Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Scylla and Charybdis

Socialism and capitalism, absent an underlying moral theory, are equally inhuman.
On the one hand, socialism is an attempt to absolve us from our responsibilities to one another, moving this responsibility to the state. In this way, after years of even the mildest forms of socialism, people begin to question why they even have the minimal obligations to one another that paying their taxes for a social safety net seems to impose upon them. This is an effect I see in my students. It is good, in this regard, to recall that Dickens’ Scrooge is a thoroughgoing socialist: he objects to charity because there are already poorhouses that his taxes support.
On the other hand, capitalism absolves us from responsibility by claiming either that the markets will take care of all the needs that there are or that the economic world is a Darwinian—nay, a Malthusian—struggle in which the weak must suffer.
What is missing in both of these, though it need not be, is an underlying account of the very real obligations that we do have to one another. With such an account, certain socialist practices and policies can be seen as ways via a state of carrying out our obligations. With such an account, capitalism can be seen as something that takes care of only one part of our lives, the economic part, while realizing—as did Adam Smith—that there is a large part of our lives that is not economic. Pace Hayek and others, it isn’t all economic.
But I fear in our time we have ignored the advice of Forster to “only connect” and Aristotle’s claim that we are essentially social and thrown them over for the Thatcherite claim that there is no society. So we no longer see ourselves as people in any kind of community and whether we are tempted to socialism or capitalism, we are never tempted to care.

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