Capitalism vs. Socialism: Comparing Economic Systems
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All of the tradeoffs in competing economic systems—capitalism, socialism, and communism—are controversial. These systems and ideologies have undeniably shaped the way people view both the world today and modern history. But where does capitalism begin and socialism end? In short, it’s about choice and compromise.
Capitalism and socialism turn on the major societal issues of education, healthcare, social services, and taxation. And they raise civil liberties tradeoffs that weigh individual freedom against the social safety net and collective security. Because economics focuses on these pocketbook issues, many people believe the field is simply about money when, in reality, money is merely a means to an end. Economics is really about people and their lives, and societies have been in pursuit of the ideal system for centuries, one that can balance these ongoing, competing desires for freedom versus security. No one has found perfect equilibrium—the debates rage on and economies are in constant flux—but some major contenders have emerged, all of which are variations of capitalism and socialism in differing degrees and combinations. Determining which, if any, is the best possible option in a definitive way, however, is a Sisyphean task and one riddled with complications.
Understanding and endeavoring to solve these perpetual dilemmas is the job of comparative economics. By looking at the many economies around the world—their histories, their failures and successes—comparative economics attempts to uncover the influences, systems, and decisions that can do the most good for the most people. Guiding you through this complex web of values and theories is Edward F. Stuart, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Northeastern Illinois University, who is a specialist in both comparative economics and Russian and Eastern European studies. Professor Stuart has been traveling, teaching, and learning about these economic systems—in the former Soviet Union, the former Eastern Bloc, China, Scandinavia, and Europe—for more than 30 years. It could even be argued that he was born to be a comparative economist, raised in a household defined by the very debates he analyzes as personified in the libertarian views of his father and his mother’s social progressivism. This familial link to his subject offers a personal dimension to his approach, one that demonstrates his ongoing passion for the ways these debates play out on a global scale.
Economists venture to understand immensely complex systems that encompass not only finance and trade, but social structures, governments, family arrangements, geography, and more. The illuminating 24 lectures of Capitalism vs. Socialism: Comparing Economic Systems will show you the many ways the most influential modern economic theories were developed, how they function (or don’t), and how they manage to operate both together and in opposition to each other, from the rise of Soviet communism to the future of the European Union and beyond. As you compare and contrast the many ways societies tackle economic issues, Professor Stuart demonstrates that even the most controversial economic decisions boil down to a deceptively simple question: What makes a good society?
One of the first misconceptions Professor Stuart clarifies is that there is no definitive way to determine if an economy is objectively “good” or “bad.” Rather, there are many statistics and data points economists can use to measure the relative health of a given system. From gross domestic product (GDP) to unemployment rates to inflation and even life expectancy, there is no shortage of measuring tools. The greatest difficulty lies not just in translating complex metrics, but in choosing which of these measurements matter. While discussion of GDP is common in the news, not everyone holds it as the absolute yardstick for economic success. And while few people would argue that low unemployment and low rates of inflation are good things for an economy, even fewer can agree as to whether either is a significant statistic to measure prosperity. As Professor Stuart notes, “people can argue forever using whatever statistics prove their point.”
If there are no foolproof conclusions to draw from the wealth of information available, how do we know when an economy “works”? What is more important, economic equality or rapid growth? Low inflation or infant mortality rates? As you progress through the history of capitalism, socialism, communism, and mixed-economies—and look at their manifestations across the world today—Professor Stuart will demonstrate that absolutes in economics are much like those in culture or politics: impossible and ultimately unhelpful. Rather, it is in finding balance, making comparisons and compromises, that economies discover how to prosper, stagnate, or, in some cases, collapse.
