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My Response to Elizabeth Bruenig on Socialism

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Economics, Libertarianism Over at libertarianism.org, I have a longish blog post responding to the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig’s two recent columns defending socialism. Some snippets: “The overarching problem with Bruenig’s two-column argument is her inability to fairly define capitalism and specifically define socialism.  What we get in terms of capitalism in the first piece is this: [C]apitalism…encourages and requires fierce individualism, self-interested disregard for the other, and resentment of arrangements into which one deposits more than he or she withdraws. (As a business-savvy friend once remarked: Nobody gets rich off of bilateral transactions where everybody knows what

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Economics, Libertarianism

Over at libertarianism.org, I have a longish blog post responding to the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig’s two recent columns defending socialism. Some snippets:

“The overarching problem with Bruenig’s two-column argument is her inability to fairly define capitalism and specifically define socialism.  What we get in terms of capitalism in the first piece is this:

[C]apitalism…encourages and requires fierce individualism, self-interested disregard for the other, and resentment of arrangements into which one deposits more than he or she withdraws. (As a business-savvy friend once remarked: Nobody gets rich off of bilateral transactions where everybody knows what they’re doing.) Capitalism is an ideology that is far more encompassing than it admits, and one that turns every relationship into a calculable exchange. Bodies, time, energy, creativity, love — all become commodities to be priced and sold. Alienation reigns. There is no room for sustained contemplation and little interest in public morality; everything collapses down to the level of the atomized individual.

It takes some chutzpah to define capitalism that way then complain your critics are arguing in bad faith, given what a bad-faith explanation of capitalism that is….

The problem with both of her definitions/descriptions is that they do not specify the institutional framework that marks either system. They are descriptions of the (supposed) results of each system without ever telling us how each is supposed to work. How, exactly, in the case of socialism are those results to be achieved? Without specifying the relevant institutions and, more important, examining whether those institutions are robust to human ignorance and knavery, we have nothing more than wishful thinking, or what Mike Munger has called “unicorn governance.”

By ignoring these questions of institutions and their robustness, and by defining socialism in terms of its desired outcomes, Bruenig is able to skirt around the most fundamental questions in the long history of the debates over socialism….

Mises, Hayek, and the other critics of socialism also did something that Bruenig refuses to do: argue in good faith. They accepted the claim of the socialists that the socialists really did want to make the world a more prosperous and just place. What they questioned is whether the means socialists wished to adopt were able to achieve those laudable goals. These social scientific questions are left unasked by Bruenig, who simply seems to assume that her version of “socialism” can do all of the wonderful things it promises, while capitalism will continue to produce her imagined horrors. Without specifying the relevant institutions, socialism is left to mean more or less whatever she wants it to mean, with the result being that she can claim the Nordic economies but distance herself from the Soviet Union and Venezuela among others.”

Steve Horwitz
Steven "Steve" Horwitz (born 7 February 1964) is an American economist of the Austrian School. Horwitz was born in Detroit, Michigan to Ronald and Carol Horwitz. He was raised in Oak Park, Michigan and graduated from Berkley High School in Berkley, Michigan in 1981. He graduated cum laude with an A.B. in Economics and Philosophy from the University of Michigan in 1985, where he was also active with several libertarian student groups and where he wrote and performed with the Sunday Funnies/Comedy Company sketch comedy group.

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