathy. I'd do very well in that system, I think.


Loren Eaton said...

Any nation where large percentages of the population will go into debt to entertain themselves is a nation that collectively knows nothing about managing its money.

I'm going to remember this next time I see some poor soul on the evening news begging the Federal government to pay his mortgage.

Ia Ia Cthulhu F’thagn!

James Maxey said...

One could argue that if the government hadn't built up a history of intervening when people have financial troubles, that people would behave more rationally. The possibility that government might bail them out may create a nation that takes greater risks. By agreeing to bail out Chrysler in the 70's, we placed ourselves in a position where we have to bail out more companies today. We bailed out S&L's (or at least thier depositors) in the 80's, leading to bank bailouts today.

But, a competing argument is that capitalism is more than capable of crashing even in the absense of nets. There weren't large scale social safety nets back in the 1920's, and that didn't stop the economy from running off a cliff then.

As a species, we show an truly horrible ability to judge risk. And because we're interconnected, the risky behavior of even a minority endangers larger majorities.

You can imagine the world all crammed into one big apartment building. 99% of the residents of the building behave responsibly. 1% smoke in bed. It's only a matter of time before the building burns down.

The government, in theory, would be an excellent tool for shielding responsible citizens from the actions of the selfish, the cruel, the dishonest, and the lazy. Except, the selfish, cruel, dishonest and lazy seem to be found in government to the same degree they are found in the general population.

I wish I had something positive to say here, instead of just condemning mankind with a broad brush. How about this: I think we can all be proud, collectively, that we've finally got our cannibalism problem under control.