Reason Podcast

Socialism vs. Capitalism: Jacobin's Bhaskar Sunkara and Economist Gene Epstein Debate

Which economic system is most effective at bringing freedom to the masses?


Is socialism more effective than capitalism in bringing freedom to the masses?

That was the resolution at a recent public debated hosted by the Soho Forum on October 15, 2018. It featured Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin magazine, and Gene Epstein, the Soho Forum's director and former economics and books editor of Barron's. Naomi Brockwell moderated.

It was an Oxford-style debate in which the audience votes on the resolution at the beginning and end of the event, and the side that gains the most ground is victorious. Epstein, arguing the negative, prevailed by convincing about 11 percent of audience members to change their minds.

Sunkara is also the author of the forthcoming The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, which will be published by Basic Books in 2019.

Comedian Dave Smith, host of the podcast Part of the Problem, opened the program.

The Soho Forum, which is partnered with the Reason Foundation, is a monthly debate series at the SubCulture Theater in Manhattan's East Village. At the next debate, which will be held on November 14, 2018, Columbia professor John McWhorter will debate NYU's Nikhil Pal Singh on whether "the message of anti-racism has become as harmful a force in American life as racism itself." Buy tickets here.

Music: "January" by Kai Engle is licensed under a CC-BY creative commons license.

All Soho Forums are turned into Reason videos and podcasts. Go here for a full archive.

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  1. Don’t keep us in suspense. Which is it?

    1. Socialism is an easy out for a particular set of concerns. Capitalism is an easy out for another set of concerns. You never get one or the other (and typically the worst of both), so choosing one or the other is pointless.

      Markets work; people expect the government to be the benevolent hand of last resort.

      Work it out.

      1. Capitalism is a system for creating wealth, socialism is a system for distributing wealth. Capitalism can’t hold a candle to socialism when it comes to equality of distribution, but who the hell wants equal shares of nothing?

        1. As every arm-chair economist here makes the distinction between socialism and the welfare state, I too will make the distinction between markets and capitalism. Co-operatives are still markets. Unions are nothing more than the freedom of association. How markets are organized is mostly arbitrary.

          Markets work

          Read it over and over again until it finally sinks in.

          If capitalism (or more correctly, libertarianism) delivered on even 10% of its claims, there would be no tendency towards socialism at all, and it would certainly have more sway than being a spoiler party. Private charities would be so awash in donations, no one would even bother with government benefits.

          Libertarianism doesn’t work. Neither does socialism. Work it out.

          1. ” Unions are nothing more than the freedom of association”

            Not when the government uses force to require the business owner to negotiate with the union whether he wishes to or not. As opposed to simply firing them all and hiring replacement workers.

            1. But somehow I’d believe you’d support the legal fiction of corporations, no? And the ability to abrogate responsibility through a collective by government force.

              But somehow only unions are insufferable.

              Right, got it.

              1. Corporations are a legal fiction so that they can’t abrogate responsibility. Their being juridical persons is exactly why you can sue them.

                1. He or she is evidently trying to peddle the notion that corporate stockholders are getting some kind of special handout due to limited liability as if that were somehow more of an artificial government created construct than unlimited liability.

                  Which it is not.

                2. Oh but again, corporations can organize with legal protections, but unions can’t?

                  Freedom of association, but only if I like it.

                  How very libertarian of you.

                  1. The corporation doesn’t have legal protection – that’s why you can sue it.

                    You sure are slow on the uptake.

                    “Freedom of association, but only if I like it.”

                    Everyone has freedom of association – what they don’t have is a right to require anyone else to do business with them – either on an individual basis or as part of some other association.

              2. It is evident that you don’t actually get much at all.

                1. Qsl is quite possibly the dumbest motherfucker to post here. And that’s really saying something.

                  1. Aww, don’t underestimate yourself like that.

          2. So libertarians are 1% of the population but libertarianism is a failure because it doesn’t provide 10% of its claims?

