On Philosophy

April 7, 2007

Limited Socialism And The Purpose Of Society

Filed under: Political Philosophy,Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I argued that the purpose of society was to give people opportunities (freedoms) and personal power, both of which enable them to better pursue the good life, whatever that happens to be for them. Lets consider pure capitalism then by these standards. Capitalism’s strength then is that it provides strong incentives to invent new technologies, which in turn give people more personal power. Thus a society that is capitalist is almost guaranteed to be at least partially successful (at allowing people to pursue the good life).

However, pure capitalism isn’t so great at giving people opportunities. This may seem contrary to common sense, because in a capitalist system it is true that people have a lot of different opportunities to make money. They can “sell” their time by working at any one of a number of different jobs or they can sell something that they produce. And they have a large number of different things that they can choose to buy. But you see, that is partly the problem; a capitalist society is tailored only for people whose good life is centered around buying or owning things. What if the good life for you is to be a musician? And furthermore let us assume that you aren’t a very talented one. Despite that it is perfectly possible for someone’s life to be considered good, even if they aren’t producing something that others want; it may be good because all they want to do is to develop their talents, they may not be striving for approval or praise. Capitalism prevents people like our musician from pursuing their version of the good life, or at the very least hinders them from doing so. It hinders them because they must earn money simply to say alive, and stay above the poverty line, in order to pursue their good life, but for them their job and they money they earn doesn’t help them lead the good life, it is just a waste of time.

But if this was the only problem things wouldn’t be too bad. Yes, some people would face additional obstacles to leading their version of the good life, but to some extent obstacles are unavoidable. However capitalism brings with it capitalist attitudes, and these magnify the problems that capitalism creates. By “capitalist attitudes” I mean to refer to our tendency to measure the success of other people by their wealth, and to place an undue emphasis on career advancement and owning nice things. It is these attitudes that prevent our talent-less musician from living his or her life as a talent-less musician. To support themselves they have to get a job, and once they have their job they will want to do well in their job. And moreover having some money makes them want to have more money, in order to buy more things. Of course they don’t really want these things, they really want to pursue their music, but society’s expectations move them in that direction anyways. And so they end up with their music as a hobby they have on their side, but their life become primarily their job, and possibly their family. And so they ended up derailed from their good life.

Thus it is my contention that a capitalist society, with capitalist attitudes, channels people into lives that are focused around earning and spending money, with other activities turned into hobbies. This may very well be a good life for many people, especially if they can get paid for what they want to do, or if they really want to buy a lot of things. But it isn’t a good life for everyone or even almost everyone. Which is why I claim that a pure capitalist society is weak in terms of the opportunities it provides; it channels everyone into living one kind of life.

Of course the most opportunities are provided by naïve socialism, where goods are produced without human intervention (by robots I suppose) and provided by the state, thus allowing everyone to live as they please. But, not only is such a society impossible at our current level of technology, it also has the opposite weakness of pure capitalism, namely that it provides too few incentives to develop new technologies.

The best society then, given our current level of technological development*, probably lies somewhere between the two, a kind of society we might call limited socialism. Under limited socialism the state provides some goods and services for free, but anything beyond those must be paid for, and thus worked for. At the very least such a society should provide acceptable food and shelter (not slums) for every single citizen unconditionally. I say unconditionally because the programs put into place to care for those out of work by many modern governments are conditional upon the people benefiting from then not having any income. But the ideal situation, as I envision it, is that people who desire to lead lives that don’t require opulence can take advantage of these government programs and only work sporadically, whenever they need to fund their pursuits. Thus our talent-less musician will work occasionally when they want to buy new equipment, or simply want to have some spending money, but they won’t have to work all they time, and they don’t have to focus on their career, allowing them to keep their music as the primary focus of their life.

And although complete socialism is almost always doomed to failure I do not doubt that limited socialism is feasible. Many countries in western Europe, like France and Germany, have laws in place that seem like steps towards this kind of limited socialism, and Singapore guarantees housing for everyone. It is true that these laws may have been somewhat detrimental to their economies, but that only matters if we measure countries by how much they produce or how much they consume. It is better to gauge them instead by how satisfied with life their citizens are. So, given that these laws haven’t created a downwards spiral into poverty, the only relevant question to ask is whether the people as a whole are better off after the laws than they were before. And although I am sure that the upper class, specifically business owners, are somewhat worse off it seems plausible that the majority of people are better off because of the changes. And that, not the amount of money in their pockets, is what matters.

* Obviously historically things have been different. For example it used to be that everyone had to work simply in order to keep alive; society required complete full-time employment just to keep everyone fed and safe. For such a society capitalism would of course be an excellent choice, because you simply need everyone working all the time. Thankfully that is not the case in modern society; we have options if we want them.

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