Economics

Capitalism vs. Socialism: A Soho Forum Debate

Richard Wolff, "America’s most prominent Marxist economist," debates former Barron's economics editor Gene Epstein on which economic system best promotes, freedom, equality, and prosperity.

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

That proposition was the subject of a November 5, 2019, debate hosted by the Soho Forum, a monthly debate series sponsored by Reason. Arguing in favor of the resolution was Richard D. Wolff, an economist at the University of Massachusetts and the author, most recently, of Understanding Marxism. Taking the other side was former Barron's economics editor Gene Epstein, who is also the Soho Forum's co-founder and director. 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; 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 picked capitalism as the better system, and 25.5 percent were undecided. Despite a technical problem at the event itself, the Soho Forum was 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.

Produced by John Osterhoudt
Photo Credit: Brett Raney

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    1. Can I just say that I love Gene Epstein? He is such a lovable, good-spirited, optimistic man. I just wanna give him a hug.

      The problem with Richard’s main point is that nobody is stopping workers from forming a workers’ coop. In fact, there are some wonderful coops out there already. REI has been in operation since 1938 and has an annual revenue of $2.5 billion. There are also many successful food coops out there. And all credit unions are coops. The fact is, most workers are not interested in ownership. They just want to be employees. Being an owner means taking on extra responsibility, risk, and stress. Most people don’t want that.

      1. Poor chippers. No citations for his claims.

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    2. I found the premise idiotic too. On the one hand there’s an economic philosophy that has polluted the entire planet and failed to provide for most of the people living on it. On the other side are people who think that when you go to work you should share in the profits of such work. I mean, really, one side is being completely ridiculous.

  1. If you want to get that “fuck it, I give up” feeling, just to to the capitalism vs socialism subreddit.

    1. Most of reddit is a shitshow. The only good subreddits are for specialist interests that have nothing to do with politics or the culture war.

      1. animals, memes, and people hurting themselves. It is, after all, a safe space for basement dwellers

  2. Wolff is amazingly bitter and dripping with contempt, which like contributed to the result of the debate. He is also fetishizing democratic decision making as an end in itself rather than a protection from forces which are difficult to disentangle yourself from. He brings up as one of his main criticisms of capitalism as the business cycle without explaining how his socialism would eliminate it.

    1. fetishizing democratic decision making

      This seems to be a core tenet of modern socialist thought. Democratic decision is given as a good, without any justification. Something is bad simply because it is “undemocratic.” I think the issue is that these people have marinated in their bubble for so long that they never bother to justify underlying assumptions.

      1. They say that, right up until they lose an election. Then it is all about the evils of Democratic rule and “populism”. Everything they say is a lie told to further their pursuit of power.

        1. Well, that’s true. Compare what’s going on in Bolivia vs. Chile. In Chile, a minority of angry leftists are trying to destroy the constitution; the leftists cheer on “democracy” and power to the people. In Bolivia, angry crowds pushed Morales, the socialist dictator, to resign after he committed electoral fraud and had the supreme court declare term limits a violation of his human rights. The response from the left? Coup!!!!!!!!! FASCISM!!!

        2. “Democracy is like a trolley — when you reach your stop, you get off.”

          I think Erdogan said that.

        3. Like “What’s the Matter With Kansas” book, they are shocked when the electorate votes contrary to what their theories of class and identity politics say it should and they construct elaborate conspiracy theories about what confounded their beautiful expectations of what the result should be. From “false consciousness” to “institutional racism” to foreign interference etc.

          1. Like “What’s the Matter With Kansas” book, they are shocked when the electorate votes contrary to what their theories of class and identity politics say it should and they construct elaborate conspiracy theories about what confounded their beautiful expectations of what the result should be.

            This of course runs both ways….

            1. Thank you for being the voice of the banal and obvious.

          2. Hurray! I get to say this… nobody— outside of 538 people get to actually vote for the POTUS. Why would you say the election of Trump is legitimized by a democratic vote? Dear Leader didn’t receive a plurality or votes, Orr’s this? You think this country is a democracy? How cute.

            1. @LeaveTrumpAloneLibertarian Yeah we’re not a “Democracy” we aren’t a tyranny of the majority, we’re a representative republic, so go fuck yourself leftard.

        4. When they get their way it’s “The Will of the People.”

          When they don’t then “The Will of the People” was thwarted by outside force. Like Russians on Facebook.

