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Reflections on the TCU Capitalism versus Socialism Debate
Two days ago at Texas Christian University, I debated Scott Sehon, chair of Bowdoin College’s Philosophy Department, on Capitalism versus Socialism. (Video forthcoming eventually). My opening statement was a slight variation on the one I wrote for an earlier debate on the same topic with Elizabeth Bruenig. Sehon’s opening statement was adapted from his Socialism: A Logical Introduction, forthcoming next year from Oxford University Press. Here are my main afterthoughts.
Prior to the debate, I read a key chapter from Sehon’s book, plus three of his other essays. Two of the pieces (co-authored with his partner Kristen Ghodsee, who I’ve also debated!) defend “anti-anti-Communism.” The third argues that the Nazis were definitely not socialists.
The book chapter (not yet available) was quite good. One key thesis is that capitalism and socialism lie on a continuum, which makes perfect sense to me. Sehon proposes a two-dimensional model, where socialism rises positively with (a) the role of government/collective ownership, and (b) the degree of material equality.
Sehon doesn’t try to definitionally insist that Marxist-Leninist dictatorships aren’t “real socialism.” Good for him. Instead, like a careful analytic philosopher, he concedes that socialist dictatorships are socialist in some meaningful way.
Definitionally, I say it makes a lot more sense to use only Sehon’s part (a) in the definition. Why? Because including (b) begs major questions about the effect of capitalism on material equality. Abolishing specific government interventions plainly can make society more equal. And in the real world, it often would. Deregulating immigration dramatically cuts the size of government and increases (global) equality. So does housing deregulation. Does this mean that these policies are not clear movements in the direction of capitalism? I can’t see why.
After dealing with definitional issues, Sehon’s book chapter focuses heavily on the superiority of Scandinavian (relative) socialism to American (relative) capitalism. In the debate, he followed suit. Perhaps since I’d just returned from Auschwitz, I was poised to argue that the Nazis were indeed socialists and that anti-anti-Communism is abominable. Neither of which came up in the debate.
Sehon argued that Scandinavian countries are indeed more socialist than the U.S. He’s right, but overstates. On Fraser rankings (0-10), where higher is more capitalist, the U.S. comes out at 8.14 (5th in the world), Denmark at 8.10 (7th), Sweden and Finland 7.81 (tied with Czechia for 17th), and Norway at 7.67 (29th). All four are in the global top quartile. Spain, France, and Italy all come out as more socialist than any Scandinivian economy. Sehon could reply that his measures are better, but one of the virtues of the Fraser scores is that they aggregate many plausible indicators of capitalism versus socialism.
Sehon went on to argue that Scandinavian (relative) socialism is better for human well-being than American (relative) capitalism. Some of his measures looked highly suspect to me (though at least he didn’t invoke the execrable Human Development Index!). I do, however, take international happiness data seriously. And yes, on international happiness scores, Scandinavia beats the U.S.
But not by much! The latest happiness ranking for the U.S. is #15 out of 149 countries, scoring 6.9 out of 10. Finland is #1, scoring 7.8. Remaining Scandinavian scores: Norway: 7.3, Denmark 7.6, Sweden 7.4. Still, as Sehon points out, the U.S. underperforms on happiness.
I didn’t point out, but I should have, that low-population countries normally win top rank on almost any per-capita measure. They also normally “win” bottom rank on almost any per-capita measure. Why? The Law of Large Numbers! Good and bad luck average out more for large populations. So what? For countries with population over 50M, the U.S. is the happiest in the world.
That aside, should we think that Scandinavia is happier than the U.S. because of its higher socialism? I think Sehon would agree that it’s a complex question, but one obvious place to start is to look at countries that are culturally very close to the U.S. The top candidates are Canada and the U.K., both moderately more socialist than the U.S. The happiness gap? Negligible: Canada scores .1 happier than the U.S.; the U.K. scores .1 less happy than the U.S.
Sehon mentioned high polarization in the U.S. several times. So I asked him, “If a narrow Democratic majority in the U.S. moved us straight to Scandinavian socialism, would U.S. happiness really rise?” Even he granted that right-wing outrage, soon followed by left-wing counter-outrage, would plausibly swamp the direct happiness boost of socialism itself.
The heart of my case was a list of radical free-market reforms that would greatly improve over the observed performance of the U.S. (or almost any First World) economy. Open borders. Radical housing deregulation. Ending universal redistribution. Defunding education. Radical deregulation of nuclear power. Probably the most frustrating part of the debate was that Sehon kept comparing Scandinavia to the U.S., instead of comparing his ideal to my ideal.
Sehon did voice sympathy for open borders, but kept doubling back to the merits of Scandinavia socialism. Which, as I explained, is a standard — and puzzling — socialist move. For all their talk of the end of equality, socialists really do seem to fixate on the means of government. It’s a fetish. Although smart leftists will admit that some radical free-market reforms would help the poor and reduce inequality, only government action excites them.
Sehon briefly talked about rights-based objections to socialism. He seemed to accept the old-school ACLU rights, but scoffed at any notion of rights to private property or freedom of contract. Which makes little sense. A priest builds a church and holds services. If the government seizes it for the greater good, that violates his rights. Great. A merchant builds a factory and conducts business. If the government seizes it for the greater good, that doesn’t violate his rights? What’s the logic even supposed to be? Both religion and commerce infuse some people’s lives with meaning. For other people, they’re both casual affairs. Why protect all religion — and no commerce — from consequentialist calculations?
Sehon seemed to grant many of my points. Yet when he did so, I’m afraid, he was usually misstating my points. When I talked about bad government policies, his rough reply was: “Yes, government isn’t perfect.” But I wasn’t saying that government is less than perfect; I was saying that government — including democratic government — is terrible. Sweden, to use a democracy dear to Sehon’s heart, made the world’s fastest transition to nuclear power from the 60s to the 90s. Then, in response to innumerate public opinion, they threw this historic achievement in the trash and moved swiftly in the opposite direction. Typical!
In the debate, I told the audience that the 2020 U.S. presidential election nicely exposes the sheer crumminess of democracy. Trump or Biden: Those are your choices. Sehon replied that choosing between Trump and Biden is better than just letting Elon Musk run the show. A straw man, but I still felt like I could hear the whole audience silently cheering the Elon alternative.
P.S. Big thanks to Rob Garnett and Sam Arnold for organizing the event! Great fun.