Is Socialism Preferable To Capitalism? A Soho Forum Debate

Richard D. Wolff squares off against Gene Epstein on which system better promotes freedom, equality, and prosperity.


Socialism is preferable to capitalism as an economic system that promotes freedom, equality, and prosperity.

That was the proposition debated on November 5 in New York City at The Soho Forum, the monthly debate series sponsored by Reason. Arguing in favor of the proposition was Richard D. Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts and author, most recently, of Understanding Marxism. Arguing against the resolution was Gene Epstein, the co-founder and director of The Soho Forum and the former economics editor of Barron's. Reason's Nick Gillespie served as moderator.

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. It was a packed house, with about 450 people in attendance. The pre-debate vote found that 25 percent of the audience agreed that socialism was preferable to capitalism; 49.5 percent thought that capitalism was the better system; and 25.5 precent were undecided. Despite a technical problem at the event itself, we were able to recover the final vote totals, which saw support for socialism drop by half a percentage point and support for capitalism increase to 71 percent.

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Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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  1. Color me impressed with the outcome in the heart of new york.

  2. Seems almost self-evident, even given whatever muddied definitions of “socialism” and “capitalism” anyone has, even using whatever definitions socialists themselves can come up with: capitalism might have lifted billions out of poverty, but we all know socialist states can’t invent squat; it was those same capitalists who made possible all the weapons used by socialists to murder 100 million people in the 20th century.

    Death to capitalists!

    1. Wish I could credit the comment:
      Capitalism can do just fine without communism.
      Communism cannot exist without capitalism.

      1. I must have heard that at some point, and changed it to “Individualism can simulate socialism using contracts. Socialism cannot tolerate individualism, let alone simulate it.”

      2. I like the way you put it, referring to socialism as communism, in that they are one in the same, but communism is a more denigrating moniker.

  3. That this is even debatable in the wake of 20th century history is… mind-boggling.

    1. Notice that it took a university professor to be on the side of socialism. Academia is way too insular for its own good.

    2. Yeah, it’s shocking. Or would be if it weren’t so common.

      Argue about the merits of a welfare state feeding on a capitalist system, fine. But fucking socialism?

    3. As a wise man once said, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”

  4. As Koch / Reason libertarians, we prioritize #ImmigrationAboveAll. And in the US’s current political alignment, it tends to be socialists like AOC — rather than capitalists like Rand Paul — who are our allies on issues like #AbolishICE and #AbolishConcentrationCamps.

    Therefore the conclusion is that open borders socialism is preferable to white nationalist capitalism.

    1. I reject your premise. As a libertarian I prioritize #LibertyAboveAll. Maybe you’re in the wrong place?

      1. It’s not a real person. It’s some dope who thinks it’s funny to say that libertarianism is the opposite of what it is.

        1. There are people here who will fight you if you call OBL a dope.

          1. Well, good thing they don’t know where I am, I guess.

    2. Capitalism is not a “system”. What we have in the US is capitalism, but not as a system, but rather as the lack of system imposed on us. That does NOT negate the presence of anti-capitalist shit like cronyism and corporatism and nativism.

      It’s the socialists who insist on calling capitalism a “system”.

      1. It’s easy to argue that markets are like gravity — they always exist, no matter how much a State distorts them. Same with capital — always needed for new factories, new stores, etc. It’s just a question of what form that capital takes.

        “Free market” is a bit better, but since 100% free markets seldom exist for any meaningful market, it is also misleading.

        Maybe “stateless market”. I have no good ideas on the matter.

        1. “Property rights”

          1. Yes, including self — self-ownership, or as I called it before I read about — self-control: the right, and duty, to control self and property.

            A lot of people get around that by accepting property rights for clothes, toothbrushes, etc — but not for housing, transportation, tools, or much of anything. I sometimes think of them as “possession rights” — you own whatever you are holding or wearing.

      2. I don’t know about that. Private land systems had to be developed and are a key component to “capitalism”. Certainly a less structured system but there is a structure there with courts and records to keep.

        1. Capitalism as a “system” is really the culmination of what people naturally do with negative rights. Markets exist because we have property rights, not the other way around.

          Socialism is really a collection of positive rights that the government guarantees by force.

          1. Markets exist even without property rights (or without any enforcement of property rights anyway). Markets exist as long as people can hold onto stuff long enough to trade with another person. No political/economic system can ever stop that.

            1. Yeah, “hold[ing] onto stuff” is what I meant by property rights. So long as some entity like the government can’t immediately snatch up the fruits of your labor, markets will exist.

