Socialism, Capitalism, & Geoism
“Socialism” has many meanings to many people, but in its most common sense, it is a system of social or governmental ownership and control of the means of production. Socialism is usually discussed in opposition to “Capitalism” — which is commonly taken to mean a system of private property in which economic decisions are made in a market that is free of government intervention.
In the hysterical political climate that characterized the cold war, the meanings of these terms tended to get squashed under the ideological weight that they carried. Each “ism” became identified with the diabolical plot of an enemy. Meanwhile, their use to describe economic policies was muddled, as “free-market” economies developed more and more “socialistic” government programs — and “socialist” economies granted more “market freedom” to producers. Eventually the terms came to have about as much ideological content as the names “Red Sox” and “White Sox.”
However, “socialism” is often identified with the quest for economic justice. The basic assumption underlying it is that the marketplace, under conditions of laissez-faire competition, cannot provide society with an equitable distribution of wealth. Socialists assert that if the market is left alone to decide who is to get how much of the world’s goods, the result is a division of society into classes and the emergence of a struggle between the exploiting class and the enslaved working class. Competition inevitably becomes “cutthroat” — the marketplace gives the highest rewards to the most unscrupulous exploiters.
Meanwhile, many are proud to rally behind the banner of “capitalism.” They contend that free competition makes the fullest possible use of the gifts of nature and human ingenuity. When the admirable efficiency of the market is hindered by do-gooders trying to secure their vague ideas of “fairness,” the result is unemployment, stagnation and corruption.
It may seem odd that both “capitalists” and “socialists” speak of the justice of their system and the vile in-justice of their opponents’. Is there any universal standard of justice upon which economic policy can be based?
The answer lies in the rightful basis of public vs. private ownership. For the thorough-going free-market capitalist, “public ownership” of anything is anathema: the community’s interests are best served by the unhindered interactions of self-interested producers and traders. But the poverty, suffering and environmental destruction that come under such a “private property” regime cannot be denied. Because of this, the great bulk of social-policy debate revolves around how much of the efficiency of free enterprise must be traded for public interference, imposed in the name of equity. The question of the rightful balance between public and private control becomes one of expediency and political fashion, lacking any guiding principle.
For Henry George, however, the principle was clear. The value of natural opportunities belongs entirely to the community, and the production of wealth by labor, using capital, should be entirely unhindered by the penalty of taxation. For George, the important question was not the amount of wealth that should be taken by the community, but the kind of wealth that should rightfully go to the community, because it is a value that the community has created.
In recent years, this understanding of the distinctive character of natural opportunity (land) as a factor of production has led to the coining of a new term: Geoism, indicating a philosophy based on the rightful understanding of the place of the Earth (Geo-) in economic life.