The world has seen more than enough “isms”; socialism, communism, and capitalism, are the three most prominent, but there are actually something like 234 “isms” by most recent count. The “a”s alone includes absolutism, absurdism, accidentalism, and anarchism, among many others. There are of course “isms” that describe artistic movements (Impressionism), individual pathologies (alcoholism), or just about anything else, but what I’m concerned with here are broad philosophical, religious, moral or belief systems which try to explain the way that people relate to each other within society.
There is no obvious need for yet another overarching way of explaining human society. Yet in our rapidly changing world none of the existing methods seem very useful, especially in explaining economic relationships. Marxism failed to predict how society would evolve; communism and socialism seem to have lost their allure in those societies in which they have been tried, and capitalism seems to have its own set of failings. And for most people, the terms themselves have lost whatever meaning they may have once had. Whereas historically the term “capitalism” was defined as private ownership of the means of production, if you went onto the streets and asked people, including the best educated people, what capitalism meant I suspect they would give you answers like “each man for himself”, “making profits”, or “Selfishness”. Not very precise, or helpful.
It’s important to realize that economic systems like capitalism and socialism are enabling mechanisms that have critically important functions, but don’t determine the final shape of society. The fact that an American baseball player can makes millions while a poet makes very little has little to do with the system of capitalism, which simply allows people to freely express their value preferences. The fundamental reason that a pitcher can make millions is that enough people care about baseball to economically justify those salaries, while the number of people who care about serious poetry is far less. If you bemoan this state of affairs, as I do, your concern should not be primarily with the economic system but with what people value.
It’s certainly true that one can change economic outcomes with government policy, and this happens constantly in all economic systems. The United States is generally regarded as a capitalist country, but there are almost an infinite number of ways in which economic outcomes are influenced by factors other than consumer value judgments, and any observer should be careful to distinguish the difference in outcomes dictated by consumer value judgments as opposed to government policy. For instance, cigarettes and alcohol are both heavily taxed and regulated in the United States, and this undoubtedly, to some degree, discourages consumption. Yet millions of people still drink or smoke, and their reasons for drinking or smoking have little to do with government policy.
As one philosopher has said, money can satisfy desires, but not create them. Valuism is primarily concerned with human desire, and government policy with money. Desire dictates how money is used; money does not dictate desire. So, even, if, say, baseball is discouraged through taxation and poetry is encouraged through subsidies, professional athletes still generally end up making a lot more money than professional poets. And as you look around the world, youÕll see that what people really value is more important in determining outcomes than government policies; many different variations of capitalism, socialism, communism and other systems have been tried throughout the world at different times, but you would be hard pressed to find any societies in which the most successful poets have a higher standard of living than the most successful athletes. However, if there was a sudden burst of literacy in any society, and a sudden hunger for poetry, the standard of living of poets would quickly reflect that in any economic system.
People have a hunger for sex that is driven by biology, or evolution, or something else, but certainly not by money, although money is sometimes used as a tool to help satisfy sexual desires. People’s drive for distinction is fundamental and psychological; again, people may buy things to try to distinguish themselves from others, but money serves only to satisfy the desire, not as a cause. Politicians often spend millions of their own money in the pursuit of power; money can be used to buy power, and power can help one accumulate money, but the basic desire for power exists in any economic system, at any time, regardless of the level of affluence of a society. To say that people try to make money in any society is true, but also meaningless; the real question is what are they trying to use money for? One woman may seek to make a lot of money so she can use it to buy food to feed the poor; another woman may try to make a lot of money so she can buy expensive jewelry to show her friends how rich and successful she is; these people have little in common beyond the fact that money is a useful tool.
The reason that people degrade themselves on reality TV shows is, again, not a commentary on capitalism or markets, but simply a reflection of the fact that so many people value fame more than they value their dignity. Politicians pander to the lowest common denominator in every society, and this reflects both how much they value power as the fact that the electorate values the empty promises of politicians more than they value credibility. No democracy will work in the long run if voters demand only short term fixes, but you shouldnÕt blame the system of democracy for that. And if consumers demand tasteless entertainment it is the values of consumers, not the system of capitalism, which is to blame.
In almost any society you can find bored, rich, unhappy people. They have the tool, money, to satisfy their desires, but they have no desires to satisfy. So they seek the easy, cheap thrill; nightlife, casual sex, drugs, as a substitute for more substantial long term desire. On the other hand, you will also find in every society men and women of great wealth who have all the money they could ever spend, and yet continue to work because they realize that money is only a tool, and that work can be much more interesting than play.