              And you’re correct. Even in the most totalitarian regimes/systems in history there has always been some level of “black” market. But that could hardly be described as Capitalist.

              1. I would call the black market capitalist. It doesn’t enjoy government protection of property rights nor government enforcement of contracts. People have to do that themselves. That doesn’t mean it isn’t capitalism.

      3. This is an important point that most people don’t seem to get very well. It’s like they can’t imagine society not ordered primarily trough government force. There is a big difference between a government imposed economic system like socialism and what just happens when people are left mostly free to do business as they will.
        But I’d rather say that the free market is not a system. Capitalism sort of is, but it’s a system that comes about mostly organically without being designed or imposed.
        I’m not attached to this way of describing it, but it seems like there is some nuance to be found in there.

        1. Hayek said it is a product of human action, not human design.

          1. That’s a nice way to put it.

        2. “Capitalism sort of is, but it’s a system that comes about mostly organically without being designed or imposed.”

          I disagree with this. It took 10,000 years for humanity to transition from “Whomever has the biggest army of big sticks owns you and everything you produce” to “You own yourself and what you produce”.

          Capitalism IS a novel invention. Prior to that, it was just assumed that the King (or whatever you called the local strong man) had claim on every transaction in his fiefdom.

        3. I would disagree somewhat. And so would Karl Polanyi who wrote The Great Transformation in 1944. Markets didn’t just ‘happen’.

          I still prefer the default assumptions of a Hayek. But a Polanyi is far better history and better at explaining reactions when things seem to go wrong.

          1. Markets DID ‘just happen’.

            That’s a simple evolutionary fact.

            Markets ‘just happen’ even today. Because it’s one of the ways many animals work.

            1. Polanyi is not talking about mere acts of pricing and exchange. He is talking about a market society – where things that weren’t priced before become priced now. Where stuff that was once paid in kind now becomes exclusively paid in cash. That doesn’t just happen and if you don’t understand how that came about and what its impact was/is then you are clueless about why people will resist that and what they may well turn to to replace it.

          2. You and Overt have some points, I think. I’d still say markets just happen. Even pre-capitalism, people exchanged goods in a more or less free market. I’m sure that’s been true for as long as people have specialized in particular work, if not longer.
            But I could perhaps be convinced that something else had to happen for capitalism as we know it today to come about.

            1. Maybe you could say that capitalism is what just happens in a more or less liberal society with some form of more or less stable money.
              I don’t know. Interesting to think about.

  5. Capitalism: work long hours for little pay and its yours
    socialism: work long hours at the end of whip or else and maybe they will let you eat

    1. Or work reasonable hours for fair pay. We are not all victims.

  6. Socialism requires the initiatory use of force therefore it’s incapable of promoting freedom.

    1. Certainly there is no initiation of force in all of the anarch-capitalist states that exist on planet earth.

      1. As a necessary requirement?

    2. There is anarcho-socialism, but it’s entirely theoretical. Defined mostly by the intended end results. “There will be no property” is an ends not a means. Which leaves the means open. Thus, Chomsky can claim to be an anarchist while espousing statist policies.

      HOWEVER, there have been actual bona fide anarchist socialist societies. Several US communes for example. The longest lived of which was the Amana Colony which was socialist in every definition. But entirely voluntary. Granted, it existed within the confines of state, but within it’s domain it was voluntary anarchist socialism. It finally ended because FDR ended because it didn’t fit into his New Deal plans.

      1. It also existed within a market-based system; it would not exist without it.

  7. I wonder how many times Wolff said, “That wasn’t real socialism.”

    1. Zero actually.

      Course you would know that if you had actually listened to the podcast before you made an assertion about what it contained.

      1. Would you listen to a debate between Hitler and Stalin?

        I wouldn’t listen to any debate involving a statist, especially a collectivist, except for entertainment.

        1. And that is why you are as uninformed on those topics as a monkey.

          1. You don’t have a clue as to how informed I am on anything, other than not wanting to listen to some damned socialist debate how he’ll enslave me.

            Fuck off, slaver.

        2. Yeah, sure. I want to know what people I disagree with actually think rather than relying on my own assumptions and biases.

          1. The quality of socialist thought today is illustrated by calling Scandinavia socialist but not Venezuela or North Korea, the Green New Deal, New Monetary Theory, and Lizzie and Bernie not understanding “bankruptcy”.

            Why would I listen to more of that shit? I already know their thinking is bankrupt.

