Choose Your Poison

It’s very clear that free market capitalism produces a certain type of abuses — human suffering, in other words. If you doubt this, you might want to read up on the history of the industrial revolution. Read about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, for instance. In 1911, more than 140 women died in a fire because the managers of the sweatshop where they worked had locked them in. Abuses of this sort were extremely common in the late 19th century. The worse excesses were eliminated not because factory owners were kind, caring human beings (they’re not) but because of the rise of the labor unions, most of which were organized by committed socialists.

I’m pretty sure socialism produces its own evils. High taxation levels and central planning, for instance, can stifle innovation. I’m not as familiar with the defects of socialism; perhaps someone who has lived in Sweden can provide a list. Note, however, that there are varieties of socialism. Russian-style communism is not the only possibility, so the evils that arose in the Soviet Union, while instructive, are not conclusive. Democratic socialism, as practiced in Sweden and elsewhere, seems not to have produced Russian-style ill effects.

In choosing one economic system or another, we need to weigh all of these factors, the characteristic abuses generated by either system along with its benefits. It would be simple-minded to assert that any economic system is automatically superior to or preferable to any other, until we’ve done a thorough examination.

If you worship freedom, as many people do, you may be inclined to assume that an economic system that gives the greatest freedom to the individual just has to be superior. Freedom is a wonderful thing — but it’s not the only virtue to which a society can or should aspire. If you had to choose between freedom and affordable health care, or between freedom and a sustainable, environmentally sane world, which would you choose? These are not easy choices. If freedom means that the streets will be thronged with homeless people, or with angry people carrying guns, then perhaps we ought to temper our enthusiasm for freedom just a bit.

In considering the options, however, we need to bear in mind that there is no way to correct the abuses that arise in a free-market economy. The market being, by definition, unregulated, it produces whatever abuses it produces. We’re stuck with them. When abuses surface in a democratic socialist system, the people can elect representatives who will correct the abuses, or at least try to. For this reason, if for no other, socialism is inherently superior to the free market.

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