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Socialist planning can stabilize the economy and develop it in a rational manner.

Only the most optimistic Marxist can still believe that an entirely controlled economy can work efficiently. Lack of inflation and full employment can be mandated, but a flow of high-quality goods to the public has never been generated by a Communist economy which can match any ordinary Capitalist one. The reasons are not obscure.

1) Nobody knows enough. Large modern economies are too complex for governments to be able to assemble all the information to do rational and effective planning. Stock markets and corporate elites may make irrational and even disastrous decisions, but ultimately their mistakes tend to be self-correcting. These difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that in a planned economy it is not in the interest of most individuals to generate and convey accurate data. The worker lies about how much work has been done, the manager about how many goods are being shipped, and the economist about how successful the latest plan has been. The official statistics quickly become a fiction from which it is impossible to generate any rational plan.

2) People are not motivated to work as hard for the common good in large enterprizes as they are for themselves. This may or may not be “human nature;” but no Communist government has ever been able to inspire its people to work really efficiently except for brief periods, usually through terror. Both the USSR and China had to rescue their disastrous agricultural policies by allowing farmers to develop private plots for their own profit, which typically produced far more than the properly socialist communal farms. Exceptions may be found on small Israeli kibbutzes and other settings where people know each other well, but in large modern states it seems impossible to generate the enthusiasm to work hard except in wartime or similar crises. Toward the end, the Soviet economy was notoriously rife with absenteeism, employee theft, and idleness, expressed in the popular joke “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”

Socialists commonly try to inspire workers with various slogans and visions of the glorious future (say, during the Cuban sugar harvest in the 60s), and these can actually work for a time; but they seem impossible to sustain in the long run. After all, people do not embrace socialism because they want to work harder: they have capitalists to make them do that.

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Privatizing services makes them more responsive.

What it makes them more responsive to is market pressures, which don’t always reflect public needs. American aversion to “socialized” medicine is almost matched by American disgust with for-profit doctors and health plans. Private bureaucracies can be as callous and inept as public ones. Sometimes political processes are more effective than the market in creating responsive services.

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Everyone has equal opportunity under capitalism.

The important truth in this belief is that in countries with relatively open capitalist economies it is possible for some poor people to work their way up. Most well-off Americans have only to trace back in their families one or two generations to find ancestors of poor or modest means. This is not so true in older countries like Germany and France where workers much less often become owners, and Marxists have elaborate and interesting explanations for this “American exceptionalism.”

However, “opportunity” is a very elusive concept when you come to examine it. Clearly not everyone has the same learning abilities, the same access to borrowed capital, the same familial support, the same influence in government circles–the list of inequities goes on and on. But the belief that just about anyone could become rich by really working hard and taking risks leads many Americans to support policies which guarantee that a tiny minority of citizens will control the vast majority of the national wealth. They may not have won the economic lottery yet, but that’s all the more reason for them not to want to shut the game down.

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The spread of Capitalism means the spread of freedom.

Capitalism thrives in China; freedom does not. Some of the countries with the most open, democratic cultures have heavily regulated economies: Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands. Capitalists routinely invest in tyrannies where the lack of democracy helps to guarantee profits.

However, in socialist governments inspired by Lenin and Mao, the need for uniformity and central control almost mandates a lack of freedom; so they provide no real alternative.

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The free market brings better goods at lower prices, so restraints on the free market are bad for all.

This has enough truth in it to have persuaded most Americans to accept it almost as a religious dogma. During the latter half of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, more and better goods have become available to more people in Capitalist economies than in non-competitive Marxist economies. Despite persistent pockets of poverty, most developed capitalist economies had higher average standards of living than controlled Communist ones, and the pressures of the market on capitalists to produce more popular goods at lower prices clearly have a lot to do with this.

But capitalism is not always competitive. The Japanese economy thrived for several decades by strictly controlling competition. Would-be monopolists are always emerging as natural products of capitalism, threatening to do away with competition from capitalist, not socialist motives. If people have been able to raise their standards of living it has been partly because of the work of labor unions and those who have agitated for minimum wage and maximum work day laws, all denounced as harmful to free competition.

Sometimes it is the capitalists who fear the free operation of the market and call for regulation. When employment is high and people are achieving higher wages, the stock market frets about inflation and creates pressures on government regulatory agencies to “cool off” the economy, creating more widespread unemployment and lower wages.

As the Asian “tigers” (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, etc.) stumble in their pursuit of regulated capitalism, the free marketers are currently triumphant; but the record of the unregulated market in post-Communist Russia is not inspiring. That unregulated capitalism could produce misery was demonstrated during the industrial revolution, and the demonstration has been often repeated since. No society can long tolerate the entire lack of restraints on business, and never does.

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Socialism is more appropriate in underdeveloped countries than Capitalism.

This is much too complex an issue to explore thoroughly here, but it is worth noting that many “socialist” states in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in what used to be called “the third world” were socialist only in name. Many of them were run as fiefdoms by dictators who stole much of the national wealth and deposited it in Swiss banks. Others, like Cuba, were kept afloat only by large infusions of cash from patron states like the Soviet Union or China.

