“Is Socialism More Ethical Than Capitalism?”

“Is Socialism More Ethical Than Capitalism?”
By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
October 16, 1949

For almost half a century now, if not for longer, the economic and social system known as capitalism has had what psychologists call an insecurity feeling. Even when it has been most aggressive, it has had to contend with an inner uncertainty, a persistent self-doubt of its own virtue, its own morality, its own integrity. When under attack, instead of defending itself on moral grounds it has chosen to emphasize its practical success. Under what other system, capitalists have asked, could such spectacular material progress have been made? Look, they have said, at the miracles of mass production! See how the multitude has benefited from the profit-making system! But what they have not said is that capitalism is a good system ethically, or that its moral standards are high ones.

Instead, they have spoken of the selfishness of human nature, which cannot get along without material incentives. Who will take risks, they asked, or exert themselves in business enterprises unless there is something in it for themselves? Socialism may be all very well from an idealist’s standpoint, but we are not living in an idealist’s world. In the world in which we actually are living, only capitalism can supply incentives for material prosperity.

And thus, in the ethical sphere if not in the economic or the so-called practical, the defenders of capitalism have been apologetic. Either openly or by implication, they have admitted that socialism may be ethically superior.

But is it? That is the question I would like to examine this morning. It is a very large question, so large that if we are to treat it usefully we shall have to limit ourselves rather rigorously to its inner boundaries. We shall therefore merely note in passing that it has become a very urgent question, forced upon us by the fact that in the last thirty years a great part of the earth’s population has abandoned capitalism and is now living under one or another of the various systems of socialism. This means–and we cannot close our eyes to the possibility of it–that the United States, too, may sooner or later abandon capitalism, for socialism seems to be the predominant trend. I say that we can only stop to notice this in passing, and the same thing is true of the various factors, not directly ethical, which are operating to make capitalism more difficult to retain. Some of these factors, so far as Americans are concerned, are operating from without rather than within: that is to say, if other countries give up the capitalist system, it becomes harder and harder for the United States to hold on to it, even if that is what Americans want. The reason is in the nature of international relationships, economic, political and all other.

There are also factors, however, which are operating just as strongly from within. The dilemmas of the capitalist system have not as yet been solved, and many of the people are impatient of the slowness of our social progress.

But to all this, as I say, we can pay no heed this morning, or we shall not have time to discuss the question we have set ourselves. Irrespective of whether socialism is advancing and capitalism retreating, or of how much freedom of decision may still remain to us, let us compare the two systems ethically. Is it true that, measured by ethical standards, capitalism is inferior?

Apparently, many churchmen seem to think so. Most of us have noticed, I suppose, that the churches are becoming friendlier to socialism. In Europe, this has been going on for a long time. The first British socialist leaders were not Marxists but Methodists: lay preachers whose moral repugnance for the poverty caused by economic exploitation led them step by step to reject the capitalist system entirely. On the continent, the churches’ interest in socialism has been more doctrinal. In many cases, theology and Marxism, after a period of somewhat embarrassed flirtation, have attempted a sort of uncomfortable matrimony. Except, of course, in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which has remained quite celibate as to Marxism, but has flirted almost openly with fascism.

In the United States, however, the process has been slower and its outlines less distinct. Radical church leaders have not so much embraced socialism as repudiated capitalism. But I think it is a fact, today, that some of the most vigorous among them are fairly close to socialism.

The thing to notice in this, so far as our present purpose is concerned, is not that such a fact may be counted lamentable but that it arises because the churchmen concerned, whether here or abroad, have come to believe that capitalism is ethically inadequate. It has been weighed in the balances, they tell us, and found wanting. But we seldom hear of ethical deficiencies in socialism: only of practical ones. And even the practical ones seem less easy to contend for, now that so many countries appear to be getting along fairly well under socialist regimes. Or at least almost as well as the United States did, a few years ago, in a capitalist depression.

What are we to say, then, of what is implied in all this: of the ethical claim for socialism? And of the ethical condemnation of capitalism?

Perhaps before we say anything more we had better have some working definitions. Not academic definitions, because that would involve us in endless argument, and in any case they would not be very useful for our purpose. By capitalism, let us mean the system which has prevailed in the Western world from the coming of the industrial revolution until recently, and let us include within its categories not only the classical capitalism, so called, of the nineteenth century, but also the changes and adaptations which have taken place subsequently. From the ethical standpoint, the distinguishing characteristics of capitalism are the profit motive and a strong attachment to freedom.

By socialism, let us intend those systems, whether parliamentary or other, which claim to get rid of the profit-making motive and which operate through government management and control. There is, I know, a wide divergence between some of these systems, both actual and proposed, and we shall presently have to take account of that. There is all the difference in the world, for instance, between British socialism and Soviet communism. Nevertheless, both intend to do away with the profit motive and both believe that by doing so a higher ethical position will be reached.

Concerning this common aim of the various socialist systems, we should perhaps cite some testimony. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, tell us that “the theory of Communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.” According to Joseph Stalin, in a speech at Sverdloff University in April, 1924, as soon as classes have been abolished and the means of production finally removed from the hands of capitalists, the dictatorship of the proletariat will be over and even the Communist Party itself will disappear. We will assume that he meant it. If so, the Soviet intent would be similar in the end to the socialist aims of other countries. The profit motive would be ended. There would thereafter be no need for tyranny, and so–according to the communist contention–socialism would be, not dictatorial but free and voluntary.