      2. People expect the government to be the benevolent hand of last resort because that is what they have been taught.

        1. Oh, but not you! Pray-tell, how did you escape from the ravages of your own brain? Does 2+2 still equal 4, or is that lingering effects of some government conspiracy?

          I’ll grant much of governmental function is just as much a product of inertia as anything else, but to cast everyone else as brainwashed and only libertarians as sage inquisitors is a level of smug even I can’t approach.

          Of course you’d have to prove that you aren’t currently brainwashed as compared to anyone else.

          1. I’m smart and being a libertarian proves I’m not brainwashed.

    2. Capitalism on a long-term on-going self-renewing basis.

      Socialism for short-term plundering which grinds to a halt as soon as the plunder runs out.

      Here’s an analogy: You hitch a ride, then at the top a hill, assault the driver, kick him out, and cost down the hill because you are too lazy to drive. Then when you stop at the bottom, you bawl like a baby for the driver to come give you a ride again.

    3. Make more profit weekly… This is an awesome side job for anybody… Best part about it is that you can work from comfort of your house and earn 100-2000 dollars every week … Apply for the job now and have your first check at the end of the week.

      linked here…..=====???

  2. Did he have any real-world evidence of socialism bringing freedom to the masses? And was he talking about socialism or capitalism with a generous welfare state?

  3. Under socialism, the gulags and death camps are free, so … freedoom?

  4. Is Brockwell going for the “sexy librarian” look?

    1. Only when she leaves her glasses on.

  5. Freedom is the absence of force used against the individual.

    Socialism is entirely predicated on using force to subordinate the individual to the collective.

    Socialism doesn’t “bring” freedom to anyone. It is the antithesis of freedom.

  6. Jacobin guy gives democratic socialism the credit for:

    -40 hour workweek
    -protections against arbitrary dismissal by teh bosses

    Blames capitalism for

    -undermining democracy by disenfranchising workers
    -resisting humanizing of capitalism
    -hierarchy and exploitation (as with preceding systems)
    -life outcomes based on accident of birth
    -black people having the worst schools, worst health care, worst jobs
    -women not being able to leave abusive relationships for lack of welfare programs

    Other points:

    -Worker owned businesses would work better than privately owned
    -Demsocs want to give the basics of a good life to all
    -Socialism means more freedom
    -Putting the market in the interests of human needs and give people the freedom to control their workplaces, etc.

  7. OT; Megyn Kelly is out at NBC.

    1. After a suitable period of mourning (and Kelly will fucking smoke it in black, especially if she wears gloves, oooh…), she’ll perform a few contrite mea culpas and be re-established at Fox.

      Either that or Sean Hannity will devote an entire show to yelling “Nah, nah, nah-nah, nah. Told ya so! Told ya so! Fucking media whore!”

      Or something like that.

      1. I never thought she’d be a “good fit” at NBC, she was good at Fox I thought

        Can’t stand Hannity.

        Still, supposedly NBC still has to hand over the rest of her contract which I read is supposed to be $69 million.

  8. Epstein – “unconventional, capitalist style socialism”

    Quotes Jacobin guy in an article from replacing private ownership (except personal property) with “social ownership”

    Socialism – illegal to own factory, store,office

    Property rights – “wide open choices” re their goals

    Mentions small, unprofitable small businesses – religious groups – as examples of non-profit-motivated capitalism.

    Cites Jacobin Magazine and Soho Forum as examples of capitalist model – not motivated by profit

    Capitalism allows any motive – so long as you cover your costs you can organize yourself as you wish

    Freedom won’t survive under socialism. Would require shutting down crowdfunding and private ways people raise money. Prison.

    How many Muslim prayer rugs would majority of workers under demsoc agree to produce?

    What about products for vegans?

    What about libertarian-sponsored debates? Criticism of the central planners?

    Birth control availability subject to majority preference?

