Jason Brennan, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown, is the author of the new book Why Not Capitalism?, which argues that capitalism works because of humanity's inherent lack of kindness and generosity. Reason TV's Rob Montz spoke with Brennan in June about human goodness, the flaws in socialism, and more. To see video of the interview, go here or view it below.
Q: Every college freshman in this country within one week of taking their first political theory class has said-as if they're the first person to ever think it-of course socialism is the best in theory. If we were able to scrub out some of the bugs of humans' programming that's precisely the kind of society that we'd want to set up for each other. Your book is a direct attack upon that idea.
A: What socialists are often missing is that we're not the Borg from Star Trek. We have private lives. We want to engage in private pursuits, projects of our own undertaking that we do by ourselves, not with others.
I like to say to my socialist colleagues: If you can understand why you wouldn't want to, say, write a philosophy paper with the collective or if you can understand why you'd like to paint a painting by yourself rather than having it done as a group project, you can understand why someone might find a kind of meaning in running a business by himself, or having a factory, or having a farm that's his rather than a collective farm.
Q: Can you explain socialism's "information problem"?
A: In order for us to have cooperation on a massive scale-cooperation on a scale of millions or tens of millions-we need some sort of signal that tells us what's going on in the economy. It turns out we get that signal in market societies and it's in the form of prices. We're all making all these private decisions and it modifies prices a little bit and then we respond appropriately. We don't know what's causing scarcity. We don't know what other peoples' desires are or demands are, we can just see that the price of strawberries is cheap over here and it's expensive over here and that tells me everything I need to know as a consumer about what to do. The problem with socialism on a mass scale is that they don't have a substitute for prices.
Q: In Washington, D.C., I do not think that there is a cabal of closeted socialists who want to bring about a Marxist revolution, but there is a very prevalent lighter version of the socialist conceit. A lot of these pundits have an ample number of Ivy League degrees, and they hang around with a lot of other smart people. They begin to operate under the assumption that it's just a matter of putting a couple key super-intelligent people in charge and they'd be able to see everything, hack it all, and figure out how to readjust the economic infrastructure of America.
A: In principle, there are cases where an omni-benevolent, omniscient dictator could come in and fix the market and make it better. It's rarely going to be the case in actuality that a person knows when and how to intervene. Given the limits of human knowledge, given the limits of peoples' ability, and also just given their biases and so on and the fact that they're likely to use this power selfishly rather than for our own good, I think it's better not to empower them to do these things.
Q: You debunk the idea that capitalism engenders or cultivates certain vices-that it actually actively rewards greed and predatory behavior.
A: The biggest cultural predictor that you will be trusting, trustworthy, generous, fair, and so on is the extent to which you come from a market-oriented society. People from traditional societies, from tribal societies, from non- or pre-market societies, and from socialist societies are not nice.