Does Socialism or Free Enterprise Best Serve the Common Good?

Article excerpt

IN CHAPTER 21 of St. Matthew's Gospel, Jesus proposes a moral dilemma in the form of a parable: A man asks his two sons to work for him in his vineyard. The first son declines, but later ends up going. The second son tells his father be will go, but never does. "Who," Jesus asks, "did the will of his father?" Although I am loath to argue that Jesus' point was an economic one, we nonetheless derive from it a moral lesson with which to evaluate economic systems in terms of achieving the common good. Modern history presents us with two divergent models of economic arrangement: socialism and capitalism. One of these appears preoccupied with the common good and social betterment, the other with profits and production. However, let us keep the parable in mind as we take a brief tour of economic history.

The idea of socialism dates back to the ancient world, but here I will focus on its modern incarnation--and, if we look to socialism's modern beginnings, we find it optimistic and well-intentioned. In contrast to contemporary varieties that tend to bemoan prosperity, romanticize poverty, and promote the idea that civil rights are of secondary concern, at least some of the early socialists sought the fullest possible flourishing of humanity--which is to say, the common good.

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A half-century before Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto, there was Gracchus Babeuf's Plebeian Manifesto (later revised by Sylvain Marechal and renamed the Manifesto of the Equals). Babeuf was an early communist who lived from 1760-97 and wrote during the revolutionary period in France. Although he was jailed and eventually executed, his ideas later would have an enormous impact--and his explicit political goal had nothing to do with impeding prosperity. To the contrary, he wrote: "The French Revolution was nothing but a precursor of another revolution, one that will be bigger, more solemn, and which will be the last.... We reach for something more sublime and more just: the common good or the community of goods! No more individual property in land: the land belongs to no one. We demand, we want, the common enjoyment of the fruits of the land: the fruits belong to all."

Socialism's dominant themes

We see in Babeuf's writings two themes that would remain dominant in socialist theory until the 20th century: an aspiration to prosperity through ownership by all and an equation of the common good with the commonality of goods. Indeed, Marx took more from Babeuf than Marx himself ever would acknowledge.

In our own time, we think of socialists as opposing capitalist excess, disparaging the mass availability of goods and services, and seeking to restrict the freedom to produce and enjoy wealth. Consider, for instance, the wrath that modern socialists feel towards fast food, large discount stores, and specialty financial services for the poor. They accuse the mass consumer market of institutionalizing false needs, commodifying the commons, glorifying the banal, homogenizing culture--all at the expense of the environment and of equality of condition, the highest socialist goal. Improving the standard of living in society is far down the list of modern socialist priorities-but to repeat, it was not always so. Early socialists believed that socialism would bring about an advance of civilization and an increase in wealth. Babeuf, for instance, predicted that socialism would "[have] us eat four good meals a day, [dress] us most elegantly, and also [provide] those of us who are fathers of families with charming houses worth a thousand louis each." In short, socialism would distribute prosperity across the entire population.

A particularly poetic rendering of this vision was offered by none other than English playwright and poet Oscar Wilde: "Under Socialism ... there will be no people living in fetid dens and fetid rags, and bringing up unhealthy, hunger-pinched children in the midst of impossible and absolutely repulsive surroundings. …