    1. Existence of minorities in capitalism provides markets.

      All societies have an intolerant strain, but we’re supposed to take our chances under a majority tainted by this intolerance.

      Without the right to private ownership, freedom doesn’t stand a chance.

      In practice, citizens won’t have time or desire to monitor the planning boards, which would have the temptation to use scarcity as a rationale for rejecting projects they don’t like.

      As professed lover of freedom, Jacobin guy will have to learn the value of pro-capitalism.

      If Jacobin guy can get only 1/5 of consumer dollars to set up a socialist-based sub-economy, then the allegedly superior socialist enterprises will attract worker-owned firms. Use free-market boycotting if you don’t like what capitalists are doing. Won’t infringe on anyone’s rights.

      But Jacobin guy wants to play the “ugly game of politics” for top-down dictation.

      As freedom-lover, Jacobin guy should use capitalist means to build his socialism.

      Nordic countries respect property rights more than U. S.

  9. Rebuttal: Profit is the aim of all capitalism. The search for profits makes the libertarian system works.

    We need finance to bring new products to market – bedrock welfare state like in Scandinavia – sphere for market competition among worker-controlled firms. State-owned banks will provide capital based on “objective,” “technocratic,” “non-politicized” criteria. Maybe ecological and externality-based considerations.

    Welfare state to protect people from pauperism.

    Take over “commanding heights of the economy.”

    Scandinavia plus worker-controlled firms.

    Libertarians have changed their line on Scandinavia – which is indeed social democratic. Depends on private industry. But system hits contradictions because workers demands stuff capitalists can’t grant. The way out? More socialism! (Pension funds mentioned)

    1. Epstein rebuttal: Jacobin was recently involved in buying a firm – but he misunderstands the concept of depreciation.

      Jacobin and Soho don’t make profit but get revenue. Profit-and-loss system a matter of choice under capitalism. Many people simply earn a salary from their business.

      State-owned banks? Jacobin guy would probably shut down private crowdfunding. State-owned banks are an example of crony capitalism, “crapitalism.”

      Trying to call Jacobin guy’s bluff – people already have the power to use boycotts etc to support worker-owned businesses.

      “Cherrypicking” countries – ignoring Spain, Greece, Venezuela and claiming U. S. will be like Sweden. Swedish-Americans have more money than Swedish Swedes.

      Medicare for all or Veterans Administration for all?

    2. State-owned banks will provide capital based on “objective,” “technocratic,” “non-politicized” criteria

      LOL. Oh man, that’s a good one.

    3. Profit is the motivation for all human activity, when you include values not denominated on dollars.

  10. Epstein: Would worker-owned cooperatives in your system be able to fire workers?

    Jacobin guy: Yes, by “progressive discipline.”

    Epstein: Downsizing be legal?

    Jacobin guy: Yes. But downsized people will fall into the arms of a welfare state until you can get back into the marketplace.

    Epstein: Spain, Portugal, Nordic nations – are they capitalist countries?

    Jacobin guy: Yes. Nordics have “doses of socialism within capitalism” thus build toward crisis. Left-wing of socialist movements trying to use the crisis to go beyond capitalism while the right goes backwards. Road to socialism goes through social democracy. Cites Germany and U. S.

    1. Jacobin guy: Socialist society would have bedrock of individual rights, eg, freedom of speech, but no right to employ people in wage labor. Mitigate hierarchy and exploitation. Some hierarchy needed: eg, Parent/child, but under democracy, free to fundraise…

      Epstein: You’d allow crowdfunding?

      Jacobin guy: Yes, as long as it doesn’t create an enterprise which employs wage labor.

      Epstein: You’re an enemy of freedom!

      Jacobin guy: Analogy of slavery

      Epstein: How would you enforce your rules – imprisonment?