Each of the isms serves some useful purpose for structuring human affairs, explaining conduct or providing justifications or insights. Socialism and communism are useful for those who are offended by the wide, and often unmerited, gaps between the economic haves and have nots. Capitalism in its many adulterated forms has been responsible for remarkable material progress, even if such progress has not been matched morally or culturally. Even now, in countries like North Korea, there are rulers who get away with an absolultis governing approach, concentrating all political and most economic power within their own hands. The world often seems wildly irrational, leading some to a belief in absurdism. At the other extreme, there are those who cling to a belief in the power of human reason, known as Objectivism.
What these systems generally fail to account for is the diversity of human motivations and values. Adam Smith and other economists operate on the (occasionally true) assumption that people seek to maximize their incomes. But if that was always the case the world would have more investment bankers and fewer artists. What people really seek to maximize is their personal happiness and satisfaction, and this calculation is infinitely complex, influenced by a huge number of variables. Millions of people around the world are willing to trade off money for the opportunity for personal expression, or more time with their children, or the flexibility of working at home, or a desire to see the world, or to advance their values or beliefs. What really dictates what occupations and activities people pursue is the hugely complex interchange of values, environment, timing, and heredity.
Absurdism is tempting. All one has to do is to read the newspaper to be overwhelmed with random acts of insanity; a disgruntled worker storms into his former employer’s shop and shoots people he doesn’t even know. A sexual harassment victim receives a fortune in compensation while a rape victim suffers in silence; the ruler of an impoverished country lives in opulent luxury while his people starve to death; an artist becomes famous painting pictures of soup cans. Stock markets rise, then crash, then rise again. The universe seems governed by random events, beginning, without reason or cause, with The Big Bang. The world seems like a vast dice game or constantly spinning wheel of fortune.
But is it? If one looks carefully at each event, they seem less and less random and more and more like the result of implicit or explicit value judgments. The “mad gunman” makes a conscious decision to express his rage by shooting as many people as he can find, before shooting himself, as the final statement that life has no remaining value to him. These seemingly “random” shootings are often carefully planned, sometimes over a period of years. The choice of victims may really be random; just being in the wrong place at the wrong time; although each of the victims could have told you exactly why he was in a given place at a given time. Overall, on careful inspection, an act of “random violence” is usually anything but random. One doesn’t read about successful, happy, well-adjusted people suddenly deciding, for no reason, to pick up a gun and start shooting people. That would be truly absurd – but it doesn’t happen.
The fact that a ruler dines off golden plates while his subjects starve may seem absurd, and is certainly wrong, but also a perfect reflection of his values: his top value is to impress others, and perhaps himself, with his display of wealth, while he simply doesn’t care about the welfare of his subjects; those people have no value to him. A leader with an opposite set of values, like Mahatma Gandhi, would take the opposite approach; trying to impress others (and himself) with his simplicity of life, while evincing great concern for the welfare of others. That does not mean that the public policies Gandhi advocated were right; in fact, in many cases they hurt more people than they helped. It simply means that his actions were a reflection of his values.
Accidentalism holds that life is a series of accidents and, at times, this can seem very true. The accident of birth determines that one man will grow up a prince in England while another will be an impoverished low caste in India. When the actor famous for playing Superman, Christopher Reeve, fell off his horse, if his neck had been turned a fraction of an inch in one way he would have died instantly. A fraction of an inch in another way and he would have just had a sore neck; in fact, he was paralyzed for years before dying. If you happened to be driving down the street a minute later, the car that ran the stoplight would have hit someone else or no one at all, rather than you.
Yes, timing and circumstance matter, but are they really accidental? The fact that one man grows up to be a prince reflects the fact that the society he lives in values, or at least tolerates, hereditary power and privilege; the same value preference is exhibited in caste driven societies. Why was Christopher Reeve on a horse in the first place? Certainly his riding had nothing to do with maximizing income. Freudianism focuses on sex drives, but it’s silly to think that Reeve’s riding or accident had anything to do with sex. Reeves placed great value on outdoor recreation. Perhaps he also valued the appearance of being a sportsman in an elitist venue. Or perhaps he just valued his interaction with a beautiful animal. The fact that his fall caused a certain type of injury was accidental; his being in a position to fall was not.
If our discussion of various “isms” seems like an exercise in semantics, it’s not. Communism led to almost unimaginable suffering in the Soviet Union, China, and, to this day, in Cuba. The policies of Pol Pot were nurtured at the Sorbonne in Paris, but practiced in the Killing Fields of Cambodia where millions suffered brutal and senseless death.
Ideas matter, for good and evil, whether or not they are implemented in a pure or adulterated form.