The Best of Both Possible Worlds

I have always referred to myself as a pragmatic progressive. Progressive because of the policy goals and political ends I think best pursuing, pragmatic because I’m not super particular on how we get there, as long as we do. I often find ideologies interesting, but ultimately I think they do more harm than good, because they circumscribe what is thinkable. Also, they often work best on paper, and while theoretical space is a useful tool for playing and working with ideas, the lived world of actuality is almost always too complex for ideology to usefully encompass.

At the end of the day, though, I’m much more interested in (and motivated by) ideals than ideology. And I’m much more inclined to use them to pick ends than means, though they do very much play a role in both.

So, what ideals drive me, politically speaking? What political ends do I seek?

It’s pretty simple, really. I want everyone – by which I mean literally all humans – to have all the tools, education, and material support they need to prosper and thrive, individually and collectively; the opportunity to do meaningful work (whatever that means to them); and the material, cultural, social, and spiritual means to pursue and find happiness, again both individually and collectively.

Pragmatically, it seems to me the best way to get there is a combination of two systems of societal material allocation that often seem at odds: socialism and capitalism.

Both have virtues and shortcomings. Socialism is good because it allocates resources in ways meant to prioritize the collective good: it is the recognition, which I take to be true, that we each do better when we all do better, that individuals thrive when communities thrive, and that providing sufficient resources for a vibrant commons allows for the maximum possible realization of everyone’s potential. On the flip side, I think it’s somewhat less than optimal in terms of encouraging innovation, and without a solid foundation in democratic legitimacy, it can edge over into totalitarianism, just like any other ideology.

Capitalism’s virtues come from the ability of well-regulated and -informed markets to allocate resources in efficient and innovative ways, and the motivation it provides for individuals and organizations to take risks in order to secure rewards. It drives innovation and, let’s face it, reflects certain aspects of human nature, like acquisitiveness and selfishness, giving them a way to express in an at least potentially prosocial way. Which is also the downside, in that left unfettered it will so prioritize acquisitiveness and selfishness that it encourages antisocial behavior. It also, left unchecked, comes full circle and begins to undo the prosocial good that it has done, because any sufficiently powerful entity will arrogate more resources to itself than necessary, causing deficits in other places. This is how you end up with a tenth of a percent of the population owning half of everything, which is not an efficient allocation of resources. Capitalism is, in short, like fire: kept within bounds, it can do wonders; left unchecked, it’ll burn your house down.

However, placed in a productive relationship with one another, it is possible, I believe, to arrive at the best of both possible worlds. Especially now, when our technological advancement as a species has put us in a position to defeat scarcity once and for all.*

What is this magical configuration that I’m so convinced will resolve the tension between socialism and capitalism and allow for the most people to prosper, do meaningful work, and find happiness?

It’s pretty simple, really. Socialist base, capitalist superstructure. What do I mean by that?  Well, apply socialist principles to the provision of basic needs, like food, water, shelter, education, connectivity, transportation, power, health care. Provide a workable basic access to all these things, free, as a right and privilege attached to being human, along with a universal basic income to cover the rest as well as provide the means to participate in the economy. Doesn’t have to be fancy, but we should set a societal floor below which no one falls. We all kick in on it, we can all access it, and even if we have or earn more, it’s always there.

Of course humans are often the sort to want more than the basics. So on top of our socialist base, we build a capitalist superstructure. Want a nicer house, snazzy clothes, a fancy phone, a car to drive around in? Cool, earn some money and buy them. Want to start a business? Awesome, no worries if your risk doesn’t pay off. Want to take a year and write a book or record an album or get a qualification to get paid for something you’re passionate about? Do it. There are near endless possibilities to do stuff for profit that don’t involve basic necessities, and I’m all for it. Innovate. Take risks. Pursue reward. Find or make your happy place, friend. The sky’s the limit. Go on with your bad self.

I mean, just think about what life would be like if the worst kinds of worry and stress were a thing of the past. How much happier everyone would be. How much kinder to each other. Crime would go down. People would live longer. No one would have to work a terrible job for long hours and still not make enough money to get by. There’d be no more homeless people. There would even still be rich people (though probably not as rich as they are now). More than that, by providing for everyone, giving everyone a chance to make a meaningful difference, leveraging the full potential of every human being alive… the mind boggles with possibility.

How do we get there? The short answer is painstakingly, with great diligence, difficulty, foresight, and sacrifice. The long answer is another post entirely, probably a series of them, followed by feedback, discussion, revision, failure, and then doing it all again as many times as it takes to figure it out.


*It’s entirely possible, I believe, that we hit that point a long time ago. Human civilization has – since the ascendence of political organizations beyond the level of, say, the tribe – always been something of a pyramid scheme, with a tiny percentage at the top arrogating an egregiously outsized share of collective resources to themselves, because, well, they could. Given a wider, more fair distribution, the problem of scarcity might have been overcome a long time ago, were it not against the interest of that tiny percentage to do so.


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