Trust Not in Ideologies

“Put not your trust in princes,” advises the Bible.

I would add “put not your trust in ideologies.”

Ideologies don’t make decisions. People make decisions, for good or for ill.

Every way to organize society has advantages and disadvantages. If you want the advantages of a particular method, you must accept its disadvantages.

And one way or another, the disadvantages usually come back to the human factor. Every social system is inevitably run by people.

Rarely, people are wise; occasionally, they are noble. Once in a while, they are lucky. Often, they are self-interested. Usually, they are blind to anything except what they want. And they’ll make up all kinds of reasons why what they want is the only sensible choice.

Let’s take capitalism versus socialism as an example. A couple of people were arguing about them on the internet Friday morning.

First, we should define the terms. Too often, people skip that step. Their arguments degenerate into shouting matches because neither side knows what it’s arguing about. Let’s go to The Oxford English Dictionary:

  • Capitalism: “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”
  • Socialism: “[an economic and political system in which] the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”

In both of those systems, the devil is in the details.

Capitalism has two main advantages. First, it’s very efficient at making stuff. If it works right, people can have a higher standard of living than under socialism. Second, in theory, lots of private businesses compete with each other. That keeps any individual business or person from getting too powerful. Moreover, all those businesses compete for workers, thereby raising wages and decreasing inequality.

But capitalism needs rules. Whoever writes the rules can rig the economy to favor themselves.

If the political system is decentralized, then they can only write rules for their own small area. So they try to centralize all decision-making in the national government, where they can rig the system for the entire country. That’s how we got five big banks that control most finance; five big media companies that control publishing, entertainment, and communication; Amazon; and many of our current billionaires. It’s why open-borders activists have no clue that they’re being used by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which wants millions more workers to push down wage rates.

Likewise, in theory, socialism has resources owned “by the community as a whole.” But the community as a whole doesn’t get to decide how resources are used. Those decisions are made by a small group of people at the top.

If the people on top mean well, which happens once in a while, they try to make decisions for the common good. Unfortunately, their decisions are guesses, because socialism gives them no way to know how much things are worth. That’s one reason it’s inefficient.

If the people on top don’t mean well, then there’s not much that average citizens can do about it. That’s how the Russians got Stalin, the secret police, gulags, and mass starvation that The New York Times very helpfully covered up.

But in a homogeneous, high-trust society with good people running things, socialism can work well enough. It can satisfy people who value cooperation and material equality more than efficiency and a high standard of living. Sweden used to be like that.

The bottom line goes back to people, as well as to a lot of circumstances that nobody can control or predict. Whether you call it capitalism, socialism, Georgism, propertarianism, libertarianism, or anarcho-capitalism, what happens will depend mainly on a combination of people and sheer luck. The ideology is just the label we’ll give to it.

So hang on tight, and good luck. Don’t worry too much. Have some soup.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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