Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, and Napoleon
We’re starting Animal Farm (George Orwell) in my American Government classes this week. I’ve used it for several years, and obviously there are many things I like about it – but…
I’m not very good at teaching this one.
Don’t misunderstand – this isn’t a self-esteem problem. (Perish the thought!) I’m a decent history teacher. There are things about teaching books and lit in general which I really enjoy as well. And I understand the book well enough. If nothing else, I have Thug Notes:
For those of you who don’t know, Animal Farm is a nice little allegory using talking pigs, horses, chickens, and such to critique the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and Communism in general.
*Spoiler Alert*: Orwell doesn’t buy it.
For my Progressive friends, don’t worry - the Commies will have their chance to shine next semester when we wrap up the year with The Grapes of Wrath. Or… the Socialists will, at least.
Therein lies my weakness. I’m not very good at breaking down Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism in terms my kids can understand – especially not in ways that help connect them to the broader issues of motivation and choices, and the values underlying our allegiances and worldviews.
History is all about the big picture, after all.
The effort is further complicated by how often these words are used to mean whatever the person (or nation) using them wants them to mean. Like ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, or ‘alternative music’, their definitions are both broad and absurdly malleable.
But, devotee to growth mindset and 'grit' that I am, I keep trying. I’m sharing the latest incarnations here in an effort to do something I don’t do very often – seek the collective wisdom and feedback of the social media edu-verse.
Keeping in mind that my students are high school freshmen of widely varying abilities and mindsets, I’d like thoughts and suggestions on my definitions and such below. For those of you who may not teach high school, there’s a perpetual tension between academic accuracy and teenage accessibility. So… constructive, please?
Definition: Capitalism is an economic system in which individuals and businesses have great freedom to own property – land, factories, even ideas – and to compete for customers and their money. In its purest form, government stays entirely out of the equation, and ‘market forces’ regulate not only quality, but what’s available and how it’s produced. Most ‘capitalist’ nations have socialist elements – minimum wage laws, basic protections for workers, safety regulations for both the workplace and most products produced, etc.
Examples: I don’t eat at Hideaway Pizza because the manager’s daughter needs a kidney transplant; I eat there because the food is good, doesn’t cost a fortune, and the waitress pretends to think I’m charming. I choose it for selfish reasons. The staff doesn’t serve me out of a love for mankind, they do it to get my money – also selfish reasons. Results? They make a reasonable profit, I enjoy my evening out, and everyone’s happy - even though that was never anyone’s primary goal. Then again… Wal-Mart. McDonald’s. Sweatshops. Poverty. So there’s that.
Assumptions: Competition produces excellence (think pro sports or Target, a store trying to get Wal-Mart volume out of a Whole Foods customer base). Good products, good service, and good prices are the natural result of allowing entrepreneurs to take risks and compete for customer dollars. Government regulation or other interference only messes stuff up, making things worse for everyone.
Advantages: Look at all the cool stuff to which we have easy access! Smart phones, Netflix/Hulu, music, sports, restaurants, malls, furniture, clothes, toiletries, books, art, etc. If I’m not happy with one choice, I usually have a half-dozen others. Your favorite stuff to buy/do/watch/consume is available and affordable because of Capitalism.
Disadvantages: The ‘free market’ is never actually ‘free’. Once a small number of owners/producers are ‘on top’, whether because of their own good decisions, random good fortune, or successful evil-doing, they have enough influence and resources to ‘game the system’ in order to stay on top. They exploit those doing most of the actual work, dictate legislation, manipulate the public, and limit competition through means both legal and not-so-much. They’re able to get away with such things because they have power – and power corrupts.
Definition: An economic system in which the government regulates or owns most essential production. The goal is for everyone to have reasonable access to goods and services. Workers are treated ‘fairly’ and paid enough to take care of their families. Ideally everyone contributes both ideas and effort, and everyone benefits more or less equally. Most ‘socialist’ nations have capitalist elements – profits for successful companies or individuals, some flexibility of what’s manufactured or what services are offered, allowing people to buy whatever they like (if it’s available), etc.
Example: In many European countries, individuals pay much higher taxes, but they receive free or inexpensive health care, working hours are much shorter, and sometimes it’s easier (or free) to use public transportation or other services. In the U.S., many utilities – water, electricity, etc. – are privately owned, but heavily regulated by state or local governments so that such services are accessible and affordable to the majority of citizens regardless of the profitability of each individual customer relationship.
Assumptions: Society is most stable when everyone is working and everyone is benefitting. Allowing a small number of owners to control so much wealth and have so much power isn’t good for the majority of people or for the country as a whole. People will work hard if they know things are ‘fair’. Government is an important tool for regulating human behavior and maintaining a balanced economy a cooperative society.
Advantages: All citizens have access to basic needs – food, water, shelter, etc. As the gap between social/economic classes is narrowed (or closed), tensions between the rich and poor, the owner and the worker, are reduced or eliminated. In unity, there is strength.
Disadvantages: Without the potential for great profit, individuals and companies are less willing to invest in research, start new businesses, or otherwise take the sorts of creative risks typical in a capitalist economy. There's much less cool stuff. Reducing or removing rewards for success often reduces individual effort; if I end up with the same house, food, health care, and other stuff, whether I do much or not, the consequences for my own lack of effort or initiative are spread out over the entire society and I don’t really feel them. This level of regulating behavior and outcomes requires extensive government power and oversight, and governments with so much power quickly become corrupt.
Definition: The boundary between Socialism and Communism is rather vague. Communism is often thought of as the 'end game' of Socialism. There are no social or economic classes. “The workers control the means of production,” meaning that all land is held in common, and all factories, equipment, resources, etc., belong to everyone equally. We work for the good of one another – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
Assumptions: People can cooperate on this level with minimal government guidance. Equality is a sustainable state of being for a society.
Advantages: No hunger, no want, no conflict. Everyone contributes; everyone benefits. People with different skills and abilities are able to use those talents for the good of the whole without worrying about which jobs make more money.
Disadvantages: This hasn’t worked over any meaningful period of time on a large scale. Communism tends to require extreme government control and force, and power - even in the name of equality - tends to corrupt.
So, my Eleven Faithful Followers - what would you change? add? eliminate? clarify? I look forward to your responses.