          And as soon as they get their way it’s “settled.” But never before.

    2. He brings up as one of his main criticisms of capitalism as the business cycle without explaining how his socialism would eliminate it.

      Well, if the economy sucks all the time, you don’t really have a cycle now, do you?

  3. Socialism and communism are just degrees of the same thing. Socialists try and pretend there is a qualitative difference but there is not.

    Both systems rely on the assumption that people can somehow be made to work as hard for the collective good as they will for themselves and can be trusted or deterred from gaming the system. Whenever you hear a socialist talking about taking from the rich, the unspoken assumption is that the rich will give up that money and continue to do the things that produced it even though they won’t see the benefits of it.

    This assumption is of course totally counter to human nature. People will not work for the collective like they will for themselves. So socialist systems either realize that and give up and go back to capitalism or become more and more totalitarian as they try to force people to do something which it is not their nature to do. Why should someone take a hard job or any job at all if they are going to be treated the same way as someone who doesn’t? They won’t, unless you put a gun to their head and declare it a crime to refuse to work, which every communist country does.

    If you ever want to screw with a socialist point out that a slave plantation is a great example of a socialist community. They were basically self sufficient and all of the workers were treated equally and didn’t have to worry about healthcare or shelter or food since it was all provided by the master. Sure, the slave owners lived a lot better than the slaves, but the leaders of nations always do. So to the extent the plantations were guilty of that sin, they were no more guilty of it than every other socialist society that has ever existed.

    1. Socialism and communism are just degrees of the same thing. Socialists try and pretend there is a qualitative difference but there is not.

      Exactly. Really, when we are talking about the economics at least, it’s all just different shades of central planning, which is a failure by itself. It doesn’t matter if it’s “democratic central planning” or some other name. It’s still central planning. It still relies on an angelic population and a leadership that is not only angelic but also omniscient.

      If you ever want to screw with a socialist point out that a slave plantation is a great example of a socialist community.

      this is a great analogy, right down to the inability to escape.

    2. They are both forms of collectivism, and when imposed by force, are tyrannical.

      1. If not imposed by force then they lose their essential nature. Then it’s just a commune or cooperative or whatever. Virtually nobody (ironically except socialists) has a problem with that.

        1. Communes always fail. Eventually, people get tired of working for the commune and either start taking more than their share or leave. They only last at all if there is some other factor like religion or family that motivates people to work for the collective in ways they are ordinarily not motivated.

          1. No disagreement that they always fail. I would never join one. But I also don’t really give a shit if other people are doing it, as long as they aren’t forcing anyone. I suspect most people share my disinterest.

          2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degania_Alef

            “Degania Alef (Hebrew: דְּגַנְיָה א’, D’ganya Alef) is a kibbutz in northern Israel. The permanent settlement was established in 1910, making it the earliest socialist Zionist farming commune in the Land of Israel. Its status as “the mother of all kibbutzim” is sometimes contested based on a later distinction made between the smaller kvutza, applying to Degania in its beginnings, and the larger kibbutz.”

            They don’t ALWAYS fail, but when they do succeed (or rather, fail to fail) , it is usually as a result of some other overriding principle their members adhere to, in that case, strong religious belief. That sort of thing is pretty scarce, and not applicable to society at large.

            1. That is what I said. They have to have religion or family or something that motivates people where they would normally not be motivated. And my understanding is that those Kabutzes have long stopped being real communes and are instead just capitalist communities, though I could be wrong.

              1. Capitalism is what happens when people have property, and trade. I suppose a commune could be capitalist as well. Share basic needs but respect comparative advantage at the same time. I dunno. I’m not going to find out.

                1. I was told this is an example of syndicalism and socialism really working.

                  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FaSinPat

                  It’s “worker owned” but they sell their tiles for money, pay employees money, and reinvest money in the company. So it may be an employee-owned enterprise, but that sure as hell sounds like capitalism to me.

                  1. I have a couple of anarcho-syndicalist friends. Every time they bring it up, I explain to them that in no way is it incompatible with capitalism. You will not find a single capitalist who somehow argues that it should be illegal or otherwise punished for workers to own their employer.

              2. There are certain small ones that adhere to a pretty strict definition of commune, but upon close examination, it’s fairly obvious they are in slow motion decline. I don’t think anyone has overcome the natural tendency of some of their population to seek better conditions and more personal freedom elsewhere. They try to do so through religion and sheer numbers, but looking at them when I was there, it didn’t seem to be working.

