Posts Tagged ‘Egalitarianism’

Capitalism, socialism and democracy

December 3, 2010

Karl Marx predicted that under capitalism, wealth would become more and more concentrated, that the concentration of wealth would lead to concentration of political power, and that workers would become more and more powerless.

In my younger days, I thought Marx was outdated, but his predictions seem to be validated by what has been happening in the United States in the past 30 or so year.  Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker and Jacob Hacker’s and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class tell the story very well.

In spite of this, neither Greenhouse, Hacker nor Pierson are socialists.  What they advocate is a return to the rough balance of forces between labor, business and government as existed in the United States from the late 1940s through the early 1970s.  That is pretty much my own position.  I would like to preserve and restore the New Deal social safety nets and economic firewalls and the 1960s civil rights laws, update to meet current conditions, and I would like to see the United States adopt a universal health care system, based on best practices in other countries, but that is as far as I go.

The core value of socialism is egalitarianism.  I am not an egalitarian.  If I have enough for my own needs, I am not bothered by other people having more.  What I am against is exploitation.  By exploitation, I mean profiting at someone else’s expense, other than in a free and fair competition.

I am glad to see people whose achievements are valuable contributions to society be richly rewarded for those achievements.  I don’t mind that J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, has a net worth of $1 billion.  I am fine with the fact that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the creators of Google, have a net worth of $14 billion each.

H. Ross Perot began his career as an IBM salesman.  IBM Corp. capped the commissions salesmen could receive because Perot was earning too much relative to the other salesmen. Perot’s response was to earn the maximum annual commission in a few weeks, quit IBM and founded Electronic Data Systems.  My sympathies are with Perot.

I reluctantly accept the necessity for differences in income based on differences in rank.  I have misgivings about economic privilege based on inheritance.  I am morally outraged by executives of organizations leveraging their authority to reward themselves at the expense of people below them in the hierarchy. And I am outraged at financiers who enrich themselves by manipulating prices and selling worthless securities.

The first form of exploitation is found in any society based on hierarchical organizations.  It existed in the old Soviet Union, and it exists in the so-called non-profit sector of the United States today.  The second is a form of exploitation specific to capitalist society.  Capitalism requires honest financial markets to function well, but does not automatically generate them.  When market abuses are unchecked, the result is what you see in the United States today.

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The Olympics analogy

November 26, 2010

I have an extremely learned friend, a great Plato scholar, who has a low opinion of populism and egalitarianism.  He once challenged my beliefs with the following question: –

In the Olympic games, does everybody perform the same, or do some people manifest superiority?

In the Olympic games, does everybody win a prize, or are the prizes reserved for the best?

I tried to reply with questions of my own.  What follows is an improved versions of my reply.  The nice thing about having your own web log is that it is never too late to say what I should have said at the time.

In the Olympic games, does everybody in a race start at the same starting line, or can you buy the right to a head start?

In the Olympic games, does everybody get a chance to compete, or do members of certain races, religions and ethnic groups have to compete in separate games for lesser prizes?

In the Olympic games, do you have to compete to win, or are the sons and daughters of gold medalists automatically given medals of their own?

Are the Olympic games a voluntary contest in which those who come in first get medals, or is it an involuntary contest in which those who come in last, or even second, are punished?