An Educational Suggestion

The current wave of censurings, cancelings, dismissals, silencings and censorship in the academy actually has viable arguments behind it. These include the emotional safety and comfort of students and faculty, the desire for solidarity, the real menace of extremist and violent subversion, the protection of chosen identities, the dream of a harmonious human society, etc. On the other side there are also powerful arguments, including such liberal principles as freedom of speech, the need for vigorous argument and debate to find the truth, training in the art of persuasion, the comradeship of debate, and the pursuit of evidence however unpalatable if real facts are to be established, etc.

How do we resolve these respectable countering claims? It turns out that in a way we in America have already done so. It’s our hoary and honored distinction between religious universities and secular ones. Though of course there are many gradations between these pure categories, the principles that support our permitting both to exist are clear. As long as the choice of attendance is free, we and our courts hold that a religious school can require certain beliefs and commitments of its students and faculty, and a secular school can permit free speech and expression that can be offensive or blasphemous to believers.

Why not resurrect this distinction–for schools that set limits on the ideological content of speech and schools that do not? With religious schools, the student and beginning professor know that there are lines they cannot cross without offending the values and the feelings of their community. With a true secular school, the student and professor know that within the bounds of the nation’s law, no speculation, hypothesis, unearthing of awkward evidence, challenging of claimed evidence, logical disproof of existing moral customs, etc, is forbidden. One must like it or lump it, take it and dish it out.

Now of course this is an idealized picture. As we know, there are more or less religious schools across the country that preserve great traditions of reasoned debate and turn out students with cheerfully contrarian views and a very fine sense of objective fact. And there are many technically secular schools that inculcate a fairly narrow set of absolute beliefs and unchallengeable doctrines, with a curated set of contextless facts to support them. And the picture is complicated by the fact that our democratically elected government rightly believes that education is in the national interest and needs to be supported, but that it is not its business to support religious institutions. It backs up this principle by not taxing religious property, giving religious institutions at least the ability to support themselves. Government also in principle forbids institutionalized religious indoctrination in state schools.  This compromise has worked out well. American universities are among the best in the world, and religious strife–one the greatest killers on the planet–is rare on campus.

But at present it is clear that the compromise is breaking down. Many secular state universities and state-supported colleges–as well as many private secular universities that profess religious and ideological freedom–are now on the official and public level enforcing distinct and unmistakable sets of moral beliefs, among them “woke” theories of social construction and identity. For the most part those beliefs, if chosen and held by an individual, would be arguable and even beneficial, like religious moral rules; but they are challengeable, and even meaningless if they are enforced. Moral choice is by nature free. Like religious dogmas, ideological group commitments tend, if unchallenged, to become caricatures of themselves and the excuse for sadistic condemnation, character assassination, and show trials–and a useful path to promotion. In religious universities today such corruptions are controlled partly by the antiquity of its agreed set of rules, partly by the competing presence of secular schools whose reputation for free thought they covet. But no such constraint exists in secular schools that have actually become ideologically committed on an institutional level–that is, no longer secular institutions–while still claiming the support of the secular state.

Not that there is anything wrong with an ideologically committed school or university, as long as it abides by the law. Great religious foundations have created extraordinary monuments of knowledge within them. Bright minds can easily couch world-changing ideas in terms that placate the genial and lax inquisitors. But the ideological university in the guise of a free university is a problem. Students and faculty may be buying a pig in a poke, or to change the metaphor, may be victims of bait-and-switch. And they can find themselves the focus of a new kind of witch-hunt.

My proposed solution is this. Perhaps we should apply the same standards to the ideological university as to the religious university. Perhaps a university’s faculty and students should have a vote on whether it wants to be a purely secular free speech university or an ideologically committed university with the same legal advantages and disadvantages of a religious university. Then those in the minority could leave for an institution better fitted to them.

In the free university no student or faculty member could be disciplined, fired, or expelled for the expression of ideas. Certainly no crying of fire in a crowded theater–there are plenty of sensible rules in the nation’s law that draw the line. And the ideological university would be permitted to police offensive speech, inappropriate ideas, the presence of invited speakers, and the strict application of behavioral rules between people who differ by sex, gender choice, race, etc. Since its claim, like the religious school’s, is to obey rules that are higher than the rules of the state, it might lose state economic support but gain exemption from taxes.