            1. How do you know that if you don’t listen to anyone who makes any of those claims? If you don’t try to understand why people think what they do (and I mean smarter people actually trying to make good arguments, not politicians) you just have a caricature of what you are trying to fight and I don’t think that’s useful.
              Of course, you should do what you want. I don’t think you’re a bad person for not wanting to hear about it. But that’s why I’m interested. I want to argue against what they actually claim. And you don’t know what that is if you don’t listen.

              1. What makes you think I need to listen to something more than once or twice? Every Marxist is a slaver who knows more than I do about what I want and what’s good for me. How many times do I have to listen to him to get your blessing to not listen again?

                Who the fuck are you, other than a damn slaver?

                1. Relax, buddy. You don’t have to do anything.

                  1. I’m not your buddy, pal.

            2. Why would you listen to it? Because the guy’s argument didn’t include one damn bit of those strawmen in your comment. He was talking about ‘workplace democracy’ as the ‘new’ focus of Marxism. You’re yapping about who knows what.

              And that inability/disinterest to actually comprehend his argument – or deal with the actual issues of a particular audience – is why people like him will convert milennials/z’s while boomers yapping about capitalism will get the ‘ok boomer’ response from them.

              1. I have heard variations on “workplace democracy” over and over, and don’t need more. Marx was a moron who couldn’t get the most basic facts right, and Marx followers murdered, what 80 million people? What could they possibly say that is new or worth listening to?

                Slavers are slavers, no matter how they dress up their language.

                  1. JFree
                    November.8.2019 at 6:04 pm
                    “Ok boomer”

                    Fuck off, slaver.

              2. He was talking about ‘workplace democracy’ as the ‘new’ focus of Marxism.

                He was making up yet another pleasant facade to hide the horror of socialism behind.

                The beautiful lie is the thing that Marxism relies on.

                1. So is the lie that ‘everyone in the middle class is now rich’

                  The world is full of lies. And ALL ideologies have the tendency of falling into the trap of believing the lies they themselves tell.

                  1. By most reasonable definitions, they all ARE rich.

                    A shit 20 something thousand dollar a year employee has a FAR better life than most upper middle class people did even 100 or so years ago. More food, more conveniences, etc.

                    The people most Americans look on as being “poor-ish” have a higher standard of living than middle class Europeans too, mainly because of our slightly more free market system and lower taxes.

                    I don’t think everybody with a job is livin’ large… But by any reasonable standards they’re doing fine. The problem with people is that we perpetually judge ourselves against our peers instead of by objective standards.

                    I, for instance, don’t knee jerk think of myself as being too baller… Yet I make more money than almost anybody in the country, and have a pretty damn solid lifestyle. This is mainly because I live in a hyper expensive/wealthy area, so I feel “middle of the road,” even though I’m objectively pretty well to do by objective measures.

                  2. JFree
                    November.9.2019 at 10:58 am
                    “So is the lie that ‘everyone in the middle class is now rich’”
                    No, the *fact* is that most everyone in the middle class is very well off, indeed.

                    “The world is full of lies.”
                    Possibly, but you’d be the last one to decide what is true or false.

                  3. Yeah, everything is so terrible and unfair, j.

                    That’s a big part of the ideology that leads to socialism. Pass.

      2. He did say essentially “we have learned from our mistakes so you must give us another chance”.

        1. And that most of the communist countries were actually state capitalism.

        2. “I’ve changed, baby, really I have!”

      3. Course you would know that if you had actually listened to the podcast before you made an assertion about what it contained.

        In the first place, I didn’t make an assertion about what the podcast contains.

        And in the second place, I’m at work and can be only so brazen about how I waste time.

      4. He did say “I wonder”. Why so defensive?

    2. Wasn’t there just a public commenter asserting Venezuela isn’t Socialism the Nordic countries are?

      I bring it up because it’s a common theme but it’s completely false. When US Socialists reference Socialism they claim to mean Sweden and Denmark rather than Venezuela. The difference between these is that Sweden and Denmark have generous welfare provisions but pay for it with unregulated economies. Venezuela of course has oppressive regulation as well as outright government ownership.

      The conflict is that the US Socialist priority is exactly the oppressive regulatory framework Sweden and Denmark have rejected and Venezuela adopted. So while our Socialists rhetorically choose Sweden (and maybe they’re even stupid enough to believe it) their stated priorities specifically target us to Venezuela.

      1. Except American socialists were touting Venezuela as a model at least until it went pear shaped.

        1. In 2013 Salon actually wrote the below article. I’m not kidding.

          1. From the article:
            “…No, Chavez became the bugaboo of American politics because his full-throated advocacy of socialism and redistributionism at once represented a fundamental critique of neoliberal economics, and also delivered some indisputably positive results…”

            Judt in “Post War” has it that East Germany’s primary export prior to collapse was ‘bogus statistics’; Venezuela may well have taken over the leadership in such production.