      (colloquy – Epstein gets mad)

  11. Audience member 1 (Mark Staussen): Comment on John Mackie (sp?)’s *Conscious Capitalism*

    Jacobin guy: Different ways to organize capitalist workplaces, but he objects to private ownership by individuals and reliance on exploitation. Not endorsing literal labor theory of value but it’s a good framework.

  12. It’s not quite 2/3 over, but I think I’ll stop there.

  13. I watched the whole thing. It was better than I expected. The question I always have is “what is stopping workers from organizing, raising their own capital, and starting their own co-operatives today?” Nothing. In fact, REI is one such hugely successful enterprise.

    It seems that Bhaskar’s answer is that worker-owned coops are today not competitive with privately owned business. He doesn’t answer why that would be the case. But let us assume that is true (it is not). That means you would have to outlaw wage employment for him to get his worker-owned coop paradise. But this would be a huge violation of freedom. The truth is, most business have wage employees because most people do not want to take on the risk of being a business owner. And that is not likely to change in the future.

  14. If Bhaskar Sunkara like socialism so much, let him move to Venezuela or Cuba and see how much he really likes it.

  15. From the parts I saw, Epstein actually followed my advice (probably by accident) and researched Jacobin dude’s articles, then said how the wonderful worker-cooperative stuff could be done under capitalism without suppressing property rights.

    Then used Jacobin guy’s paeans to freedom against him, showing how a government allocation of resources would provide increased opportunities to screw minorities.

    Jacobin guy rightly complained that it would be an uphill battle to defend the proposition as stated – unlike the last time, the proposition didn’t give “capitalists” the affirmative to show the wonders of their system versus a socialist going on about capitalist abuses – the socialist had the burden of showing his system was superior, and after his pie-in-the-sky rhetoric about rights of the people and workers cooperatives, Epstein brought him down to earth with a thud, making the socialist defend state-owned banks, government control of non-personal property, and a ban on wage labor.

    In an audience of NY hipsters with vague prog sympathies, Epstein seems to have picked the right notes to play, and Jacobin guy picked the wrong not when he talked about state-run central banks.

    1. picked the wrong *note*

    2. “Wait a minute, dude, I just want to wear flowers in my hear, eat granola, and be holistic and compassionate and stuff. And a job. That would be nice too. But this guy is talking about a central bank?”

    3. …then said how the wonderful worker-cooperative stuff could be done under capitalism without suppressing property rights.

      Yeah, I’m pretty much certain all socialists (and all their flavors) understand that. They know damn well that under capitalism any group can get together, buy some land, live on it organised as they wish, producing goods and sharing their resources as they see fit. From each according to his need… yada, yada yada, till their heart’s content, without interference, free to enjoy their ideology, and their poverty.

      But that’s not the point of *political* socialism, is it? It’s not enough that they are free under capitalism to pursue it, they require *you* to do likewise. You can’t be allowed to do otherwise. Get to the nub of that, and you get to all that matters.

  16. Excellent debate, old guy gives young guy a rhetorical shellacking.

  17. I only came for the comments.

    Frankly, I expected more spite. Still, the day is young.

  18. “Epstein, arguing the affirmative, prevailed by convincing about 11 percent of audience members to change their minds.”

    Epstein argued the affirmative, and a guy from Jacobin argued the negative? I would have thought they would be the other way around.

  19. I could only stand for about 5 minutes of each debater. Two things I learned:

    1. Never let an ex-leftist like Epstein argue for capitalism. They never really understand liberty and end up looking stupid. Democracy is an unmitigated evil and since Epstein doesn’t know that, he killed his own case.

    2. Dave Smith is not funny. He has crap material, terrible comic timing and doesn’t know his audience.

    In fairness it’s possible that the hour of the debate that I didn’t hear was better but I doubt it. However, that was the third time I heard Dave Smith and he’s only gotten worse. He’s funny when interviewed but awful in standup.

  20. So if Sunkara doesn’t want us working for a wage, what would we work for? Basic needs? Who decides that? Ridiculous.

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