The Scaffold of American Pillars: Economy, Politics, Ideology

The Scaffold of American Pillars: Economy, Politics, Ideology

Considerable effort is being spent lately in conversation about “this or that” country being Socialist or Communist and how that should drive American policy toward it. Equally compelling, the result of such a discussion can inform arguments about whether America is, in fact, Socialist. If America is “already Socialist,” arguments often follow, then those who declare otherwise (that America is “Capitalist”) fail in their intellectual consistency when arguing against adopting additional “Socialist” programs.  Clearly, such labels take on partisan rhetorical power as justifications for domestic and international policy. Definitions matter and, just like all language, have evolved within the context of a post-Cold War world.

Consider this analysis with three “pillars” as a scaffold:
1. Economic—On a macro scale, how are the scarce resources within an economy owned, managed, and distributed.
2. Political—On a state (national) level, how much control does the citizenry have over those who make decisions about how to manage the economy.  
3. Ideological—To what extent do pillars 1 and 2 drive an unrelenting ideology that requires neighbors—otherwise sovereign—to comply with similar economic and political systems.

For Americans of my generation (who grew up during the Cold War), there was little need (or room) for this nuanced, three-pillared approach. For descendants of the Cold War, the three pillars were combined into bright, rhetorically charged lines between “good” and “evil.”

The winners get to write the history, after all, and we can all agree that the (evil) Soviet Union no longer exists.   

Cold Warriors needed only to look at how a singularized (three pillars collapsed into one)  Communism destroyed (for examples) Vietnam, Korea, Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union.  After America (the West) won the Cold War, we should have been freed to take a more objective look at how and why Communism failed, but we haven’t done that mental work. We have been contented to maintain our single-pillared resistance to Communism, but we have, in our mental laziness, deprived ourselves of a cogent argument that we can apply to our contemporary discourse. Further, because we have been derelict in assessing the three-pillared analysis, we are left without an intellectual ground to defend when the generation-that-follows re-casts history in the terms of the present, without regard for a history that they did not live through. We are compelled, if we are to protect the future from the mistakes of the past, to be more precise in how we define Socialism, Capitalism, and Communism. Follows is a contemporary, three-pillared analysis that may inform our discussions.       

Capitalism: a pure economic (pillar 1) structure driven by the “invisible hand” of comparative advantage and trade to allocate scarce resources among individuals. It is the natural way that individuals, in the absence of government interference, would conduct trade. It is most compatible (pillar 2) with pure democracy, an ideological (pillar 3) purism that exists on a sliding scale. Democracy has no ideological mandate to spread throughout the world, but rather it is the default manner of political interaction among free, equal citizens. Pragmatically, other nations that believe democracy to be the default ideal are easier to trade with because they also share similar values regarding human rights and “fair” resource allocation. No state in the world is purely “Capitalist.” Capitalism is an ideological purism on one side of a sliding scale between “pure free trade” and “pure command.” Although the U.S. is not a pure Capitalist market and it is not a pure democratic political state, it is the closest to this pure combination in the world—and asserts itself as such, even as it sometimes acts—hypocritically—elsewise.

Communism: a pure economic structure (pillar 1) combined with a pure political structure (pillar 2) combined with a pure ideological structure (pillar 3). Economically, the means of production—resource ownership, management, and distribution—are controlled by the state. Politically, it is authoritarian/totalitarian with single party rule. Ideologically, it is charged with spreading this political-economic structure around the world, by violence and revolution if necessary. The Soviet Union is the best (worst) historical example of this. China and Cuba are modern examples of how it can “kinda” work. North Korea and Venezuela are examples of how it definitely doesn’t work. 

Because of the third pillar (ideological expansion), Communism comes in conflict with other nations (and other nations’ allies) that are resistant to the second pillar (authoritarianism/totalitarianism). The conflict is often costly and complicates the first pillar (economic command). Thus, the first pillar fails. We saw this in the Cold War and are seeing it more recently in Venezuela. Thus, to be clear, it’s not solely the economic system (pillar 1) failing on its own (although, it eventually would), it’s the economic system (pillar 1) failing because of its political (pillar 2) and ideological (pillar 3) failings.