Then students and faculty would know clearly what they would be getting into, and choose where to learn and teach on that basis. Nonconformists could gravitate toward free schools where they could trust that they would not be fired for controversial ideas; and social idealists could find committed schools with a safe haven for a loving community of like souls. And the clear distinction, as between the old religious and secular schools, might spur competition between the free and the committed institutions and advance the creation of knowledge.



A Divestment

I have just cancelled my Facebook account. I realize that in doing so I am giving up much that is good and distancing myself from friends who are very dear to me. But I can’t trust myself with it. I am retiring this year to become an emeritus professor, a bit like Lear when he steps down, prof in name only, and my teacher’s habit, to try to correct error and fix logic and point out new perspectives and unearth evidence and help people enjoy a book as a book, is exactly what social media doesn’t need at present.

Because everything is politicized now on social media. Even not entering the conflict is an aggressive act. In this nightmare year of plague and racism and fear and institutional folly and brutal violence by the lawless and the law alike, what is desired is simple recitation over and over of the creed of “this” side or “that.” Any concession to the valid points of one side or the other is seen as endorsement, triumphant putdown, conversion or betrayal. Any mild criticism of a view one otherwise endorses is heresy. Those who try to mediate–which was my intention in entering the fray–are the ones hated most as traitors by both sides. So I’m out.

This divestment is only part of a general metamorphosis–caterpillar to butterfly or butterfly to caterpillar? I’ve been slowly clearing out my institutional office and my home study, hundreds of books to go to libraries, fifty-three years of dusty knickknacks, five giant bins of papers, keeping perhaps 1/10 of my them for a generously-offered archive.

I feel, as the cliché goes, as if an elephant were lifting its feet from my back one by one, a liberation that also includes a rush of memories of students and colleagues, and love for my flawed but very decent and increasingly brilliant university.

And as I enter my dotage or sanyasihood I am trying to rejuvenate my first vocation, of poet, and shred away what religious folks call the burden of self. I see a kind of liberation that might be possible; not less care for others, but more cogent care. A way of being a night-light for people, or a place to rest on a journey, or a suggester of ways to put things that display their holiness within.


The Plague War

I feel the pain in their incessant battle,
The urge to bite, but armor shields the flesh,
The trembling heart-shock of the feared rebuttal,
The wanted wound that keeps the hatred fresh;

I feel the murderous pity for the ones
The enemy supposedly still harms,
The warm companionship of well-shared guns,
The pride of race or wokeness, up in arms–

Arms that have blades upon their very helves,
That cut the striker while he strikes the stricken,
Weapons that turn themselves against themselves,
Medicine mixed to make the taker sicken.

And they’re good people too, made mad with grief:
God grant the damned election brings relief.


Nine Fallacies about Racism

The current narrative about racism is based on a set of propositions which, upon closer examination, are both factually unfounded and logically incoherent. Let’s look at these propositions in turn.

1. Racism is a social invention. This proposition draws on the sociological assertion that human reality is socially and culturally constructed, which is a partial truth at best and a toxic distortion at worst. Human reality is much more a matter of our biological construction, ecological and technological constraints and affordances, and individual choices. The social reality of a human being can be socially constructed in a fairly superficial way by multiple ethnic and customary habits, fashions, family traditions, peer groups, commercial advertising, and the cultural mix that goes into most humans everywhere, changing day by day. But it is our genes and their epigenetic settings, the laws of physics, chemistry, and physiology, our own understanding of them, the available technological and economic uses of them, and our own self-training and self-education, that are by far the most important influences on our thoughts and behaviors. If racism is socially constructed, it is only one meme among many, and dealing with it is just a matter of changing the current fashion. The most ardent upholders of the current narrative all recognize that this has not worked.

Xenophobia, the fear of strangers, has been shown to be innate by many studies in psychology, anthropology, sociology and other disciplines (not to mention almost all the literatures of the world that tell the story of one tribe’s victory over another). Infants already seek comfort with humans that are known to them and humans that look like the ones they know, and fear odd-looking strangers. The adaptive commonsense of this tendency should be obvious. It is an indelible part of our makeup. The oxytocin reward system that makes us love our own group also tends to make us suspicious of others.