                The thing is, the communes aren’t self sufficient. The ones that admit that, and realize they live in the world, are thriving because or their association with capitalism. They themselves adhere to communist principles… until the milk leaves the communes and goes to market.

                The current terminology doesn’t really illuminate this relationship very well, and so we end up using descriptions that sort of apply, but not really.

                1. Good point. As long as any of them own a fucking pencil they aren’t a “true” commune. To do that they’d have to live like peasants in the Middle Ages. Self-sufficiency is just a fancy term for poverty. It’s all romantic and stuff until you live it.

          3. Communes can work just as tribal living worked, and how socialism works in a family setting. It works when everyone knows each other. When shirkers are identified and shamed. When people know and care about each other. But once it expands past that point it will always fail. That’s the appeal and impossibility of socialism on a grand scale.

            1. Yes. That is really all socialism is; an enlarged form of tribalism. Tribalism offers you the deal of the tribe taking care of you and giving you security in return for the fruits of any of your labors going to the tribe. Change tribe to government and you have socialism.

              1. But why can tribalism work and socialism not? It’s numbers. That’s all. Someone came up with some magical number where beyond it it is impossible for a group of people to all know one another. Less than that number and socialism can work. Exceed that number and it cannot.

                1. Tribalism only works when the dangers it faces make it the only choice. If we were living in a pre civilized society or in a civilized one that faced existential enemies, tribalism would be our only choice. Individualists don’t last very long when there are groups of people trying to kill them. So it is either hang together or hang separately.

                  This is why Armies are so socialist. they have to be. The environment in which they operate and the job they are expected to do makes any other form or organization impossible.

                  But tribalism or socialism is always grossly inefficient and unjust. The best that can be said for them is that under certain extreme conditions they are the only alternative. Sadly, people don’t like change and the people who benefit from tribalism often have a hard time letting it go when the circumstances that mandated it end and are forever trying to reintroduce it even after society stops being tribal.

                  1. The ability to trade with people in distant lands is a relatively new phenomenon for our species. We’re still hardwired for tribalism. We’re three steps out of the cave with a bunch of shiny toys.

                    1. I really believe that the thing that got the West out of tribalism is the nuclear family and the Church’s ending incest and cousin marriages. Everyone needs some measure of security. If you don’t have any security for when things go badly, the risk associated with freedom isn’t going to be worth it. Freedom gives you opportunity at the price of risk and uncertainty. What the nuclear family did was give people a sense of security so that they knew they would have someone to help them if things went wrong. But thanks to the Church ending incest and cousin marriages, that family was no longer so huge as to be a tribe. So people had the security of a tribe without the demands of it. This allowed them to appreciate and desire the opportunities that come with freedom.

                      The leftists today are so stupid they have forgotten it but the old leftists didn’t try and destroy the nuclear family for fun. They knew that as long as people had families to give them security, they would never give up their freedom in return for the security of the state. You destroy the family so people have to look to the state for security and return to a form of tribalism.

                    2. I’m inclined to agree with you.

                    3. Yes, as the Jesuits said, give me the boy until he is seven and I’ll give you the man.

                      (pederasty jokes in 1, 2,…)

              2. If you’re interested Russ Roberts (an economist) made that argument in a very compelling way. I’m not doing the research for you, but it should be easy to find if you want to.

          4. Wrong, John. Some communes succeed. There are some communes in Virginia near Charlottesville that have been going strong since the sixties. There is nothing inherently wrong or immoral about voluntary communes. What is wrong and immoral is trying to force someone to live in a commune against his or her will.

            1. I doubt they are full on equal communes. They likes are just coops and businesses.

              1. I don’t know what your personal requirements for a full-on commune are, but <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twin_Oaks_Community,_Virginia&quot; here it is.

                1. Sevo’ed the link. Try this.

    3. “Whenever you hear a socialist talking about taking from the rich, the unspoken assumption is that the rich will give up that money and continue to do the things that produced it even though they won’t see the benefits of it.”

      I’ve had that exact conversation in the past.

      They say “We’ll tax all income over a million dollars at one hundred percent! We’ll have all this wealth to share!”

      I say “Why the fuck would someone keep on working if the entirety of the fruits of their labor was to be confiscated from them?”

      Never got much of an answer.

