Wouldn’t it be nice if we could simply invent new terms to replace the words that seem to cause more heat than light? For example, I have written before of my qualms about using the word capitalism to describe the free-market economy. The word was coined by capitalism’s enemies to describe the system that they rejected.
Red Plenty, a marvelous book by Francis Spufford, offers an important perspective on our discussion of terms. The book is a must-read for fans of free markets. It combines elements from the actual history of the use of mathematics to try to plan the Soviet economy, fictional dialogue and some fictional characters, and Spufford’s excellent understanding of the economics of capitalism and socialism to create an incredibly readable account of the attempt to engineer a world of abundance in the former Soviet Union.
Is it really capitalists who benefit the most from capitalism?
In the senior seminar I teach, we recently read a section of the book that deals with how the Soviet planning process actually worked. That section got me thinking about the terms capitalism and socialism again. The term capitalism suggests a system built around capital and its interests, while the word socialism suggests one built around society and its interests. Notice how these connotations beg some questions from the start.
Is it really true, for example, that capitalism is centered around capital and its interests? Is it really capitalists who benefit the most from capitalism? And on the other side: have existing socialist economies ever served the interests of society as a whole? Could socialis…