Bryan Caplan  

Capitalism vs. Socialism: General Thoughts on Bruenig

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Yesterday I critiqued Elizabeth Bruenig's opening statement point-by-point.  Today, I cover broader issues.

1. Bruenig builds her case on quotes from famous, pre-modern philosophers, interspersed with philosophical jargon.  She references virtually no facts from the last two hundred years.  When people who agree with me make arguments like this, I cringe.  How can anyone expect to figure out anything about the real world using this fruitless method?

2. What's the alternative?  (a) Focus on arguments, not authorities.  If an argument is good, it doesn't matter if Socrates is the source.  (b) Use jargon only if no simple English words capture your meaning.  If alienation isn't the same as "disliking your job," what is it?  (c) Build on the basic facts of the last two hundred years, especially the massive progress in living standards, science, tolerance, numeracy, and the horrors of totalitarianism.

3. I make a real effort not to tar my opponent with the mind-boggling crimes of actually existing socialism.  I'm puzzled that she made no such effort on her own behalf.  Does she not know?  Not care?  Deny or minimize the crimes?  Plenty of apologists for modern Venezuela, for example, would sound like Bruenig.  And victims of such regimes (quite of few of whom personally attend SfL) have good reason to picture blood, hunger, and chains when they hear such words.  Why not at least try to ease their fears?

4. Could victims of relatively capitalist regimes reasonably have an analogous reaction to me?  I think not.  I explicitly acknowledge that actually existing capitalist societies fall far short of the capitalism ideal.  Shame on them for tarnishing the reputation of my noble ideals!  In any case, almost all of the major crimes committed by relatively capitalist societies have been done in the names of nationalism, religion, and the like.  "Don't tread on anyone!" is not a slogan that unites war criminals.

5. Bruenig takes deep moral offense at seemingly unobjectionable actions, like a profit-seeking business hiring a worker.  This strange mindset has three distinct consequences.  (a) Focusing moral ire on harmless and beneficial behavior.  (b) Rationalizing coercion against the innocent people engaged in harmless and beneficial behavior.  (c) Distracting moral attention away from enormous horrors that I hoped we could jointly condemn. 

6. Example: Socialists observe standard employment conditions with outrage.  This in turn leads them to pass onerous regulations on innocent employers, with the textbook collateral damage for workers.  But it also prevents socialists from decrying immigration regulations coercively deny most of the world's workers their best route out of poverty.  Verily, there are those who would strain out a gnat, yet swallow a camel.

7. Toward the end of the debate, Bruenig asked me about initial property acquisition.  How does someone come to own what they own?  My live answer was subpar, so I'll try again.

There are many clear-cut cases of righteous acquisition; once we understand them, we can use them to analyze fuzzier cases.  What are some clear-cut cases?  An individual living alone on an island grows some food, builds a house, carves a sculpture, or quarries some rock.  If someone else shows up on the island, the new arrival seems morally obligated to respect that property.*  This isn't just "seems to me" or "seems to libertarians"; it's "seems to almost everyone other than self-conscious socialist philosophers."  Other clear-cut cases: If two people mutually agree to pool their resources and effort, then split the rewards according to an explicit formula - whether 50/50, 90/10, or whatever.  Or: I pay you ten pounds of food to build me a new hut. 

If you flatly insist that a person who builds a hut on a desert island isn't morally entitled to exclude a new arrival from sharing it, there's little left for me to say.  Otherwise, we can build on these straightforward cases to credibly justify everything from real estate development to malls to multinational corporations.  Doesn't any big economic project in the modern world ultimately contain at least a small dose of theft?  (I.e., doesn't every skyscraper have at least one stolen brick in it?)  Very likely, but in the real world, this rarely turns out to be a serious moral problem.

8. Other than the word "socialism," what part of Bruenig's opening statement would a full-blown alt-right reactionary disagree with?  I seem the same glorification of an objectively horrific past, the same lack of appreciation of the ubiquitous wonders of modernity, the same misanthropy toward the bulk of humanity, and the same antipathy toward vast outgroups.