Socialism: By its very nature, it is a “mixed” economic, political, and ideological system. Economically (pillar 1), it’s similar to communism: the means of production, management, and distribution of scarce resources (including labor) are controlled by the government.  In a sense, every modern nation has some degree of this (remember the sliding scale discussed regarding Capitalism above). Having an army, for instance, to protect a nation is, in theory, a socialist (what we might better call “socialized”) product: a government confiscates some resources from each citizen in taxes and pools all those resources into a single budget and distributes it for all citizens’ mutual protection. Public K-12 education and a state university system are also examples, as are fire departments and Social Security and welfare and highway systems. In some nations this also means healthcare and all higher education. From an economic perspective, such control leads to economic inefficiencies (because of the inherent lack of comparative-advantage-based trade in distribution, combined with the outflow of capital from the ownership and management of “natural” resources’ allocations). The grander the scale, the greater the risk of inefficiency: a cost that Socialists are willing to absorb (and those who prefer freer markets may effectively argue against) because such costs are also borne by the entire nation.

Politically (pillar 2), Socialism is often combined with some form of democracy (direct or indirect) and, in modern times, a belief in human rights (pillar 3)  that may be protected by some form of constitution. 

Socialism, in its “mixed-ness” does not tend toward an expansionist ideology (except in those cases where it is actually Communism trying to mask itself as something less than what it is (like modern Cuba or modern Venezuela)), but does favor trade with like-situated partners because it is easier. In its mixed-ness along the sliding scale between “pure Capitalism” (which doesn’t exist except as a pole on an imaginary line) and “pure Communism” (which also doesn’t exist except as a pole described above), the United States favors less government command of resources than most other nations (especially Western European examples). America is the most Capitalist of all the mixed-Socialist nations. America speaks the language—advances the rhetoric—of “Capitalism” even as it picks and chooses its Socialist traits. 

Socialism, then, is the default for most successful modern nations including the United States. To be clear, though, in the United States we are driven by pillars two (political) and three (ideological). In this, I mean that the Constitution does not guarantee  economic rights, but rather guarantees political and human rights. In Communism and in the roots of Western European Socialism, pillars 2 and 1 are more indistinguishable than in the US.

In other words, in the forms of Socialism practiced in much of the rest of the world, the implicit assumption is that political rights (pillar 2) are defined in economic (pillar 1) terms. In the United States, economic rights (pillar 1) are protected by—ancillary to—political rights (pillar 2). This is why ideological purists (like American political conservatives) resist movements further away from free-trade and Capitalist markets; such movements are interpreted as infringements upon the political-Constitutional definition of political equality and opportunity. In this context, the creation of rights which are based on economic “equality” runs contrary to the human right of equality-in-opportunity discussed in America’s founding documents.  

In summation, America is the most Capitalist, most democratic nation in the world. It is, in pure terms, neither: America is a Republic with a mixed (Socialist) economy. It is also driven by pillar 2—political rights—that are meant to protect pillar 1—economic rights— which makes the mixed-ness of America’s political-economic system different from those of Western Europe’s type of Socialism (where pillar 1 drives pillar 2) and very clearly different from Communism (which is MOST different in pillar 3). In final conclusion, the biggest threat to the “American way of life” is not in its level of deviation from capitalism (pillar 1), but in fundamental deviations from the principles of constitutional, democratic rule (pillar 2) and democratic principles’ protection around the world (pillar 3).

With this three-pillared approach, Americans—no longer content to fall into the lazy tropes of “good” versus “evil” that may have been sufficiently compelling in a bygone era—may:
1.   Admit that the United States has Socialist traits (in its economic mixed-ness) while also asserting that it highly values freer trade (pillar 1).
2.   Assert that the United States is more closely aligned to Capitalism as an economic system for owning, managing, and distributing resources as a manifestation (not source) of representative democracy (pillar 2).
3.   Maintain that the United States’ mixed-ness in pillars 1 and 2 is enforced and made intellectually consistent by its codified protections of natural, human rights (pillar 3).

Now, let’s talk about Cuba, Venezuela, China, and North Korea.
Now, let’s talk about authoritarianism, populism, and progressivism.


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