If by whiskey… (part two)

Last time, you may recall, I talked a bit about Mississippi’s Rep. Noah Sweat and his famous “If By Whiskey” speech. The inspiration for that column came after some online interactions with my friend Brian the Banker. I would present him with some articles that gave what I thought was a reasoned critique of some capitalist flaw or another, and he would dismiss them outright as “just plain wrong.”

I came to realize that we were having an “if-by-whiskey” kind of problem. His vision of what the word “capitalism” meant simply did not allow for those kinds of defects, and, similarly, my vision of it didn’t include some of the virtues he ascribed to it. We weren’t even talking about the same thing. So maybe we need someone to write an “if-by-capitalism”... Oh wait! Here’s one:

“If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system [that] recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative… But if by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.” (Pope St. John Paul II, from his encyclical “Centesimus Annus.”)

John Paul II, who came out of Poland near the end of the Cold War, would hardly be considered a left-wing firebrand, but he certainly sees the potential flaws in unchecked capitalism.

Here’s an “if-by-socialism” text, following Sweat’s model, courtesy of economics blogger James Oswald (www.bit.ly/PJFifbysocialism):

“If when you say socialism you mean totalitarian dictatorship, crushing all individuality, the abolition of property, the utter destruction of civil society, the elimination of the freedom to pursue happiness, creating misery and poverty, yea, literally taking the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil ideology that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

“But, if when you say socialism you mean providing for those less fortunate, creating public works which support civilization, of creating uniform rules to rein in companies acting against common interests; if you mean taking a fair share of someone’s earnings to support a society which allows them to work peacefully with others in a productive way; if you mean that policy of using our treasuries to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our disabled, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.”

Do you see the problem we face? If we are to rely on simple labels, we have to make sure that we are in fact agreeing on the meanings of those labels—that is, assuming we are trying to arrive at some kind of mutually realized and accepted truth. But folks who are primarily interested only in winning arguments—or elections—have very strong incentives to muddle those distinctions. I don’t think capitalists want to return society to Dickensian conditions, and I don’t think socialists are looking to throw everyone into gulags and breadlines… but you can bet that all sorts of scary boogeymen and shibboleths will be invoked between now and November 2020.


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