9. While I think it's obscurantist to equate self-control with freedom, I agree with Bruenig that self-control is a great virtue.  This is especially if you want to be a meritorious thinker.  Look at someone like Philip Tetlock, author of Expert Political Judgment and Superforecasting, among many other works.  He's spent decades actually measuring the accuracy of political judgments - and identifying paths to greater accuracy.  If you read his Twitter feed, you'll see he practices what he preaches.  He doesn't just eschew hyperbole.  He constantly searches for evidence from any discipline that goes against his expectations.  And he states in advance what would count as error on his part.  I won't claim to be at Tetlock's level, but he's a big inspiration for my public betting - and my current record is 17 wins, 0 losses.  I didn't get that record with wishful thinking.

When I look at Bruenig's intellectual method, in contrast, I see a deep lack of intellectual self-control.  She's trying to understand the world by reading long-dead thinkers she admires.  But her admiration lives in a vacuum; she doesn't test the accuracy of her favorite thinkers against broad historical facts, much less search energetically for distasteful disconfirmation.  And as I said, her talk is packed with hyperbole.  It feels good, but it's almost always false - and a strong symptom of intellectual self-indulgence.

* Presumptively.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (26 to date)
IVV writes:
If you flatly insist that a person who builds a hut on a desert island isn't morally entitled to exclude a new arrival from sharing it, there's little left for me to say.

But... isn't that the argument a nativist makes for excluding immigrants? What keeps the two situations from being analogous?

AMW writes:

Nativists don't want want the right to keep immigrants out of their own houses - they already have that right. They want the right to keep immigrants out of other people's houses, even if those other people are happy to share, rent or sell them to immigrants. Same reasoning with employing them, selling them goods and services, etc.

VVI writes:

IVV - an immigrant has no right to native property by virtue of arrival (and by right, I'm thinking in legal realist terms) under capitalist rule of law principles. An immigrant can take property by conquest - which can be morally condemned as theft - or an immigrant can produce goods and trade for such property. Your critique has merit when you are in a socialist society where immigrants automatically become part of the beneficial ownership structure of collective property, and that is perhaps why socialists tend to not let anyone on or off the island in the first place.

robc writes:

I think the initial acquisition of property can be problematic, but the Georgist single* land tax solved that 150 years ago.

*single being the key word.

John Hayes writes:

Anyone who find themselves debating on socialism should listen to Stephen Hicks' lectures on the history of postmodernism and it's connection to socialism.

They're long, but if you're short on time, Part 2 stands alone well.

Part 1:

Part 2:

E. Harding writes:

"what part of Bruenig's opening statement would a full-blown alt-right reactionary disagree with?"
Lots, actually. The alt-right comes in many different flavors. Some are pro-socialist, but wouldn't agree with Bruenig's argument at all. I think only a small percentage would agree with her argument excluding the parts about socialism.

Daisy Alexandrovna writes:

Re point 8.: The link between the alt-right and socialists is that both groups are composed of vaguely intellectual people who resent that they are not part of a distinctly higher caste than minivan-driving accountants. Basically, they both long for the days when the clerisy ruled, whether through the Church or through the Central Committee.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

1) How does the state owning the property solve the property legacy problem?

2) Most property in capitalist societies isn't pre-existing real property. Most property is just the value of networks of cooperating individuals. Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates didn't trade rifles to a Native American tribe in order to get Amazon and Microsoft.

Weir writes:

How, Barack Obama asks, "could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was torn? How long might that take in this land of dollars?"

Sounding a lot like an alt-right reactionary, he continues: "Longer than it took a culture to unravel, I suspected. I tried to imagine the Indonesian workers who were now making their way to the sorts of factories that had once sat along the banks of the Calumet River, joining the ranks of wage labor to assemble the radios and sneakers that sold on Michigan Avenue. I imagined those same Indonesian workers ten, twenty years from now, when their factories would have closed down, a consequence of new technology or lower wages in some other part of the globe. And then the bitter discovery that their markets have vanished; that they no longer remember how to weave their own baskets or carve their own furniture or grow their own food; that even if they remember such craft, the forests that gave them wood are now owned by timber interests, the baskets they once wove have been replaced by more durable plastics. The very existence of the factories, the timber interests, the plastic manufacturer, will have rendered their culture obsolete; the values of hard work and individual initiative turn out to have depended on a system of belief that's been scrambled by migration and urbanization and imported TV reruns."

Bedarz Iliachi writes:
the new arrival seems morally obligated to respect that property.

Is that a moral axiom or a conclusion from some moral axiom that is left unspecified?

And what determines the extent of the property of the pioneer on the desert island? Can the pioneer claim the entire island for himself, merely by virtue of being the first on step on the land?