Xenophobia, like many human givens, can certainly be counterbalanced by other predispositions, such as the exploratory instinct, the lure of the sexually other, and the incentive of gain by trade. But xenophobia is always there and is indeed easily shaped by both an individual and his or her group into more specific forms, ranging from irrational support of one’s own sports team and hatred of the opponent to religious prejudice and inquisitions, jingoistic nationalism, civic pride, class conflict (which redirects our racist instinct into an economic conflict) and of course the theory of racism itself. Political partisanship uses it all the time—as “dog whistles” about monkeys, and the “orange” slur often used about Trump, clearly attest. Racism as a basic instinct did not need inventing. Racism was not taught but inherited in our genes; it is not a moral failing unless it is unchecked, and must be treated as we treat a hereditary condition like sickle cell anemia, or nymphomania, or Tay-Sachs, or autism: with compassion, education, and therapy.

2. Racism is a clear and distinct concept in itself. This impression can be easily corrected with a little examination of how the word is used. The word “racism” is itself incoherent, meaning several (sometimes contradictory) things: a belief that there are distinct races of humans (as opposed to various local groupings of human haplotypes); a habitual preference for one “race” over others; a belief based on bad science that one “race” is superior to others; a social and legal practice based on that belief; an irrational preference for one skin color, hair texture, or nose or eye shape over another; a political position to justify the economic oppression of one defined group by another. One can be racially hostile to another person who has the same skin color, etc, but who is simply identified as belonging to another race, as evidenced by Nazi racism against Jews and Slavs, the evident racism of the Qiché against the other tribes in the Popol Vuh, the protestant Irish against the Catholics, the Japanese use of Korean “comfort women,” and countless other examples.

Racism is hugely varied in its manifestations. One can believe in the inferiority of members of one race but sincerely support their equal rights as human beings, as Lincoln did. One can love another race but regard it as basically lesser, as we do dogs. One can, sadly, prefer members of one’s own “race” but believe that another race has superior natural talents. Either as a bearer of the white man’s burden or of white guilt, one can be paternalistically protective of the “inferior” race; one can profess to seek the emancipation of other “races”, as did Marx and Stalin, while ardently despising them. “Scientific” racism was a standard socialist position for much of the last two centuries, leading to eugenics programs in many left-leaning nations.

3. Racism always involves contempt or a belief in the inferiority of another group. Again, not so. Here a hugely important distinction, virtually ignored by contemporary theorists, emerges. The quality of feeling that characterizes our racist distaste for the “inferior” racial Other is quite different from that which we feel about the “superior” Other. One can hate “another” race precisely because one believes it is superior, as with antisemitism in general and some strains of American anti-Asian prejudice, especially exemplified in college admissions policies. Race bias toward the “inferior” can range from genial condescension and paralyzing paternalism to animal fear, exploitation and brutal sadistic repression; toward the “superior” it ranges from secretly sneering compliance and sabotage to cold mass murder on an industrial scale. We seek to subjugate the “lower” race; but we seek to eradicate the “higher” race.

4. Racism is only a “white” phenomenon. This assertion is spectacularly wrong, and is a racist position in itself. Scientific racism, which replaced the normal folk unwisdom about perceived human differences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certainly could not have been invented without science. Most of modern science was created in Europe and North America by “white” people. Like the faulty phlogiston theory of combustion, it was a mistake. But it fed into other political and social incentives, such as the slave trade, colonialism, and socialism itself, which always sought ways to identify human groupings as more important than human individuals. The West made science available, and racism misused its mistake.

But racism in all other senses than the scientific fallacy is sturdily universal among human beings. History presents an overwhelming picture of clan warfare, tribal massacres, ethnic holocausts, pogroms, and enslavements. Whole populations of modern humans show marked differences between the inheritance of mitochondrial DNA through the mother and the Y chromosome from the father that can only mean a period in which one racial strain virtually exterminated all the males of another and raped its females. The history of the relations among the Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han and Mongolian tribes and their surrounding peoples is a story of successive racial exterminations. So too the establishment and collapse of the Roman Empire. Under the Caesars, darker-skinned Mediterraneans crushed fair-skinned Celts. Ancient Mesopotamia’s history of tribal holocaust is perhaps the oldest, vying with ancient Egypt’s. We have already briefly looked at the tribal wars of Mesoamerica, as we could also at the Andean civilizations. Polynesians subjugated Melanesians, and were subjugated in turn.

