A Debate About Economics Systems

Sorry guys, it’s been a long few weeks and I haven’t done a post. I recently got into an interesting discussion with a friend about an article entitles Civilization is Doomed. The article talks about some of the models that project what our future will be like based on the way things are currently going, and it does not look really good. The current epoch is about to end, or at least that is what the article states. The article specifically talks about “Elites” as being the main cause of this problem. Here is where the argument begins. In our current system are capitalists to blame? Here is the discussion. Leave any thoughts in the comments.


Him: Are politicians also capitalists? Doctors? Teachers? And if those groups aren’t, then are the traditional “capitalists” like Bill Gates or Chuck Feeney who spend an enormous amount of effort on trying to change the current system?

Me: We all participate in capitalism so unless you are actively trying to subvert it then you are. Bill gates supports capitalism as an ideology although he does work to make a gentler capitalism sure. Also the article references noneliteswho prop up the current system.

Him: Maybe “the current system” is just gross inequality at all levels of global society. Maybe “the current system” is trashing the planet and not paying for it. There’s nothing in this article that says that capitalism is the reason that the collapses they modelled occurred.

Me: Are you going to argue then that we do not live in a capitalist society?

Him: No, I’m going to argue that “capitalism” is not the biggest problem we have in the world, or that a major societal collapse would be directly attributable to it.

Me: Well if capitalism is the current system then its impacts are directly tied to a lot of the problems. The environmental impacts are directly tied to capitalism

Him: Sure, in the sense that capitalism has allowed us to be productive enough that our environmental impacts are actually a problem. But if that’s the issue we’re talking about, would you rather everyone be poor enough that our environmental impacts aren’t a problem, or maybe work with the really quite efficient system we have and try to create incentives within it to reduce damaging behaviour? Or maybe try and change the people who are ultimately making the decisions, i.e. everyone who’s reading this post right now, and get them to not be greedy, or be more caring about the environment/each other.

Me:  I think thats a false dichotomy. You’re implying it has to be one way or the other and i don’t think thats the case. We could have a system that is slower but allows humans the capacity to live real lives.

Him: Yes. But then what is the alternative? How hard would it be to make capitalism more sustainable, and how easy would it be to go with the alternative? I agree that there are no incentives not to be greedy, but you’re not going to solve that by just saying that people aren’t allowed to accumulate wealth. And there are no incentives to not seek out constant growth, but that’s what 99% of the planet wants at this moment. That’s not a fault of capitalism, it’s a fault of the value people put on things.

Him: A good way to fight that is to not say “Hey guys, I think capitalism is destroying our society”, and instead say “Hey guys, I think the way we value our time and our livelihoods is destroying our society”. At the very least, then you’re focusing on the right issue. And I realize that “capitalism” is the general term for everything that’s wrong with the way our economy works nowadays, but it really shouldn’t. “Capitalism” is a term specifically referring to the purposes society puts its economy to use for. You can talk about inequality and environmental destruction and overconsumption, and I will agree with you that they are massive problems. But they are not synonymous with capitalism.

Me:Sorry, just got home, and my phone was dying. There are tonnes of alternatives to capitalism. The two I would probably vie for would either be anarcho-socialism or anarcho-syndaclism. 

You’re also implying that politics is not intimately related to economics. To say Capitalism is just an economic principle is misleading. Also saying that 99% of the people want this, is ignoring the large historical reasons people would want this, like colonialism, and being socialized (for better or worse) into capitalism. 

Me: Capitalism is built on inequality, you can’t have capitalism without some sort of disparity somewhere. Either you’re exploiting workers, or you’re exploiting resources. You can’t make profit unless someone is losing something. That’s not to say that you can’t have inequality without capitalism, which would be absurd. But to say that capitalism doesn’t inherently imply a degree of inequality is also untrue. A Capitalist needs to make profit. That’s a definition of capitalism. So where does profit come from in a capitalist system?

Him: Yes, capitalism does basically require some level of inequality to function. And at some levels, that’s necessary for the functioning of society. Inequality is the driver behind some important motivations in society, and saying “you should generally try and make money in the economy” means we can do all sorts of cool things like trade with people far away. Money incentives generally push people towards jobs that are in demand, and scarcity means that if people want to consume more in society, they should have to work harder to some extent. And if you don’t feel like you need something, you should be rewarded for not consuming it.

That’s not to say that you need the massive income inequality that we have today. I’ve seen/read proposals for income inequality that has the richest person in society have less than 20x as much income as the poorest. You may still say that’s unjust, but I do think that someone who’s gone to school for 8 years to learn medicine, should be paid more than someone who didn’t spend that amount of time in postsecondary school. The trick is you have to make sure that the inequality in your society isn’t preventing people from doing the things they want to do.

I definitely agree with you that anarcho-socialism or anarcho-syndicalism (of which the latter is actually a form of capitalism) would be interesting economic systems that I think could do a lot of social good. But I also think that societies based on those economies (certainly anarcho-socialism) would slowly become less and less global as the individual incentives to keep up large-scale global trade disappear. Now, that sounds alright, until you realize that things like computers, cars, electricity production, being able to visit your families, and spaceflight, are all based on a large, nonlocal economy.


Me: See I would disagree, I think you can have other incentives in society that are not based on economic capital, like prestige that would allow people to work hard as well, and still get some benefit from it.

For the person who has gone to school and learned medicine, as long as there are social structures in place that disadvantage other groups from each other, this is still an unequal power relation that has little to do with any sort of meriotocratic achievement. This is not ‘capitalism’ per se but it is related to capitalism in that rich people breed the values of rich people. Also, the doctor can’t do their work without nurses, technicians, people to manufacture the tools etc. Even nurses are on average paid less than doctors, it’s not that they have done less schooling, but there job is considered less important.

I don’t think that’s inherently true. With things like the internet, there’s no reason to assume that people would have to go into small micro societies, although local decisions would still occur on the local level, and there would need to be some sort of loose representation. Anarchism doesn’t inherently imply a shift away from technology (anarcho-primitivism being the exception), but the way technology is used, and under what guidelines its created.

Him: Yes, and if you’d like to suggest a mechanism for how exactly a form of anarchism could maintain the same kind of large-scale exchange that we do now that works, I would be more than happy to explore how such a mechanism could be implemented. But capitalism does these things very well; the free market in general is extraordinarily good at taking arbitrary restrictions and incentives and producing efficient outcomes. Why do we have to assign the whole thing the blackest label we can find, when we could instead just manipulate it to do good?

Me: Considering the access we currently have to networks (and with enough work they could be transformed into mesh networks), I don’t know why the internet would not play a huge role in the way information is shared and decisions are made. We currently have access to a really powerful tool for communication which can be utilized without capitalism.


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