International agencies like the World Bank which insist on “opening” such economies to outside capitalist investment can also cause tremendous suffering and rob nations of their dignity and independence. But without an international socialist safety net, it is not clear that socialism provides a viable alternative. Unless one is content to implement a closed, low-level agrarian form of socialism, a successful economy must be highly developed, and socialists have been markedly less successful than capitalists in undertaking such development.

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Capitalists despoil the environment.

Clearly governments all stripes have done their share of environmental damage. The air and water in such different countries as Mexico, India, and China is dreadful despite their extremely varied political and economic structures. The most notorious capitalist depredations have taken place outside the borders of the capitalist countries: Americans in Brazil, the Japanese in Maylasia. However, the Soviet Union turned large areas of Eastern Europe and its own territory into toxic wastelands far worse than anything in the capitalist world.

At least in capitalist economies, countervailing economic forces can sometimes create anti-polluting pressures: real estate interests oppose nuclear plants, fishing interests oppose dams. Unilateral development projects which are not forced to take such factors into account are far more likely to damage the environment.

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Capitalists commodify and simplify culture.

The common view of summarizing American culture abroad as the triumphant march of Disney and McDonald’s embodies this thesis. Marx articulated this line of thought in the early pages of theĀ Manifesto; and it is one of the hardiest elements in Marxism, very much alive today in the writings of academic Marxists. While it seems at times as if everything has its price and we admire only what is profitable or expensive, it is not clear that this is so very much worse than the earlier sort of society in which things were valued according to their aristocratic prestige or holiness. After all, market value is an expression of collective democratic attitudes. If we decide that a basketball player is more valuable than a ballerina it is not because we are capitalists but because more people enjoy basketball than ballet.

But most people in capitalist societies deplore the fact that price and profit seem to lie behind everything we do and self-denunciations of excessive materialism are commonplace. So there is some truth in the accusation.

However, it is not clear what the socialist alternative would be. It seems obvious that because public debate and the arts were strictly controlled in Communist countries public discourse was also radically simplified. Ideas and artistic creations became political rather than economic commodities, at the service of political ends. Exceptionally complex and subtle thinkers emerged in Communist states here and there (Mikhail Bakhtin is a currently popular example), but the trademark of most Communist public culture was crudity and over-simplification.

“But that was not real socialism,” socialists may argue. And indeed, the point is a valid one. True socialists would never have tolerated such a narrow, anti-democratic culture as existed in the former Soviet Union and China. However, any culture which prizes the masses above the individual and in which collective power is expressed in a central government claiming to represent those masses is going to have difficulty encouraging complexity and subtlety, characteristics more often associated with aristocratic cultures, whether in Renaissance Florence or Heian Japan.

The analysis of “commodification” can be seen as just another instance of “essentializing,” a term popular on the contemporary left. It may be true that almost everything has a price in a market economy, but that does not mean that it makes sense to reduce the essence of everything to its price. When people’s homes burn, they usually don’t rush to save the most expensive items in the house, but the most personal: family photographs, children’s stuffed animals, etc. Marxists see economic forces everywhere just as Freud saw suppressed sexuality everywhere, and as some religious people see sin everywhere. There is no simple formula for determining what is the “real” key to understanding human behavior–we’re more complicated than most Marxists allow.

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Capitalists promote war to increase profits.

While it is true that the U.S. raised itself out of the Depression of the 30s by war spending, that can be used as much as an argument for Big Government as for Big Business. European economies did not experience the same benefits. Most businesses suffer rather than benefit in wartime. In the global marketplace, war is a major enemy of business, destroying both assets and markets.

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Capitalists and capitalist states are always motivated by economic considerations.

Marx thought that he had found a “scientific” basis for socialism by seeing all important social activity as shaped by the means of production and means of exchange in the culture under study. He had many brilliant insights, and his method of analysis can still be useful today; but it seems clear that capitalist nations and their populations are often swept up in nationalistic, religious, or other manias which override their economic self-interest. The Underground Man observes in Notes from Underground that people often act against their own best interests–and that seems to be as true of nations as it is of individuals.

During the Vietnam War radicals often quoted a statement of President Eisenhower’s that Southeast Asia should not be “lost” to Communism because of its valuable natural resources. But anyone studying the Vietnam war would be hard-pressed to find evidence of any economic benefit accruing to the U.S. from it. Indeed, Eisenhower probably felt compelled to justify what was essentially an ideological battle in capitalist terms because such attitudes are considered “rational” in capitalist nations.

A more sophisticated Marxist analysis argues that the domination of world economies and the creation of neocolonialist hegemony (control) requires the defeat of Communism, so that even very costly wars have a long-range rationale of making the world safe for corporate profit. This is an argument that can be wielded with great power, but it is not a universal explanation for foreign policy within capitalist nations. It should be noted that socialist states have hardly been immune from allowing economic considerations to influence their foreign policy either.

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