Apart from the Mongol invasion of Asia and Europe, perhaps the largest territorial story of racist subjugation and extermination is that of sub-Saharan Africa long before the white colonies were created. Beginning in the first century AD, Bantus from the general region of Cameroon swept eastward across Africa, wiping out hundreds of native societies including many Nilotic groups; another wave drove southward, subjugating or exterminating indigenous peoples such as the Pygmies and the Khoisan, arriving in what is now South Africa to meet the European settlers moving north from the Cape in the sixteenth century. Subsequent vicious tribal wars between different Bantu-speaking tribes continued to this day. Black racism against the brown peoples of the south and against other black tribes was always part of a norm that indeed included trade, cooperation, and great cultural achievements as well.

5. Slavery is a racist practice. This proposition is only half true. Slavery—the ownership of other human beings and their forced labor–has been practiced in one form or another by most human societies at one time or another. If we include such practices that meet the definition, as the belonging of children to parents, military conscription, serfdom, and in many traditions marriage itself, it is universal. It was normal practice in ancient and classical times to enslave populations conquered in war, and often this practice had little at all to do with race or perceived race differences. The combatants in Homer’s Iliad all explicitly belong to the same Greek-speaking race, connected often by ancient family ties, yet they cheerfully enslaved each other when they could. Poor people in many cultures sold their children as slaves to racially identical rich people, and the practice still continues in many places. Slavery only became a specifically racist practice with the slave trade, when the earlier relationship of belonging turned into a new relationship of chattel ownership.

6. The slave trade is a European invention. This is patently false. What we usually mean by slavery is the slave trade, or chattel slavery, which was not so prevalent as normal local slavery, though it too certainly took place in all known major civilizations. Slavery as a commercial industry does have a specific history, but it is not in any sense exclusively a European one. The slave trade we know as such is an African and Middle Eastern invention. Ancient southern Egypt sold Nubian slaves to northern Egypt and then later to Rome. In Egyptian wall-paintings pale-skinned Hittite and Amorite slave girls serve black Pharaohs. Bantu kingdoms sold their own slaves to other Bantu kingdoms, and began the systematic process of rounding up village populations to be sold. Mighty slave-trading nations like Mali, Ghana, the Ashanti and the Yoruba grew rich on the practice. Mansa Musa’s gold was legendary. Under the Arabs, beginning in the sixth century, and later the Turks, slave trading moved north and became a massive industry, and now it was European coastal populations as far north as Iceland that were being captured in millions by corsairs and Ottoman raiding parties and sold in the great world slave trading center of Istanbul. It is unclear whether the Slav peoples gave their name to the institution, or whether they took their name from it; the connection itself is eloquent.

It was only in the 1600s that the disease of the mass slave trade spread from Africa and the Mediterranean to northern Europe and the New World. It is a truly remarkable achievement of the European Enlightenment that so ancient, profitable, customary and universally accepted a practice should have lasted only two hundred years before its evil was recognized and banned by the major European nations, beginning with France and England and finally ratified by all nations of whatever racial makeup. In the slave-dependent United States that moral realization cost a bloody civil war that took the lives of three quarters of a million people. The effective figures in the battle against slavery were predominantly “white” cultural and political leaders in nations with predominantly European populations.

7. Enslavement and genocide based on race was a conservative idea. Just as scientific racism was generally a product of left-leaning progressives in the West, the opposition to slavery came originally from sources generally considered today as conservative—Whiggish supporters of business enterprise, Protestant religious moralists like William Wilberforce and William Lloyd Garrison, the Catholic Church, and the nascent Republican Party. Progressivist Fabians like Beatrice Webb, Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes, the intellectual leaders of British socialism, were ardent eugenicists, as of course were the national socialists of Sweden and Germany. In the communist Soviet Union whole populations were ethnically “cleansed,” including Balkars, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Inguish, Karacheys, Kalmyks, Koreans and Turks, who were reduced to second-class citizenship and deported to central Asia with huge loss of life. And in the Holodomor about ten million Ukrainians were exterminated for refusing to work as slaves. Communist China even now is doing the same sort of thing to the Uyghurs.