  8. In the words of one LP convention keynoter: “Liberty Works. And Liberty is Right.”

  9. Capitalism is the system where man exploits man. Socialism is the opposite.

    1. But in capitalism, men also cooperate. In socialism it’s all exploitation.

    2. Under capitalism, the rich become powerful. Under socialism, the powerful become rich.

      1. Under capitalism, the rich become powerful. Under socialism, the powerful become rich.

        Another one!

    3. Capitalism is the system where man exploits man. Socialism is the opposite.

      Look, kids –a Marxist ‘joke’!

  10. only people w/valid answer to the question are the oppressed.

  11. In the 21st century, libertarians are going to have make common cause with the globalists of all parties

    Reason has made their choice.

  12. I can’t believe – as echoed elsewhere – this is even a topic that warrants a debate.

    Night of the Living Dead is a biopic on socialism.


  13. I believe Liberty Prime can inform us of the preferable alternatives to communism.

  14. Despite a technical problem at the event itself, we were able to recover the final vote totals, which saw support for socialism drop by half a percentage point and support for capitalism increase to 71 percent.

    So facts and reason do almost nothing to dissuade people, almost all gains come from the undecided. This has significant implications for persuasion which is why the left moved to aggressively to control education and eliminate competing opinions. This is well known.

    But it also means we shouldn’t worry overmuch about sugarcoating the truth. You have no chance of convincing left wingers of anything so recognize they aren’t your targets. The goal is to help the audience understand all the stupid shit socialists ( must believe for their plans to work. The more brutal the better.

  15. Gene stomped all over the red menace!

  16. So In a socialist workplace there will not be anyone telling the workers what tasks they need to do, or how to do them? Also, the business cycle will be eliminated under his brand of socialism, somehow.

    Basically, you get a lot of griping about how a capitalistic economy operates and little specifics on how socialism is an improvement on it other than as a set of aspirational goals.

  17. The idea that Marxism is untaught in the American academy seems a laugher.

    On the other hand, complaining that Marxism gets short shrift in economics is kind of like saying the Ptolemaic model of the universe is untaught in astrophysics or Lysenkoism is ignored in biology.

    1. Depends on how you look at it. Marx is baked into a lot of the philosophical developments of the late 20th century, but Marx himself is no longer studied except as history.

  18. Learn some economics, Bhaskar

  19. “Is Socialism Preferable To Capitalism? A Soho Forum Debate”

    ONLY possible if it is not a state-mandated market like free markets.
    An extremely important point that many people and libertarians and Reason overlook – unless they define socialism as inherently state-mandated (which they have not)

  20. As Epstein pointed out, a true capitalist system has no problem allowing worker-owned cooperative businesses to operate. If people come together and start one, and it succeeds in the market, more power to it. But a true socialist system would not allow a capitalist business to exist in the first place. You’d be arrested for even trying.

    That’s all I need to know to decide which system is better.

  21. I kept finding Prof. Wolff’s argument incoherent. He asks us to stop talking about if the government is bad or good but then concedes the point, with the Corbyn example, that there will be government action in his “future socialist” vision.

    1. Yeah, that really bothered me and struck me as incredibly naive. He wondered why people are so obsessed with government power, whether for good or ill. Simple: government had a monopoly on violence! If you take someone and lock them up or kill them, that is kidnapping or murder. If the government does that, it’s called justice and protecting the public. That right there ends any argument about whether or not the government is the most powerful entity in any situation.

    2. Capitalism is good for promoting freedom and prosperity for the greatest number of people. Where communism/socialism excels is in promoting equality for the greatest number of people. Of course, that means the public is equally miserable and the discrepancy between the proles and elites is even more stark than in capitalism.
      The easiest response to why socialism doesn’t work is “human nature.” It’s sad that so many are unobservant and incapable of making the connection

  22. Bernie’s 2016 campaign seems to have unearthed something unnoticed by science until now: Resistium 299
    Resistium $2.99: Caustic in small quantities, evil in large concentrations, and forms an exceptionally dense matrix – highly reactive and moderately unstable if exposed to truth. Of note, 299 does not represent any measure of mass, but open market value [regardless of quantity offered or exchange rates] as they are cheap bastards. Special characteristics: has no measurable qualities in single isotope form, but becomes negatively charged once introduced to another.