Suppose the pioneer justifies his expansive claim by the moral premise that just by walking on the land, he has mixed sufficient labor onto the land.
But is the newcomer morally obliged to follow this premise? The newcomer may well have more stringent notion of mixing the labor. What then?

Both of them claim to follow the general theory of property acquisition by mixing one's labor but the general theory does not specify how much labor needs to be mixed with what particular resource.

Bedarz Iliachi writes:


An immigrant can take property by conquest - which can be morally condemned as theft

Conquest and thefts are entirely different things. Conquest is glorified (by conquerors) or resented (by those conquered). Theft is merely despised. There are no statues of successful thieves.

There is no moral condemnation of Roman or Arab or Mongol or English conquest of their empires as theft. It is merely an abuse of language to conflate the two. Do we say that Pizzaro stole the Inca empire or that he conquered it.

Stuart writes:

I think Bryan misses the point about initial property acquisition. The intuition behind the question is "what about the property that was acquired unjustly?".

Using Bryan's example, if someone comes to the island and kills the person who made the hut and then passes the hut on to his kids, do they have a right to exclude the kids of the hutmaker?

James writes:


One bad solution that I'm sure Bruenig would reject is for the current occupant of the hut to take a position like "I will decide how this hut is to be used and who can come in, but I will make those decisions on behalf of society."

Another bad solution that Bruenig would probably like is for the government to sieze the hut and say "We will decide how this hut is to be used and who can come in, but we will make those decisions on behalf of society."

A realistic hybrid is for the current occupants, the heirs of the theif, to call themselves a government.

The issue was never sketchy titles to real estate. The real issue is that socialists want to exempt the state from the moral standards they would readily apply to persons outside of the state.

IVV writes:


That Obama quote is fascinating. If we lament the loss of a traditional Indonesian way of life, the position sounds like it comes from the left. If we lament the loss of a traditional rural American way of life, the position sounds like it comes from the right. But it's the identical phenomenon, suggesting the correct policy is something that should be applied equally in both cases.

maciano writes:

I don't want to troll, but on what intellectual ground do socialists deserve a fair hearing compared to people who think the moonlanding was a hoax or phlogiston to be a vuable chemical element? There is no proof that socialism can work as a system, even if you'd discount the human costs. There is a lot of evidence proving socialism to be an awful inhumane ideology.

I think academics should treat socialists much worse. Flat-earthers get ridiculed; Holocaust deniers get scorned; imperialists are considered backwards. Why do we cut socialists ANY slack? I think socialists have propagated so many bad ideas they deserve to be laughed at or at least ignored.

Seth writes:

How does a socialist entity come to own what it owns?

SW writes:

"What are some clear-cut cases? An individual living alone on an island grows some food, builds a house, carves a sculpture, or quarries some rock."

I love how this sounds so in sync with the labour theory of value.

I think you would be surprised how welcoming most socialists would be of this interpretation if it really had any resemblance to how property ownership originates.

Nathan Smith writes:

I'd like to serve as a mediator here. I think there's more to be said for Bruenig. There are even opportunities to appropriate her themes for the libertarian cause that are being missed. But here's an insight:

"Other than the word "socialism," what part of Bruenig's opening statement would a full-blown alt-right reactionary disagree with?"

Yes, that's what's so clever about Bruenig: she's borrowing from alt-right reactionaries to fuel her arguments for what she (very misleadingly) calls "socialism." And some of these alt-right, reactionary arguments are stronger than Bryan recognizes. See "Why Liberalism Failed" by Patrick Deneen. It's not a book I'd endorse-- far from it!-- but it's not a book that can be casually and contemptuously dismissed, either.

Guy in TN writes:

No one other than self-conscious anarcho-capitalists and libertarians believe that the authority of property should be absolute, and unencumbered by the burden of needing to serve a social good.

If you insist on justifying your property norms by claiming that "righteous acquisition" is that which corresponds to the general folk-wisdom of a populace, then let's investigate what people actually believe:

1. Every country in the world (most of them with at least some degree of democracy) has chosen to implement non-anarcho-capitalist and non-libertarian property norms, via taxes and regulations, which are intended to serve the public good. Even ancient Sumeria had taxes.