8. Racism is a capitalist phenomenon. One of the most striking things about American slave narratives is that the escape from slavery is not ever conceived as an escape to a socialist world of paternal state control but to a place of free enterprise where the former slave could enter the marketplace and make a decent living by their own work. Here an important distinction needs to be made, between mercantilism, which is compatible with and indeed relies upon slavery (and thus on racist justifications for it), and capitalism, which inherently rejects slavery. Mercantilism works basically as an extractive industry that rifles the earth and the human body to create wealth for a few. It requires imperialist colonization, and it does not like innovations that disturb its process. Capitalism, as its name implies, replaces human brute labor with capital stock such as technology and marketing tools, replaces labor-intensive foreign raw materials whenever it can with common and easily obtainable local ones, and thrives on technological progress. It does so not out of the goodness of its heart but because its core principles, the creation of value and the reaping of the rewards of value-creation, rely on a skilled and flexible workforce and as broad a market (people who can pay for its products) as possible. Even Henry Ford, like other progressives an avowed racist, recognized that for the system to work his workers would have to earn enough to buy his cars. And that meant the creation of large working and middle classes and enough public education and medical care to maintain competent workers who would be flexible enough to keep up with accelerating technological innovation. Black former slaves flocked north to work in his factories, beginning the slow process of black economic emancipation in America.

The American Civil War was a war between the mercantilist South and the capitalist north. As everywhere else in the world where capitalism took root, the result of victory was the outlawing of slavery and the gradual integration of former slave populations into the market economy. Russia had already abolished serfdom as its capitalist middle class expanded in the early twentieth century; tragically its form of socialism after the Revolution replaced the old form of serfdom with the new one of the collectives.

Capitalism is the only reliable economic antidote to slavery.

9. Racism can be countered by identity politics. Identity politics, that is, the ideological cultivation of solidarity based on race (gender, gender identification, disability, etc), has been put forward as a potent weapon against the oppression of a minority by the majority. Virtues unique to this given identity, heroic stories about it, and atrocities committed by the enemy can then be marshaled to organize enthusiastic support for violent resistance. The problem with this means of countering racism is that it is inherently impractical, for two reasons.

The first reason is that it is folly to attack and attempt to damage or destroy a group that is much larger, better armed, richer, and more organized, with its own rules, laws, material resources, and infrastructure. If the attack is ineffective, it is ineffective. If it is effective enough to be a real nuisance, it will be counterproductive, resulting in the delegitimation of its just claims and possibly increased repression. Hostilities based on inalienable group identity by definition exclude members of the majority that might see and assist the justice of their cause and join their numbers. In reality the success of mass protests against racism is based crucially on the forbearance of liberal capitalist societies from brutal repressive measures that are possible under socialist rule, on civil pacifist restraint by the protesters, and on the continued appeal to the painfully slow conscience of the oppressor.

Worse still, the weapon of race identity is not available to minorities alone. When the majority is insulted and tormented enough into identifying itself as a special race with its own heroic history, grievances, and special virtues, very terrible things can happen and have happened again and again. The apathy of the majority is a precious protection. It is not wise to awaken a sleeping dragon, as the Great Depression did in Germany after the treaty of Versailles in which Wilsonian “social justice” elevated ethnic identity into a political and moral imperative. Or as Trump did after the Great Recession, when racial political correctness and accusations had alienated the majority of the American working class.

The only effective remedies for racism seem to be four: religious solidarity that supersedes race, as with Catholicism and Islam; the capitalist free market, where individual profit supersedes racial solidarity and abundance overcomes scarcity and want; equal laws equally enforced; and the long slow process of liberal persuasion and education. Human beings of all kinds have a conscience, even those whose habit involves racial categories. To dismiss anyone’s conscience as invalid or insincere is an evil. The only effective appeal to majorities whose very existence as a working majority is oppressive to a minority is the old-fashioned appeal to our common humanity and to its collective conscience. This was the vision of Martin Luther King, like that of Mandela and Gandhi–the great apostles of liberalism for our times.


Capitalism and Socialism: What do the Words Mean?

Capitalism and socialism are two important words used in the world of “political economy.” As a literary scholar and poet I became interested in the field’s wild variety, its rhetorical use of language and often its surprising insights. For the last thirty years or so the field became a hobby. This essay shares some of what I learned.

Let’s set aside the popular use of the words “capitalist” and “socialist” as insulting epithets meaning roughly “an evil and greedy oppressor” and “an evil and murderous tyrant.” We have perfectly good words for “evil, greedy, murderous” etc—evil, greedy, and murderous for example. Socialist and capitalist have meanings of their own that might be worth exploring.