      1. I get the impression that most socialists actually believe that wealth, like money, just kind of circulates around and is rearranged, but is never created. So that is not a problem to them; that just means the evil 1% won’t be taking as much.

        1. That is exactly true. Government creates nothing. It takes and it gives, but it produces nothing of value.

          Socialists see the economy in the same way. They absolutely cannot comprehend the idea of a pie that can grow. To them one man’s gain is another man’s loss. And with government that is indeed true. So when socialists see corporations getting rich, they assume someone was robbed. Because that’s what socialists do. They rob people.

      2. I’ve had that exact conversation in the past.

        And this doesn’t even get into the question/issue of what they do with their efforts past $1M. If the evil, greedy capitalists are believed to be as evil and greedy as they are portrayed as being, they’ll expend their efforts to make $1M and, at 1,000,000.01, they stop doing whatever they were doing and start trying to tear apart the system that’s collecting on the $0.01 and above. Their only other option is to kick back, spend their $1M and get labelled as evil, greedy, bourgeois capitalists for doing so.

    4. //So socialist systems either realize that and give up and go back to capitalism or become more and more totalitarian as they try to force people to do something which it is not their nature to do.//

      The problem is that the totalitarianism always comes first … and even the capitalism is based on forced labor and market manipulations. China is a perfect example.

    5. Socialism and communism are just degrees of the same thing. Socialists try and pretend there is a qualitative difference but there is not.

      Not only that, but socialism pretty much inevitably devolves into communism unless the system steps back from the abyss. They can either accept a dislocation violating the socialist premise or they go to communism.

  4. Socialism is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

  5. “Socialism vs. Capitalism — this time, it’s personal!”

  6. Can’t wait to listen to this one.

  7. This debate was made possible due to a generous donation from our corporate sponsors…

    1. Pretty sure it’s all donation driven.

      1. A generous donation from our corporate donors?

  8. What have we learned since the last time this was debated?

    How many centuries will it take to realize that there is nothing further to discuss?

  9. Professor Wolff sidestepped the question of enforcement in regards to initiating transfer of ownership to employees. Didn’t see that one coming.

  10. “Marxist economist”. Ha. There’s an oxymoron for ya.

  11. Watching this was a brutal experience. It was slightly less brutal than the recent similar intelligence squared “debate”, but I’d rather go down in a plane crash than sit though either again.

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  13. We have the closest thing to a controlled experiment to compare socialism with capitalism. Take two very similar societies, culturally, and capitalism wins buy a lot pretty much every time.
    South Korea vs North Korea
    West Germany vs East Germany
    Colombia vs Venezuela
    Hong Kong vs Macau region or mainland China as a whole
    Singapore vs Malaysia (which is not socialist, but not as capitalist as Singapore)
    Kuwait vs Iraq
    Thailand vs Laos
    Costa Rica vs Nicaragua
    Yugoslavia vs Bulgaria (before 1989)
    Etc etc etc

  14. In the coming 2020 election we are likely to hear the word “socialism” thrown around rather liberally by conservatives. Listening to Prof. Wolff I can see a rather big difference between what he is advocating and what candidates will be likely proposing. Perhaps as Pete Buttigieg says, “it doesn’t matter what we propose they will call us Socialist”. Hopefully people can see the real difference.

    1. Most Democrats aren’t socialist. They’re welfare-statist. Handouts and nationizations and shit, but not socialism. They want to give away free shit and raise taxes to pay for it, but don’t really want to toss out the market system completely. Except for Bernie. He is a socialist.

      1. If they want so much control of industries as to make private ownership of the company close to powerless, that’s still socialism, albeit a more subtle version. Madame Warren wants to tell companies who to put on their boards, for example.

        1. There are those in the opposite camp that seek to make the workers almost completely powerless. That is also not good and make socialism more attractive. Trick here is to blend the system of capitalism and socialism to get optimum performance of the economy. To provide incentives to perform, to keep capital moving in the economy and reduce uncertainties that result in anxiety and instability.

  15. This sets up a false dichotomy between capitalism and socialism, since we have a mixture of capitalism and socialism, and always will. Or, when your house is on fire, you could always call around to private fire control companies and get some quotes.

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  18. The only place socialism is popular is on college campuses. Anyone else see the hypocrisy of burdening working class students with ridiculous amounts of debt, while the administration and faculty are being paid handsomely salaries and the university isn’t paying taxes on their tuition revenue?

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