The Paradoxes of Prosperity
On the surface, the study of economics can seem like purely a numbers game, relying as it does on large-scale, impersonal statistics to focus attention on broad trends. This “big picture” approach can sometimes mean that the human costs of prosperity can be dismissed as simply the cost of doing business. Slavery and exploitation. Unsafe working conditions. Child labor. Government oppression. Rather than gloss over these and other issues, Capitalism vs. Socialism will take you across centuries and around the world to show you both sides of the story, diving into the history of economic systems and the individuals and groups that shaped them, whether they be famous industrialists like Josiah Wedgewood, notable economic thinkers like Adam Smith and Karl Marx, political leaders such as Stalin, FDR, or Otto von Bismarck, or the many nameless workers and citizens whose time and labor form the backbone of any economy.
If people are the real heart of economics, then it should be unsurprising that there are many paradoxes inherent in economic systems. Professor Stuart takes you through the many developments of modern economics and highlights that, while there are a host of advantages and disadvantages that must be balanced in any system, some roadblocks can arise from unexpected or counterintuitive elements. Some of these paradoxes include:
- The necessity of strong government in free market systems. Successful, large-scale capitalist enterprise requires a strong central government to enforce property and contract laws.
- The “paradox of thrift.” While it is smart for individuals and businesses to save and build up cash reserves to survive a recession, when the behavior becomes widespread it will eventually negatively affect total spending, incomes, production, employment, etc.
- More money doesn’t equal more spending. Known as “marginal propensity to consume,” wealthy individuals demonstrate unstable spending habits, while poor people will almost always spend 100% (or even slightly more) of their income.
- “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Professor Stuart highlights how, in his allegorical novel Animal Farm, George Orwell underscores an irony of communism in practice, wherein everyone is said to be equal but a rigid hierarchy of power exists nonetheless.
Capitalism and socialism (and by extension, communism) are often treated as if they are always in opposition to each other, but by looking at their origins and development, you will discover that this is far from the truth; they are, in fact, inextricably connected. Many social, political, and even religious factors intersected to support the birth of capitalism at a time when new, more democratic political systems were emerging from under the oppressive shadow of feudalism. In turn, modern socialism is the direct result of the pitfalls of free-market capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries—the exploitation and dangerous, impoverished conditions workers were often subjected to inspired reformers and political thinkers to envision new ways to create a better, more equal society. Meanwhile, other nations took socialist ideology to an extreme in various forms of authoritarian communism. Professor Stuart looks closely at these systems and their histories, revealing their strengths and weaknesses and demonstrating why there is no pure capitalist (or pure socialist) system working in the world today.
As Professor Stuart guides you through the origins and evolutions of economic thought, you will look at some of the greatest experiments and failures of the last few centuries, including the creation of early American socialist experiments, the far-reaching economic implications of World War I, how the Great Depression highlighted the instability of post-war markets, the rise and fall of Soviet communism, the mixed-model economies of Europe, the rising tide of Asian market economies, and much more. Along the way, he also shares insightful personal stories and reveals unexpected connections between economics and other facets of modern life and culture. Throughout the lectures, you will find answers to questions like:
- Where do phrases like “when my ship comes in” and “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” originate?
- What is the correlation between the average physical height of a population and economic growth?
- Why are the goldsmiths of the middle ages so important in the history of modern economics?
- Where does the concept of the money-back guarantee come from?
- What is the link between a 19th-century socialist experiment and the microwave?
- How did novelists like Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Charles Dickens, and George Orwell influence the arguments surrounding various economic systems?
- What can rock music and the Rubik’s cube tell us about post-World War II capitalism?
The End of History?
In the end, what does make a good society? If every nation, every community, and even every individual across the globe assigns a different value to the tradeoffs of social solidarity and individual freedom that define economic systems, how do we predict the future of world economies? Hundreds of economies operate side by side and every single one has advantages and disadvantages that cannot be objectively measured.
As Professor Stuart observes, we are not at the end of history; many of the questions we ask today will continue to be asked far into the future. What comparative economics promises is not a “final” form of human government or the ultimate economic plan, but rather the opportunity to uncover the ways societies have shaped—and will continue to shape—the world to fit the boundless ideals that make a good society, and what each option can tell us about ourselves, the world we live in, and the world we want to create.
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