In serious discussion “capital” is usually agreed across all shades of the political spectrum to signify the means of production, or the ways value or “utility” is created. The main argument seems to be about who should own it—individuals, individuals and voluntary groups, certain groups only, or the State. In ordinary usage, “capitalism” normally means the first two: private or private-and-corporate ownership. “State capitalism,” the ownership of the means of production by the state, is usually called socialism or communism. Absolute monarchical ownership, though it uses capital, is one extreme form of state socialism in this literal sense. If the leadership of a state is democratically elected, it is possible to claim that state ownership is ownership by the people in general, but it is hard to make this case when the current leaders already have total control over the livelihood of the voters. Ownership of capital only by limited groups, such as guilds, feudal dynasties, oligarchies, monopolies, and cartels is often identified with “mercantilism.” It is associated with colonial systems of asymmetric trade and extractive industries like mining and cash crop farming, rather than value-added industries in which the ingenious restructuring of raw materials outweighs the value of the raw materials themselves: such latter industries are characteristic of a capitalist economy.

Another popular use of the word “capital” includes the implied meaning of large, accumulated, stored and abstracted forms of the means of production, such as money, legal obligations, intellectual property, etc. In this sense no large human project, such as a highway system or electrification or a national health service, is possible without capitalism in one form or another.

“Capitalism” can mean either a set of theories about economic systems or the practice of organizing capital, including rules of ownership, contracts, property rights, etc. Theory and practice are not always the same, but they are hard to separate and the relationship changes all the time, so I’ll deal with them together.

The word is also often used to mean the marketplace itself, that spontaneous order by which demand for goods and their availability are communicated across an entire community by means of the price signal, marginal utility, and profit. The continuous feedback of buying, selling, hiring and client-making, controlled by property laws, insurance, bank rates, and stable currency, is immensely creative and adaptable, and may be humankind’s greatest gift. This system is the only one known in which competition, the creation of demand, and competitive advantage tend to create continuous innovation, the substitution of capital for brute labor, and huge increases of abundance.

Problems that often accompany such spontaneous orders fall into two main groups.

The first is that of externalities. If the inputs of an industry include clean air, clean water, a vital ecosystem, and a well-functioning civil society, and its output includes pollution, ecological harm, and social disruption, and if these factors are not added to the balance sheet, then the market can break down and the price signal becomes distorted. The “invisible hand” is crippled. Different nations have tried different legal and cultural ways of rectifying the balance and ensuring that such debts are repaid by remediation or compensation—of this more later.

The second problem is basically the mathematical power law that comes into force whenever any system is creative, that is, it grows and innovates. Advances lead to other advances, the stock of property increases by compound interest, and even very small differences in the rate of increase of wealth can exponentially magnify into huge inequality. Great increases in transportation speed, reliability, efficiency, and demand creation, and plummeting transaction costs, lead to cases where only a few really excellent providers can overwhelm local enterprises. Thousands of mom and pop stores are replaced by the discount chain, a multitude of local folk singers is replaced by a few superstars with mass record labels or streaming rights. The result is that the rich get rapidly richer, while the poor get richer more slowly, and can even in recessions, pandemics, or radical technological changes get poorer. Savage passions of envy, felt injustice, racism, hostility to immigrants, class and identity solidarity emerge. All modern nations, and even cities and states within federal nations, seek ways of redressing the balance without killing the golden goose of the capitalist marketplace.

The mildest way of redress is the enforcement of existing laws. The legal systems of most advanced nations are themselves spontaneous orders (sometimes called autopoietic systems, complex orders, self-organizing or emergent systems, etc). That is, such a system has feedbacks such as juries, appellate courts, adversarial advocacy, precedents, judicial review, critical journals, law books, law schools, etc, that dynamically alter, adapt, or improve the production of justice. (Science, with its own feedback systems of experimental protocol, statistical ana]ysis, replication, apprenticeship, science journals, peer review and professional recognition by prizes and awards, is another such spontaneous order). The law can adapt to changing conditions and mitigate privilege (“private law”) that favors the fortunate.

