Socialism, Capitalism, and Social Science Abuse

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Anyone who follows issue-oriented discussions during America’s 2020 election season, which is about a year old now, will encounter many, many references to socialism, communism, and Communism. This article not about those terms, but about how they can be abused to sell misperceptions, fear, and bad ideas.

Communism, Capitalism, Socialism

Take a few minutes to define those terms in your own words.

Did you think of North Korea, Amazon.com, and socialized medicine? Lots of people will. That’s because communism, Communism, and socialism are so easy to misrepresent. One assumes, perhaps foolishly, that politicians and analysts on the news will use those terms correctly.

Keep in mind that socialism is an economic system where the government owns all or most property, including factories and farms. A country where the government owns and manages most of the nation’s assets has a socialist economic system. A country with an authoritarian government that constantly spies on citizens and heavily regulates their lives is not a socialist government. No government can be ‘socialist’ because socialism is an economic system. A nation with an authoritarian government and a socialist economic system would be a Communist country.

No nation on earth has a communist economic system, because communism tends to assume there is no government. People own and manage their resources directly, and collectively. Bear in mind that many flavors of communism and socialism exist, but nothing fundamentally changes. A country with a socialist economic system could have real democracy or a sham democracy like North Korea.

Definitions and Measurements

What does one mean when one says that socialism doesn’t work? What does it mean to say that capitalism is destroying the planet? Claims like these may come up because of ignorance but not always. It would be dangerously naive to think activists and politicians use vague language because they don’t know any better.

What might be going on is something like this: If we define success or failure in quantitative terms, we know have a measurable way to compare various forms of socialism and capitalism. This does not serve the interests of conservative politicians.

Define what success looks like in the beginning, if you want to approach social policy in a scientific way. Is socialized medicine better than capitalist medicine? Well, what criteria shall we use to compare them? This is tough because often the debates are so riddled with ideology and emotion that we just tend to pick whatever criteria help our case — a phenomenon known as belief bias.

Lies and Big Lies

Senator Rand Paul once described a doctor being forced at gunpoint to treat someone who can’t pay for medical services. This was his vision of ‘socialized medicine.’ Not to get too deep, but medicine can’t be capitalist or socialist because it is just a word. The way that people get medical services could be regulated by the government, by market forces, or by some mix of markets and government forces. Senator Paul was trying to scare impressionable or ignorant people by raving about doctors and nurses becoming slaves to the State. In reality, all current proposals for healthcare reform in the United States would leave plenty of room for earning salaries and starting or growing healthcare businesses.

Please Don’t Think, Thanks

If socialism doesn’t ‘work’ then there must be some way of knowing. How do we know if something works better than something else without a standard for comparing those things? If socialized medicine is worse than capitalist medicine, there must be performance metrics we can collect and compare. Right? Wrong. No one who tells you to be concerned about socialized medicine will ever give you a fair comparison with capitalist medicine. Instead, what you will get is cherry-picking. A politician who opposes socialized medicine will tell us that wait times are much longer.

That gives us something to work with, doesn’t it? Waiting for medical care can be dangerous even deadly. Interested persons could dig up statistics from countries with socialized medicine and for the United States. Are wait times significantly longer in those nations for a range of medical procedures? If so, then we have discovered that socialized medicine is inferior. Right?

Wrong. What we find is that capitalist medicine outperforms socialized medicine in one way. Is that all that matters? If you have decided to defend capitalist medicine no matter what, then it is. Otherwise, we might want to look at other performance measures:

  • Life expectancy
  • Total cost (taxes, insurance, out-of-pocket spending)
  • Death rates in hospitals
  • Infant mortality

These figures might not change minds though. Many people have picked one side or the other and will only pay attention to statistics that support their side. Other people can be misled because we never collectively decided that counts, what variables are the most important here.

Again, Please Don’t Think

Whether the subject is medicine, pollution, education, or racism, count on politicians and pundits to misuse language and cherrypick statistics. Industrious propaganda artists can string together a number of points that make anything look good or bad. However, if you think a little like a social scientist, you will find plenty of weaknesses in their presentation. Then, you should ask WHY. Don’t expect either side to define what success looks like or what makes one thing better than another. Expect statistics picked to support a conclusion that’s based on ideology.

I’m a sociologist, blogger, and sci-fi writer who cares about fighting propaganda, effective nonprofit marketing, lateral thinking & scientific social activism.