#81 Vanishing Definitions (2004)

All Rights Reserved © 2004 Thomas W. Day

Twenty years ago, I took an American Government course from Dr. Herrick Arnold, at Orange Coast Community College.  Dr. Herrick was a local Republican wig during the Nixon years, which cost him his political career and stuck him in a community college.  One of the many things I got out of Dr. Arnold's class was a set of economic definitions that have stuck with me for life.  One of the other things was an understanding that all systems gravitate toward developing an elite class.

When Americans debate politics and economics (you can't have one without the other), we tend to believe that the two poles are right and left, capitalism and socialism.  The extremes appear to meet so closely that you can't tell the right from the left.  Practical applications of communism and fascism are so alike that they may as well share the same name.  Unfortunately for the middle class, practical applications of capitalism and socialism depend on the center (politically and economically) to support the extremes.  What we need to develop are common terms that actually have meaning in a discussion.

Dr. Arnold's definitions of capitalism, socialism, and communism are the best I've ever heard.  He defined capitalism as a system where all assets are privately owned and the government's tasks are restricted to national defense and a few core maintenance tasks.  Taxation is purely for the purpose of generating revenue for these basic tasks. 

The USA, for instance was relatively capitalist from 1776 until the early 1800s.  After that . . . you pick your definition from the following options.

  1. Socialism is a system where the nation's assets are co-owned, some are private and some are government.  Taxation and tariffs are used to raise revenue for basic functions, to control and direct economic and social activity.  Bureaucracy is moderate to large, depending on population size and available resources.  Most of the world’s democracies have been socialist, by this definition since the 1900s. 
  2. Communism is a system where the nation's assets are government-owned or centrally managed by an organization that passes for government.  Bureaucracy is huge.  Taxes don't exist because the government receives all of the nation's revenue and distributes it as it sees fit.  Supposedly, "to each as he needs, from each as he can provide."  However, government is, by nature, corrupt and distribution is the problem in communist states.  Most multi-national corporations act as communist states within their realm of power.  A realm that is growing exponentially in the US.
  3. Capitalism is a system where the nation's assets are privately-owned.  Bureaucracy is minimal and only provides basic services; national defense and management of major natural resources, for example.  It's a wonderful ideal that always fails due to human nature.  Humans are vicious, stupid, and selfish and need constant supervision of they'll piss in their own drinking water.  In history, capitalism always gets replaced by socialism or a dictatorship after the capitalists ruin their own living spaces.
  4. A dictatorship is what most historic forms of government amounted to, including theocracies and monarchies.  The ideal is a Benevolent Dictator.  Since this has, supposedly, happened in monarchies in the past, many conservative dreamers hope it could happen again.  Of course, these dumb asses think the 1950s were an idyllic time in the US, so what do they know?  The problem with this "theory" is that there is always a problem with the successor.  Since a dictator isn't elected, any damn fool can end up in charge of the guillotine.  Usually, a damn fool does.

Other systems exist, but they're just variations on these three major categories.  Theocracy, for example, is just communism with funny hats and shoes and men wearing dresses.  Anarchism, the political theory that opposes all forms of government, is capitalism without national defense and with choking air pollution and a planet so over-heated by unrestrained human misbehavior that all life ceases to exist in a few years.

Socialist democracy is flawed and full of traps, but it's still the best system we have.  Nuts.

January 2004

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