When innovations in technology and economic efficiency threaten the natural and social environment and lead to runaway increases in economic inequality, and the existing laws cannot keep up, the political process reaches crisis proportions and there is a demand for radical change. One kind of change is a constant lure and tropism: toward various levels of state interference. And here the crucial word “socialism” enters the picture. Socialism as a theory generalizes the staggeringly complex landscape of an economy (in its dynamic setting of other economies), together with its even more complex culture, and all the individuals and groups and ideologies within it, under the term “society.” It largely dismisses the yet more complex biological makeup and natural predispositions of the population, assuming that these are socially constructed, and seeks to control the harms by more or less direct and/or coercive means.

As a practice socialism tends to be activist (while capitalism is often more laisser-faire). Thus socialism suffers the disadvantage of being held responsible for its experiments and innovations, its “dirigiste” attitude of taking charge to fix abuses and injustices, while capitalists can escape the blame for developments it did not directly cause. But socialism by the same token is always in the situation of interfering with an entity much larger and more complicated and unpredictable than its own resources can handle, that wants to go its own way, and that produces much that is desirable.

Nevertheless, given the huge environmental and cultural dangers of uncompensated externalities and the inevitable gravitation of a creative economy toward a power-law distribution of capital with extremes of wealth and poverty, emergency changes in ownership and control may be plainly indicated, as they are in natural disasters and pandemics. Revolution is a worse-than-natural disaster that must be anticipated and avoided. Sometimes non-state means of damping its flames are possible: nineteenth century industrial Britain, for instance, had the extreme good luck of having John Wesley and his religious message of love and peace, and a tradition of great art that was shared by high and low alike. It managed to avoid the worst atrocities that took place in the French Revolution. American religious traditions fulfilled the same function, especially in the case of the Black churches. But the religious buffer postpones rather than eliminates the problem. So it gets left to government. When we cannot rely on cultural luck to provide enough patience to let the system right itself, state means may be necessary.

The available interventionist strategies fall into four general categories: state regulation of the economic and ecological consequences of progress, state control of the economy, state ownership of the “commanding heights” of the economy, and full state ownership of the means of production. The term “socialism” in these terms is applied very differently according to one’s ideology. Only extreme right-wingers and anarchistic libertarians would label state regulation—against breach of contract, theft, etc—as socialism. The business-friendly Right would call some state regulations “socialism” but attempt quite rationally to use others to legally rent-share or create monopolies (socialism for the rich!). The moderate Right would accept some state control but describe most forms of state ownership as socialism. The moderate Left would save the term “socialism” for state control of the economy, hoping for or fearing a transition to “commanding heights” state ownership, and reserving “communism” for full state ownership. The far left would ultimately desire full state ownership, termed by them “socialism,” to be followed by a dreamed-of “withering away of the State,” true communism.

Socialism in the sense of full state ownership of the means of production has a disastrous history, one rightly called out by the Right. I should not need to argue this. East Germany and North Korea are good examples. On both major counts, negative externalities and distribution of power and money, they were disasters. They were hell on earth according to survivors and escapees. “Commanding heights” state ownership has often been a failure too, given the fact that the parts of the economy that are not state owned and that participate in the dynamism of the market fairly soon render the commanding heights obsolete, leaving them as a crippling drag on the rest and a center of oppressive bureaucratic power and surveillance, as has happened in China and India.

The problem for most advanced nations is to figure out where state regulation leaves off and becomes market-chilling state control under which the price signal no longer operates, and where state control in turn becomes state ownership. Generally speaking, if the government controls more than half the Gross National Product it effectively owns the means of production and, since the population relies on it for employment, the regime can perpetuate itself by holding the people’s jobs for ransom by the vote. Is there a slippery slope? Plainly Sweden felt there was in the 1990s when in a prolonged decline it turned its back on socialism and committed itself to a policy of free market capitalism with high redistributive taxes, an attractive position taken up by other Scandinavian countries and by American liberal opinion.

Some would argue that the heavy burden of taxes saps creativity and competitiveness in such nations. Others argue that their ethnic homogeneity, leading to a more general spirit of trust and cooperation, is a luxury that disqualifies them as models and that more multi-ethnic societies cannot achieve. Others too would point out that such countries must rely on the military protection and economic markets of a world power, the USA. Germany has managed what looks like a good balance under the moderate liberal-conservative wing of Angela Merkel—another capitalist free-market economy with high taxes and good social services. But the dangerous populist reaction to Syrian immigration there indicates how fragile that balance can be; and as a member of the European Union it has had to lead a divisive policy of anti-free market austerity that looks sometimes like creeping mercantilism.