2. Even when given a direct democratic referendum on the matter, people often choose to decrease the sovereignty of property owners (e.g., voting for minimum wage increases), rather than to maintain the sovereignty of property.

3. When polled with the question "What bothers you most about taxes", 57% of Americans most disliked that the "wealthy don't pay their fair share", and 11% chose "the amount you pay" (Pew Research, conducted Dec. 2011). This is quite unusual behavior from people, if their natural intuition are that property is absolute, and "violations" of property are theft.

Now, I personally don't justify my theories of property on folk-wisdom. But if I did, I would be *quite hesitant* to hand-wave away non-anarcho-capitalist property norms as being out of sync with human intuition, while insisting that MY theory (that was developed in the mid-20th century, and has never been implemented by any historical civilization) is the one that is definitely in sync with traditional human behavior.

Mark Z writes:

The question of property origination is an interesting intellectual question, but is of little practical political significance. Contrary to the claim made or assumed by many on the left that the injustice of theft or conquest reverberates or compounds over time, and the state is either needed or justified in remedying this, Coase theorem and regression toward the mean lead almost certainly cause the injustice of immoral property origination to diminish rapidly over time.

For example, take the property of the descendant of a thief: if we divide his property into that attributable to 1) his inheritance of illicitly obtained property and 2) that attributable to his own - or his ancestors' - labor, the fraction made up by the latter will tend to increase rapidly with each generation.

My bet is if you look at the average 5th generation descendant of a slave owner, he/she is probably not much wealthier than the average descendant of a non-slave owner; the stolen fortune has probably dissipated with a few generations. A wealthy descendant of a slave owner probably owes most of his wealth to his own or his ancestors' labor.

Given the tendency of fortunes, stolen or otherwise, to dissipate over time, and resources to be allocated to where they're most useful regardless of initial conditions, it is actually almost certain that the fraction of wealth today (or rather, it's ownership by the people who currently own it) attributable to exploitation from the distant past (indeed, more than a few generations) is very small. If this is indeed the case, then state intervention to remedy past injustices (such as reparations for slavery) mostly amounts to stealing wealth earned from the labor of descendants of the original thieves and redistributing it to the victims' descendants whose current condition was not significantly affected by the past theft. In other words, such a redistribution almost certainly constitutes a new injustice that supersedes in magnitude the remnants of the old injustice among the descendants of the original perpetrators and victims.

Guy in TN writes:

If the Homestead Principle is the rule, then stolen property remains unjust, no matter how much secondary labor is exerted. If this makes the Homestead Principle cumbersome and inconvenient, and you wish to add "secondary-labor" exemptions to it that legitimize stolen property, that's fine. But it's no longer the Homestead Principle as it is traditionally understood.

Switching from "property is justified by laboring first" (the Homestead Principle) to "property is justified by laboring the *most*" is no small change. It's a position that many socialists and communists would find favor with. Many workers have often *already* labored on the factories and farms for far longer than the owner. If they stole the property, it would be practically be insta-legitimized, under your proposal.

Which is fine by me. But I don't think you've thought through the implications of allowing secondary-labor to legitimize involuntary property transfers.

Also: in terms of sheer time, the U.S. government has been claiming to be the highest sovereign (over even private property owners), for many generations now. If the rule is: "If the origin of sovereignty is intractable or ambiguous, then the existing power structures are legitimized", then maintaining the authority of state power of private power is apparently justified.

Stuart writes:

I guess I should make it more concrete. Tyler recently posted about South Africa exploring expropriation without compensation and there were a lot of dire warnings in the comments about what would mean. I agree that it is worrying, especially as it can/will be interpreted by some to mean expropriating almost all land which would be terrible.

But, in South Africa, people still alive today are living on land forcibly taken from other people who are still alive. Surely good capitalists would agree that the unjustly evicted person has some claim on the land (not the house or work done on it, if those came later)? What is to be done now? What about readily identifiable children of the dispossessed and those inheriting the dispossessed land. We should be direct about what should happen in cases like this.

Saying "he question of property origination is an interesting intellectual question, but is of little practical political significance." doesn't cut it.

It is also of considerable symbolic significance.

Mark Z writes:

Guy in TN,

Assuming you were responding to me, you completely missed my point. I didn't posit some exemption to the homestead principle or suggest labor on stolen land conferred ownership.

