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Capitalism Vs. Socialism Debate Hinges on Concept of Coercion

Sep 19, 2019
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Two authors with opposing viewpoints focused on the concept of coercion during a socialism vs. capitalism debate on Sept. 17, 2019, at the University of Maryland.

“Freedom means the absence of coercion,” said Yaron Brook, author of "Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government" and chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute. “Freedom means the absence of a gun put to your head, where you’re told what to do.”

He said capitalism systematizes the absence of coercion. “It eliminates coercion from society by protecting the rights of individuals,” he said.

Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin Magazine and author of "The Socialist Manifesto: A Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality," defined coercion more loosely. Although oppressive in some situations, he said coercion can be a recourse for citizens against exploitation in the workplace.

“If you are stuck in a job you hate, that is coercion,” Sunkara said. “If you can’t afford to get a degree, that is coercion.”

He said the government has an obligation to intervene on behalf of ordinary citizens to protect them from the people who control society’s wealth. The key is giving citizens power to decide when coercion is justified.

“We are for all sorts of intrusions,” he said. “But we believe in democratically setting these limits.”

Students and faculty lined up outside the Riggs Alumni Center for the event, presented by the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. The discussion was part of a nationwide debate tour in partnership with The Steamboat Institute.

Brook identifies as not only an advocate for laissez-faire economics, but also as an “objectivist,” the term for a follower of Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand and a believer of moralistic selfishness.

Sunkara is an advocate for socialist democracy and a critic of socialist systems like the one in Venezuela. He instead calls for a “de-commoditized social benefits” built on a capitalist system, where companies are worker-owned and college is a right.

He argues that unregulated workplaces inevitably devolve into tyrannies.

Brook said public programs that guarantee access to things such as education and healthcare violate the rights of individuals, or minorities, because they require other people to provide those services.

“The only minority is the individual,” Brook said.

Moderator Jillian Kay Melchior, editorial page writer at The Wall Street Journal, set the tone by creating a sense of urgency around Generation Z’s political polarization, and asked the audience: Are you capitalist, socialist, or undecided? A vast majority of students identified as capitalist, with a few undecided and socialist students.

The conversation turned to a societal transition toward these ideologies. Sunkara explained that the United States is already on the path toward his vision.

“Socialism used to prompt a flurry of questions — sometimes disdain, sometimes general confusion,” he said. “Now people are saying ‘Yes, sure. Leave me alone.”

Sunkara emphasized that some socialist democratic ideas — free college education, healthcare-for-all, labor unions and even worker-owned corporations are already gaining traction.

Brook argued that the trajectory toward pure capitalism would be more difficult, but that removing government from the economy begins with education.

He cited examples of government interventions gone wrong. He called the antitrust case against Standard Oil the “first great violation of human rights,” and a situation that self-corrected with the invention of electricity before the government got involved.

“Corporate taxes are stupid taxes,” Brook said. “If you know anything about economics, you know that the workers and consumers end up paying them.” Sunkara agreed with this point, emphasizing his idea of a worker-owned corporation, governed by voting.

Brook rejected the notion that corporations would take the place of government in his vision. “The government has guns,” he said. “Corporations don’t. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.”

The conversation ended with a disagreement on negative and positive rights. Negative rights such as free speech do not require other people to act on your behalf, only to leave you alone. Positive rights such as free education force other people to give you something or do something for you.

“People want more freedom to do what they want, and I agree that means taking something away from someone,” Sunkara said. “But there are limits to what one can take.”

Brook said taking property from one person and giving it to another through coercion is always wrong. “The only right you have is to be left alone,” he said. “There is no such thing as a positive right.”

The conversation series will continue at the University of Texas-Austin, and University of Colorado-Denver.

— Kira Barrett, Maryland Smith communications writer

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