Other nations like Singapore and Taiwan have managed to have long-booming capitalist economies with low taxes and good public services. The world is wondering how: perhaps it is residual Confucian civil service ethics, which may dissipate with a new generation. China and India have become booming free-market capitalist societies, even while carrying state-owned non-market sectors on their backs, but with much corruption and huge future demographic and ecological problems. The US is currently the pioneer in fully confronting these issues, bitterly divided along partisan lines, but in the process breaking new intellectual ground; and the outcome is in doubt.

Without a full and, I would argue, an impossible understanding of a whole country, state-imposed means of mitigation for externalities and inequality are always haphazard, and often result in unforeseen consequences. (Think by comparison of early psychopharmaceutical attempts to deal with psychological distress and illness in a brain almost completely unknown except for broad statistical measurements.) A good example would be Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and their later additions using the same body of theory. Jane Jacobs showed us the horrors of urban renewal; the war on drugs resulted in the imprisonment and disenfranchisement of about a tenth of the black male population; Bill Clinton had to ditch large parts of the welfare system that had broken up the Black family and created a plague of illegitimacy and hapless single parents. Unlike Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, an even more ambitious and astoundingly bloody attempt at rectification, the Great Society did have its successes too, but its history should be a grave corrective to wilder “woke” hopes and simplistic economic phrenology.

It should be obvious by now that what most of the US candidates on the moderate left are calling for is not state ownership (socialism in the most used sense) and only very partial ownership or control of the means of production, limited to education and health care. The moderate right believes that intelligent and flexible regulation, together with minimum bureaucracy and modest redistribution might work better. Both sides—or rather all sides—of the debate are necessary, lest in our ignorance and unhampered enthusiasm we make old or new mistakes and squander the huge progress already made. Or get on a slippery slope that will take us to the annoyingly proverbial Venezuela or to robber-baron Russia.

Given a better understanding of the terms “capitalist” and “socialist,” how might a classical free-market liberal or commonsense libertarian respond to capitalism’s problems of redistribution and externalities?

Modestly redistributive policies to deal with inequality are already in place, but are highly wasteful and inefficient. More might or might not help. Exciting possibilities mooted among the people themselves include an entirely unlegislated further expansion of corporate concepts of worker ownership, stock sharing, cooperatives on the Spanish Mondragon model, well-paid gig systems, and in the aftermath of COVID, work at home and the renewal of cottage industry. If the current social services programs could be replaced by a universal basic income, as some argue, many current distortions of the marketplace would disappear. Starving and ill-educated people make poor workers and poor consumers. Education is crucial, but much of the current state system is obviously broken and people are turning to alternative schooling of various types: home, charter, cooperative, private, and virtual. The ideological battle for local environmentalism has been more or less won. The efficiency of capitalism, seeking higher profits by exploiting renewable energy sources and former waste products, and by the miniaturization and customization of industry, is gradually reducing the ecological burden in many parts of the northern hemisphere. The northern forests are returning.

The free-market liberal or moderate libertarian I have postulated might in this light come to some odd insights. One might be that the current administration has adopted several radically anti-capitalist policies characteristic of left-wing and socialist governments: restrictions on immigration and the free flow of labor; the suppression of minority populations; protectionist restrictions on trade; mercantilist economics; nationalism and group identity politics; attacks on the Press; blatant philistinism; and the custom of mass rallies and enthusiastic propaganda. Its support is demographically similar to Lenin’s during the Russian revolution. “Populism” is in a sense the new socialism.

The libertarian argument might be that we should let civil society itself sort out the problem of inequality; many of the extremely rich in the US are convinced of its evil, culturally committed to reversing it, and actively supporting ameliorative efforts in medicine, education, media, etc. The Law is now fully alerted to the problems that our racist human nature has created by mass incarceration and the war on drugs. Trump and the far Left, not-so-strange bedfellows, could hamper the indigenous emergence of better forms of voluntary redistribution, and the evolution of the law and economic system to correct the ill effects of inequality and externalities.

Progressives would clearly take a different view. But a clear understanding of the linguistic struggle over the meaning of key terms like socialism and capitalism could help find a common vocabulary so that the debaters would not be speaking past each other. Perhaps the traditional humanities might be useful after all.