Capitalists and socialists square off in Kennedy School debate
By Raymie Stata
and Joan Abbott
"Capitalism vs. Socialism: Which is the Moral System?" That question was at the heart of a spirited debate Wednesday sponsored by the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Arguing for the socialist side were Jim Chapin, former national director of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Jack Clark, member of the local board of DSA. John Ridpath, professor of economics and intellectual history at York University, and Harry Binswanger, editor of The Ayn Rand Lexicon, defended capitalism.
The debate started with 10 minutes argument from each speaker, followed by questions from the moderator and the audience.
Binswanger and Ridpath defended capitalism on the basis of objectivism, the philosophy developed by novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand.
There are only two alternatives for human interaction, Binswanger argued. "Men can deal with one another by persuasion and voluntary action or by force." The basic social principle of objectivism, he said, is to bar the initiation of physical force.
Binswanger defended this principle by appealing to the role of reason in human survival. To live, he said, humans must produce and this requires rational thinking and action: "reason is man's means of survival." Force, he said, is anti-reason: "you must be left free to think and act on your own judgment without fear of force, jail, or fines." Thus, he concluded, freedom is the fundamental social value.
Ridpath extended Binswanger's argument by arguing that if an individual should not initiate the use of force then society shouldn't either. "Society is not some `collective organism' that comes into being when humans cooperate . . . What is morally wrong for an individual does not suddenly become right for society."
The principle of individual rights, he said, holds that all humans should be free from the initiation of physical force. "A moral government is one that protects individual rights, not one that violates them."
He went on to define capitalism as "the social system that recognizes individual rights in which the use of physical force is outlawed." He said that capitalism requires a full separation of economics and politics with no tariffs, quotas, regulations, minimum wage laws, or welfare programs.
Socialists challenge independence
Rather than defending socialism, the socialists, Chapin and Clark, spent most of their time questioning objectivism, even parts not mentioned explicitly by the capitalists.
Chapin challenged the objectivist view that independence is a virtue; he said that we all begin and end our lives dependent on others. The objectivist emphasis on independence is "a desperate fear to admit human frailty," he said. As to Binswanger's claim that selfishness is a virtue, Chapin said that "I've found that doing things for others is a better way of life."
Both Chapin and Clark argued that "capitalism is violence." Chapin reminded the audience of the fights over land in the 19th century; "private property," he said, "is theft." Clark said that "coercion and violence spread from poverty and starvation."
Chapin and Clark also challenged Binswanger's claim that wealth is created by individual effort. "Wealth," said Clark, "is created from a social process." Chapin went on to challenge Ayn Rand's position that we deserve everything we have; we must "go beyond the concept of earning and deserving" he said.
Sweden is the model
In their defense of socialism, the socialist side was more concerned with pointing to a general direction for society than for giving technical, philosophic arguments. "We are concerned with compass points for society," said Clark, "broad ideals towards which we can move."
The ideal for the socialists is what they called the "advanced social democracies" of northern Europe, in particular Sweden. Chapin contrasted this form of socialism with "barracks communism;" he said that he is after a "interplay of socialist ideas and capitalist ideas." "If Rand was right," said Chapin, "then the social democracies of northern Europe would be in trouble." Instead, he claimed, they are doing better than America.
Clark stressed that the ideal society must include "social and economic rights" in addition to political rights. "Social and economic rights are widely accepted in the West and were widely accepted among the Chinese students at Tiananmen Square."
Questioning the morality
The capitalists' main criticism of the socialist argument was that it failed to discuss the morality of socialism. Ridpath claimed that the socialists gave no definitions, no discussion of morality, and no justification of the initiation of force on behalf of the government inherent in any socialist system.
"Bringing in Christ, Indians, and labor unions is not a philosophic argument," Ridpath said, referring to some of the anti-capitalist remarks made by the socialists. Instead of arguing for the morality of socialism, he said, they "substituted snide remarks and anti-capitalist cracks."
Binswanger added that "the socialist presentation of statistics without underlying principles or definitions is intellectual fraud."
Capitalists called unrealistic
The capitalists took heat from both the socialists and the audience for their discussion of philosophy, especially Ayn Rand's philosophy. Chapin felt that, although "Ayn Rand was fun to read," her philosophy was not realistic. A student from the audience asked "what does your philosophy have to do with reality?"
Ridpath responded by arguing that philosophy is important. He said that "the human mind deals with reality in an abstract way" and that it is through abstractions that one understands the nature of knowledge and human life. He said that the 20th century is "awash with blood" because of wrong ideas. Addressing the students directly, he said "ideas are important. Your future is at stake."
One issue both sides agreed on was that the ethics of Christianity implies the politics of socialism. "One thing I admire about Rand," said Chapin, "is her honesty. She was an atheist. She said that Christianity and capitalism are incompatible, and she was right." Both sides were united against the religious right; during the question period, Binswanger said "if you're a Christian, please become a socialist -- we don't want you."