A dislike of taxes and regulations are the hallmarks of those with a libertarian bent. These concepts are somehow subsumed in the socialism is bad, capitalism is good rubric. The problem is this is a gross oversimplification that fits well on a bumper sticker but is a terrible way to determine ones voting preferences.
Taxes come in several flavors: regressive sales taxes, property taxes, progressive income taxes, et al. Although you hear lots of complaints about taxes, few complain about the services they provide: National defense, police and fire protection, highways, schools, etc. Supreme Court Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr famously said: “I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilization.”
Before you reject voting for or against taxes, consider how the tax is structured. Sales taxes lean most heavily on those least able to afford them, whereas progressive income taxes rely on those that need the services the most. Police protection is a little like insurance, the more you have to protect, the more you should pay for the protection.
In a similar vein, regulations are important tools for civilization. They protect us in ways that are impossible to do individually. Clean air and water, climate stability, highway safety, and food and drug safety are just a few.
Another oversimplification is the capitalism-socialism dichotomy. The two are complexly entangled. Generally, I would agree that capitalism is a noble ideal, Adam Smith’s invisible hand can guide a market – but not without oversight. Unfettered capitalism is really anarchy. A perfect example is the black market for heroin. A lot of money can be made, so what if people die from violence and the use of the drug itself?
A capitalist needs to recognize that there have to be constraints to trade that preserve societal goals. Laws and regulations are a necessary evil of capitalism, necessary to civilization. If we can democratically agree on those laws and regulations then capitalism is the bee’s knees.
A little more difficult discussion is the value of socialism. The strict definition for socialism is an economic policy where the means of production are owned collectively, where collectively can refer to the government or simply organized groups, from workers to shareholders. Ironically the hallmark of capitalism, the corporation, can be publicly owned and therefore constitute a socialist enterprise.
If you want to consider socialism where the government is the collective, look no further than police protection. Here the state employs the “workers.” Even here it doesn’t disallow capitalist alternatives such as mall cops and bouncers. Even at the federal level where national defense is involved, we have private contractors participating.
Closer to what folks may call socialism is government management of some aspects of society. Medicare and Social Security come to mind. These are wildly popular and effective entitlement programs – the recipients are entitled to benefits by way of previous payments into the system.
At or near the top of making America great is our public education system. We could do better by increased funding and more equitable distribution, but all in all we would be much worse off without it.
The long and short of it is that the arc of civilization is cooperation. As long as we democratically determine what kind of taxes pay for what kinds of regulations, we have civilization, and civilization is a good thing.
Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.