In the last column we finished with the question “Are we capitalists or socialists?” This question was posed after we (at least I) concluded we are all liberals and we all want progress. We use the words capital, social, liberal, conservative, progressive and others with the “ism” attached. Rewriting the words gives us capitalism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism, progressivism, and, if we want, communism.
The first recorded use of the suffix was in 1680. By the mid-1800s in the United States, “isms” had become derogatory terms, at least by perception. As originally used, ism meant a pre-packaged ideology, a collection of beliefs both good and bad. So why does “ism” imply a derogatory perspective? Simply because new or evolved collections of beliefs and values represent a basis for change, moving away from the status we know.
In 1775, Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming patented the S-trap or bend which allows the toilet to prevent the smell of sewage from invading the toilet area. Unfortunately, the S-bend was slow to be adopted. In the summer of 1858, the city of London really stunk because the River Thames has become an open sewer. Michael Faraday, yes the distinguished scientist, urged the politicians to take action and clean it up. It took three years to get it done. One might say, tongue in cheek, the politics stunk.
Back to the issue. What is social? Quoting from Wikipedia, “living organisms including humans are social when the live collectively in interacting populations.” Social behavior demands that the interests, intentions, and needs of others must be taken into account. Add “ism” and you have an ideology that makes the interests and intentions of others preeminent. This is not a bad concept, but what happens to the individual? Is it about the needs or wants of me or them? According to the United Sates Declaration of Independence, all people are created equal with undeniable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So we have a social organization with individual rights. Sounds great, but how do we do it?
As humanity has evolved, social organizations have been born that collectively united for continued existence. Initially it was to provide essential needs such as food, water, shelter, and on and on. Individuals traded with one another. The groups traded. This was the emergence of capitalism and the perception and accumulation of value. It was also the emergence of competition between people and groups. And at the group level, someone was in charge. Concurrently, the development of technology accelerated allowing for greater interaction and critical thought.
As previously stated, in 1776, The Wealth of Nations was published describing nation-states as capitalist entities engaged in trade to accumulate value. Essentially in a global view, nation-states were amalgamated individuals competing at a high level. Internally, each nation-state could function as it desired, but externally they were independent in accord with their armed forces, location, and resources. Taking this perspective internally, members of nation-states, assuming internal freedom, are individuals that can engage and interact with other individuals to acquire and grow value and wealth. Is this the pursuit of happiness? Perhaps a more important question is who is in charge?
In every group of people, someone is in charge. Not necessarily of everything, but of some decisions and the establishment of rules and regulations. In these relationships, the individual gives up certain rights in order to obtain certain benefits, regulated by the individuals involved or, in some cases, higher authority. When higher authority is the regulator, is it focused on the individual or on the collective body called society, the “aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community”?
The major difference between capitalism and socialism is economic, specifically who owns what. It is private ownership versus public ownership. And ownership determines who can amass value and wealth. Neither perspective is entirely bad or good. As has been previously noted, Russia has state-owned companies that build and sell products for the “benefit” of the Russian populace. China has many state investments in that could be described as capitalistic companies. And the United States owns and operates “companies’ that might make a profit. Yet each of these countries and the other countries of the world are in economic competition and focused on themselves. Internally, a country such as Sweden arguably may have a socialist perspective, but externally it must compete in a capitalistic world society.
Previously, I discussed the five “Ws” of who, what, when, why and where that define a problem, goal, or desired outcome. When the five “Ws” are agreed or defined, the hard part is the “how.” If my problem is to drive from Los Alamos to Pojoaque tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. for a lunch meeting, the how is pretty simple if I have access to an automobile with gasoline in the gas tank. But what if the car needs gasoline and there is an electrical failure that closes all of the gas stations? Silly problem, you say. But what is I left my wallet at home and cannot pay for the gasoline?
As an individual problem the gasoline is a trivial issue for society. But what if a governmental program runs out of money? And what if the program is core to a socialist or capitalist endeavor? If it is a capitalist program you might say let it go broke, that is capitalism. But if it is the banks, the results could be catastrophic. If it is a socialist endeavor, say social security, the results could or would be catastrophic. So how do you pay for things?