Capitalism and Socialism: Our Useless Words
At what point is a word no longer useful? Whenever it no longer bears any meaning. The power and purpose of language is that it allows us to transmit what is in our own subjective conscious to another’s subjective conscious. To accomplish this task, we use words. These words correspond to concepts in our own mind, allowing us to describe things, events, and ideas to other people. Using words, we can communicate and learn from each other. However, if the meaning behind these words is blurred or indefinite, this entire process can break down. Without clear language, there can be no clear communication.
As such, when words are no longer definite, they can no longer be of use to us. The sole function of words is to concretely transmit ideas to others; if they cannot do this, they become worthless. Even with this being true, sometimes these words are kept in use, regardless of their vague meanings. It may as a result of tradition, or perhaps just a lack of imagination to think of a better substitute. However they are kept in circulation, the failure to discard these useless words will have predictably negative effects on interpersonal communication in society.
We can see this damage on public discourse occurring before our eyes in the usage of two words: Capitalism and Socialism. For all intents and purposes, these words have lost their meaning. They still have some a general definition, no doubt. When the word Capitalism is used, we generally associate it with less government, and the opposite sentiment for Socialism. However, any more specific a definition than that will be subject to the user.
When a Libertarian uses the word Capitalism, he imagines an economic system marked by laissez-faire and little to no government intervention in the economy. When a Democratic Socialist uses the word Capitalism, they mean the current economic system, which is marked by central banking, crony capitalism, and countless government interventions in markets.
Similarly, when a Reaganite Republican uses the word Socialism, they imagine government welfare programs, similar to the Nordic model. When a Marxist uses the word Socialism, they mean a system of government ownership of the means of production. For both Capitalism and Socialism, the meanings of these words fluctuate according to whom you ask for their definitions! The words have radically different meanings for different individuals.
Whenever we find ourselves in such a situation, we must ask ourselves if such words should still be use. The answer in this case seems to be resoundingly in the negative. If the meaning of a word is subject to change depending on the user, how could such a word be used productively? If a Libertarian is discussing Capitalism with a Democratic Socialist, before any tangible progress can be made, a clearer definition of the subject matter is necessary. After all, they both conceptualize very different economic systems when they hear the word Capitalism. The same is true when the topic of Socialism. For any productive conversation to take place, we must first clarify the topic of discussion.
As harmful as these vague definitions can be, the true danger comes when these words are not clearly defined. Whenever this definition is omitted, both individuals are often times entering the discussion with completely separate ideas of the topic of discussion! Under these circumstances, how could any debate or conversation possibly be constructive in any way? If we were to organize a formal debate, but tell each participant a different proposition to be disputed, that debate would certainly fail to enlighten anyone at all. Without solid definitions for Capitalism and Socialism, we find ourselves in similar situations far too often.
Given that the usage of these words presents to us an unfortunate roadblock in economic discussion, what can be done to replace these terms? They have been in use for centuries; why should we think that we could find better terms? As troublesome as these terms have been, I do not believe that the use of these words should be abolished completely; just that they should never be used in the singular sense. If I am describing a free-market economic system, instead of simply defining that as Capitalism, a more functionally useful term would be Laissez-Faire Capitalism. Similarly, if we are describing an economy where the government owns the factors of production, instead of using the term Socialism, Total Socialism or Managed Economy Socialism are preferable than the singular use of the term.
The issue at hand is not necessarily to dispose of Capitalism and Socialism for good, but rather, to utilize them in ways that are much more specific. Adding other terms around them can help accomplish this task. Whenever I say, Laissez-Faire Capitalism, there is little room for misunderstanding compared to just the blanket term of Capitalism. To avoid any chance at misrepresentation, it might be prudent to avoid their usage altogether. Instead of Laissez-Faire Capitalism, shorten it to just Laissez-Faire, or Laissez-Faire Economic Organization. Even though this may further reduce the chance for vague terminology, this step is probably unnecessary. As long as the definitions we use are clear enough to transmit to others the systems of economic organization envisioned, Capitalism and Socialism can stay.
These words have been in common usage for quite some time, and as such I do not expect that they will disappear anytime soon. However, as more and more of our communication and social connection is online and filtered through the veil of the internet, the words that we use are now more important than ever. Online interactions lend themselves to much higher possibilities of misinterpretation, and as a consequence our words should be chosen wisely. Words subject to interpretation like Capitalism and Socialism can create disastrous results when put into these kinds of environments. Debates over economic theory and policy over the Internet do not have a reputation for being helpful or enlightening in the slightest, but a small change in the words we use may help in relaying ideas and changing minds for the better.