  23. “Is black preferable to white?” is a similarly ambiguous question.

    As similarly, each has benefits and both are useful.

    Our economy is an entirely man made fiction. There is no rational reason to exclude elements, capitalist or socialist, from the design of a better economy.

    No more reason than excluding all black or all white from a black and white picture.

    1. Rob Misek
      November.9.2019 at 5:48 am
      “Is black preferable to white?” is a similarly ambiguous question.”
      It’s the jooze, right Misek?

      “Our economy is an entirely man made fiction.”
      You are full of shit. Yes, it is ‘man-made’. No, it is not ‘fiction’.

      “There is no rational reason to exclude elements, capitalist or socialist, from the design of a better economy.”
      As a fucking idiot, you don’ understand that a successful economy cannot be “designed”.
      Fuck off and die where scummy bigots do.

      1. You’re a troll and a bigot.

    2. Socialism requires the initiatory use of force which is immoral and should absolutely be excluded from the design of a better economy.

      1. What initial force are you talking about? Regulation?

        Every system is regulated.

  24. You can vote your way into Socialism — you have to fight your way back OUT.

    1. “You can vote your way into Socialism” — Not if the Supreme Court and Politicians were honoring their oath of office….. Which they haven’t done since FDR stuffed the courts with liberals (liars, manipulators, cherry-picking deceptionists). “We the People”‘s Supreme Law has become a laughing point on capitol hill along with a whole slew of “progressives” out to prove that “We the People” have absolutely no Law over our government what-so-ever.

  25. It’s kind of like debating whether it’s more fun to have sex with a beautiful woman or to cut off your penis.

  26. In the modern era, capitalism always exists with socialism. If you drive on a public road, flush your toilet, or enjoy poison-free foods, you are living with socialism. The questions for us and future generations are, how much socialism, and should the socialism benefit the poor as much as the rich.

    1. The question for us and future generations —

      1) Please read the Constitution — The more LOCAL the government the more “socialist” it can be (within the Bill of Rights limits). It’s not a One-Size fits all equation and unless its a National (Federal being collective of States) vs A Foreign Nation there is ZERO need for the federal government to be involved (As demonstrated by the examples you gave which are of LOCAL governments (Except the FDA which helps create the “healthcare crisis”).

      See the enumerated powers for what the Federal Government is suppose to be doing.

      2) Acknowledge that there’s a huge difference (as in practically opposites) between defensively protecting individuals from crimes perpetrated against them by others and offensively trying to possess them and everything they do and are.

      Realize that the [WE] foundation destroys any concept of Individuality. It destroys the concept of Responsibility, destroys the concept of Rights, destroys the concept of Property and Ownership. It is selling your soul to the [WE] foundation so you don’t own you; [WE] own you. Communism is a “crime” against Individuals and a way to !!!-justify by dismissal-!!! of their very existence the theft, cheating and crime against any/all individuals.

      The [WE] foundation is mob control (free-willy Democracy). Two coyotes ([WE]) voting to eat the sheep (Individual) for dinner. Their dinner always has to be at the sacrifice of another because the base-line is POWER=WEALTH. The glaring problem with this (not only being criminal) is there’s only so many sheep to go around and sheep probably won’t reproduce just to feed the coyotes their dinner (finite supply).

      In contrast; Individuals who haven’t sold their soul to the [WE] foundation believe that they actually own themselves. They believe in ownership, responsibility and humane rights. They believe they own their workings and creations and that by offering their !!!- INDIVIDUAL VALUE -!!! to society is how real WEALTH is generated on a massive (non finite) scale. Your wealth is a reflection of how much you’ve benefited others.

  27. The notion of “true” capitalism or socialism is a straw man, designed to be discredited.

    The closest example of true capitalism can be seen in the movie “the gangs of New York”. Without government regulation, might will alway make right.

    Similarly the movie 1984 depicts “true socialism”, where your every action is regulated.

    I suggest that civilized people want neither in entirety, and prefer elements of both.

    1. The accepted meaning of capitalism IS NOT anarchism. Stop pretending there’s absolutely no difference between criminal law (defensive) and entitlement law (offensive).

  28. That’s a good summary of the craziest right-wing delusions … and, of course, the psychopathic lie that democratic socialism equates to Stalin and Lenin, Pol Pot., China’s Cultural Revolution.

    None of that is as crazy as believing Trump is NOT a lying sack of shit, on who initiated the assaults and murder in Charlottesville.

    Just and gullible and manipulated as Bernie’s and Elizabeth’s bots.
    Because: Right – Left = Zero.

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