If you steal a hundred dollars from someone, invest it in a business, and ultimately make a thousand dollars from the investment, what do you owe the person from whom you stole the money? $100? Or $1000? One may speak of black and white enforcement of the homestead principle in the context of a particular plot of land stolen and kept thereafter, but things are rarely so simple in reality. Land was more likely stolen, cultivated, sold, the money invested alongside legitimately earned money; some of it lost in bad investments; the remainder reinvested elsewhere, maybe more successfully, and so on. So five generations later, how much of the descendant's net worth is "stolen?" How much is owed? As opposed to how much of it would this hypothetical descendant of the thief have even if his great great great grandfather not stolen? I'm arguing that the latter component is much larger than the former, and re-distributive policies rationalized by hypothetical distant injustices conferring economic advantages on some people mostly expropriate honestly earned wealth. This is because people who use this rationalization vastly overestimate how much an individual's wealth came to them through prior generations in one form or another.

In any case, once what is stolen is sold or liquidated and the labor of the thief and his heirs inevitably mixed with it, along with their own savings, it is no longer a question of simply returning a stolen item to its original owner.

Lastly, from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, I am arguing that the impact of injustices against one's ancestors on one's current standard of living (relative to if such injustices hadn't occurred) tend to be negligible. In other words, whatever current phenomena (poverty, wealth inequality, etc.) are today being used to justify socialist or pseudo-socialist policies are not generally the legacy of past theft of property. In reality, if your ancestors' land was stolen, chances are, even if it hadn't been stolen, you'd be little better off than you are.

Bedarz Iliachi writes:

Mark Z.
It appears that you suggest or imply that the whites in South Africa stole land belonging to the natives. Do you have any basis for such a suggestion? Do you use the loaded word "steal" precisely or loosely?

Mark Z writes:


1) I was talking mainly with the US in mind; but I would note that, if it is true that "people still alive today are living on land forcibly taken from other people who are still alive", then this may be a case for returning the stolen land itself (which would be done in any case - if a black individual lived on land stolen from a white one, something that has also been known to happen in South Africa recently), but the phenomenon is not justification for broad redistribution from one class to another. It is, in other words, still not relevant to what we would call economic policy. It is relevant to courts, whose job it is to deal with particular injustices.

In the case of descendants of people whose land was stolen: again, if this was even just several generations ago, it's not likely the major determinant in their current standard of living. Current standard of living is not as strongly related to the wealth of one's great great great grandparents as often assumed.

More over, what do you think the descendants of a victim of theft are entitled to? The land itself returned to them, regardless of the current owner? What if no one knows who in particular stole it, or they died and left no kin? Do we just leave it at the expense of the current owner? Or are they entitled to the market value of the land at the time it was stolen plus interest? Should the owner or descendant of the thief have the right to choose whether to give the land back or simply pay the market value of the land plus interest in cash?

Ultimately, of course, I would say that in cases like the North America (I don't know the history of South Africa well, so I can't say on that), despite claims that the whole continent was "stolen" from Native Americans, if we think like individualists instead of collectivists, the vast majority of land in the US was not in fact stolen - it was mostly not settled or even used for hunting or grazing by natives. While obviously much land was stolen, most of it was settled honestly. Claims that an entire country was "stolen" and descendants of settlers' wealth is essentially stolen goods, depend, ironically, on the sort of nativist reasoning, currently deployed against immigration, that a continent or stretch of land (arbitrarily defined) collectively belongs to all the residents who live on it at a given time.

benjamin weenen writes:
If you flatly insist that a person who builds a hut on a desert island isn't morally entitled to exclude a new arrival from sharing it, there's little left for me to say.

In fact, there is quite a lot to say.

While the creation of a good or service and its provence creates a moral property right, payment, legal title, first use, discovery or added value don't.

A person can own a hut, but they cannot own the 3D space it occupies.

Thus if the location said hut occupies is more productive than another, said owner owes everyone else he excludes compensation for the opportunity loss they suffer.

When we don't compensate others for the losses we impose upon them, we bake in excessive inequality and resource misallocation. Its why we pay wages and for goods and services, rather than still allowing slavery and theft.

Our current paradigm of property rights regarding land is unjust. It has lead to the emergence of socialism as way of mitigating the ill effects. This incorrect response relies on trampling other property rights such as the taxation of income, capital and transactions.

Because of this, faux-libertarians like Caplan make such taxes "a necessary evil" and are as such, blue socialists themselves.


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