“I worked as a consultant for the 1989 presidential election in Chile, the first since the CIA-assisted coup in 1973,” recalled Michael Munger. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope I never live in a country where elections are so important.’ Well, I have bad news. I worry that whatever side loses in 2020 is going to say, ‘I don’t accept this outcome.’ So I worry this debate is one we have to take seriously.” Bernie’s on the trail and AOC is on the cover of TIME: an old man beloved by the young, and a Congresswoman under 30. It does feel like a moment.
This debate Munger referred to was a March 12 discussion of the question, “Is it time for America to embrace socialism?” held in the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice theater at the University of San Diego and hosted by its Center for Ethics, Politics, and Public Policy. Munger, a professor of political science at Duke, would be championing capitalism against NYU sociology professor Vivek Chibber’s case for socialism. Old timers like me arrived first, but students showed up, singly and in bunches, until about three-quarters of the 288 seats were full.
“This is not a contest to see who can win by scoring the most rhetorical points,” assured moderator (and USD philosophy professor) Matt Zwolinksi. “It is a collaborative search for truth that will enable you to walk away with a better understanding of your own position and of the other side’s position.” Just because a debate matters doesn’t mean it can’t be civil. Some might argue that the more it matters, the more civil it needs to be.
Chibber spoke first, arguing that socialism’s great goal was “the autonomy of individuals, what Marx called ‘organizing human arrangements to maximize the chances for human flourishing.’ What flourishing requires is autonomy,” and the massive concentration of capital — and therefore power — in an unfettered market “squelches the autonomy of the vast majority of people.” His axioms: the market should not be the arbiter of people’s fates, economic decision makers need to be democratically accountable, and inequalities of wealth should not mean inequalities of political power. His desires: an expanded welfare state that provides basic needs (housing, health care, education), increased taxes to promote social solidarity by narrowing the wealth gap, and government regulation of “the pillars on which a modern capitalist society rests.” His means: “the mobilization and organization of the poor. Historically, every case where anything like this was built up came on the back of a massive labor movement.” He noted a number of statistics, chief among them that “since 1973, productivity in the US has gone up rapidly, while real wages have been almost stagnant. 85% of all the income inrceases since 1980 have gone to the top 10 percent.” With Bernie Sanders, “for the first time in 100 years, a major politician is saying that it doesn’t have to be this way.”
In his reply, Munger was surprisingly conciliatory. He began by noting that “all existing [economic] systems are mixed” — no exemplary models of pure socialism or capitalism served as beacons to the world. Then he argued that “what capitalism is really good at is reducing poverty,” but that it comes at the price of inequality. “Since the pro-market reforms of Deng Xao Ping in 1978, China has seen the largest reduction of poverty in human history — from 88% in 1981 to 6.5% in 2012 — and the biggest increase in inequality the world has ever seen.” The danger, he argued, came from economic meddling. “It doesn’t matter if it’s some bureaucrat on the left or some corporate CEO who is doing the planning and distorting the price system, the effects are just as pernicious.” The problem, he said, was a failure in democracy — bought-and-paid-for politicians allowing corporate cronyism because their eyes were always on their next campaign. That, together with the fact that “every problem in consumers is worse in voters,” meant we ought not to put our economy in the state’s hands.
Munger pointed to Sweden as a possible model: “Capitalism saved Sweden, and now Sweden can save capitalism.” Replied Chibber, “If Swedish-style social democracy is what the right wants to push for, then sign me up.” A collaborative search for truth!
Then came the questions
“Try to limit yourself, in the name of a fair and equal distribution of question rights, to one short question, please,” said moderator Zwolinski.
“I’ll try to be really quick,” replied a man in an orange ballcap. “One observation that leads down to a question. So for the record, I’m a paleo-libertarian minarchist free-market capitalist…” Also announced for the record: “My shirt says, ‘Less Marx, more Mises.’ Just a quick audience poll: how many of you know who Marx is? Raise your hands. How many know who Mises is? You need to go out and do a little more research.” His observation: “I’m not sure Mike gave a really strong defense of capitalism.” He never quite asked a question.
It went on like that, more or less. Finally, a student was called upon to close out the session. Out of necessity, I have shortened her address, but I hope I have retained some of its flavor: “I want to speak very plainly and very directly. I want to invite everyone here to think. Question one: how can we stop going everywhere and nowhere at the same time? Question two: how can we no longer prioritize playing the game of Monopoly? Monopoly is the world’s most popular board game. Can we stop using that as a framework on how the world is supposed to exist? Anyone who is playing that game, in some ways, you have the mind of an oppressor. Someone who gets to roll the dice, control who gets what. Who enjoys playing Monopoly in this room? I will show you who you are and I will call you out. You are the reason why we are in these spaces. Why am I the first person in my family to be a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree holder?”
“I’m not sure I understood the question,” answered Chibber.