At this point, however, do as we will, our definition takes us into argument. In the case of Sovietism, freedom is only a promise and unless appearances amazingly deceive us, a promise which is very unlikely to be kept. No people, as yet, which has come under Soviet control, has increased its freedom, and there is no basis whatever, beyond the promises of Soviet spokesmen, for supposing that any people ever will. On the contrary, in order to remain in power, the Soviet leaders must maintain what has come to be called a “police state,” and there is nothing visible in their procedures which makes it likely that Sovietism will end up as freedom.

If therefore, we believe that freedom is ethically nobler than slavery, and that for the sake of freedom it is worth while to give up some other things, we shall have to say that the Soviet variety of socialism is most assuredly not superior to capitalism, since capitalism, whatever its faults, does permit people to remain fairly free.
Moreover, if it be claimed that the capitalist system degrades people through its admission of the profit motive, it will have to be noticed that the Soviet system, in spite of eliminating the profit motive, or attempting to do so, degrades people much more seriously. For what else is it but degradation when freedom of information, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of every kind is suppressed? And what can it be but degradation when people are forcibly prevented from having a share in deciding their own way of life, their own future, their own destiny? Not to mention the gross degradation of slave camps and enforced labor; or the degradation of unjust imprisonment and death.

Nor is this the end of the matter, as we all know. But it is sufficient to exclude the claim of Sovietism that it is ethically superior to capitalism. For here we are comparing fact with fact: the facts of capitalism, some of which have been very bad, such for instance as pauperization, child labor, economic imperialism, unbridled greed for profits–such facts as these–with the facts of Sovietism which are much worse. Moreover, while the worst features of capitalism have at least in part been remedied, the evils of Sovietism appear worse now than at the beginning. To the extent, therefore, that Sovietism is socialism, it must be judged ethically inferior to capitalism, and by a wide margin, on the actual basis of the record.

But then, there are many socialists who would say so, too. They wish the word socialism to be reserved for parliamentary socialism, or socialism with civil rights; in short, for socialism as it obtains, for example, in England at the present time. This is a distinction which, for my own part, I am happy to accept. If the term communism could be reserved for the Soviet system, and perhaps for such others as that of Yugoslavia, and the word socialism for the British system and whatever counterparts may presently emerge, it would doubtless be a good thing.

Here, however, we can no longer compare fact with fact. For the British kind of socialist–let us call him the civil rights socialist–would demand that we take into consideration not only what socialism has accomplished but what it promises. This makes comparison somewhat difficult and I must confess to certain apprehensions as to whether the promises in question can really be fulfilled. But for the purpose of the present discussion I will assume that they can, or at least that some of them can.

Very well, then: Is socialism of this kind ethically superior? Certainly it is ethically in a strong position when, in the aftermath of war, it supplies milk and orange juice to every child in Britain on an equal basis. Such an action, it seems to me, must be counted ethically superior to the negligence of a capitalism which has not thought it necessary to do the equivalent. But then, I see no reason whatever why a capitalist system should not provide milk and orange juice for children and still remain capitalist. Indeed, as to milk, a capitalist system, namely, our own, is actually doing so, in part. And such benefits could be extended much more widely without adopting socialism as a system.

We therefore cannot accept this widely cited instance as an evidence of the ethical superiority of the socialist system, but only as an index of the justice and benevolence of the government–any government, whether socialist or capitalist–which distributes milk to children. The real question is as to whether it is better–ethically better–to distribute milk to children without anyone making a profit out of it. I do not mean by this that no profits are made on milk and orange juice in England, at the present time, but I assume that this is what the socialist plan intends. I repeat, therefore: the question is, Is it ethically better to provide commodities, not only milk but anything whatever, without a profit being made?

In giving my answer, perhaps I should warn the congregation that I may sound a trifle shocking, not only to socialists who may be present, but also to those capitalists who tacitly assume that profit-making, however necessary, implies a lower motivation. For, as it seems to me, provided the profit be reasonable, it is not ethically inferior that there be a profit. And I will tell you why. Socialism does not provide milk without profit-making because it has expelled selfishness from the human heart, but only because it controls the production and distribution of milk. In other words, a capitalist society that taxes itself to provide milk for children at a reasonable profit to producers and distributors is just as meritorious, just as humane, as a socialist society whose government does it with the aid of people who work for wages, without anyone getting a profit.

The reason socialist governments do these things, and the reason they are elected for promising to do them, is that capitalist systems are too reluctant, too slow. What a capitalist society will not do in freedom, the socialist government does by compulsion. And it is this that brings us to the crux of the matter–I mean ethically. (And I remind you once more that it is the ethical consideration alone with which we are concerned this morning.) Socialism is not an ethical advance; socialism is an ethical compromise.

Because people are not ethically good enough to do what they ought to do on their own initiative, socialism makes them do it. But this is not ethically nobler; it certainly does not imply a higher view of human nature. On the contrary, it concedes that human beings are so loath to do right that they have to be compelled to do it. When socialism rather than capitalism distributes milk to children, it is not necessarily more of the milk of human kindness that is being distributed–or even more of the milk of cows! It is merely that more of the transaction is under the management of the government.

I do not mean by this that socialists are not idealists. They often are. I think they usually are. They want a wider justice, a better, happier life not for themselves alone but for all mankind. This is ethically a high motive. But it is equally high when a capitalist wants the same things. To say that one is higher and the other lower arises, so it seems to me, from a false perception of the facts. Ethically, both are equal, so far as aspiration is concerned.

But then, someone will say, capitalists do not desire these things as much as socialists desire them. I agree. But this is not because capitalists believe in profits but because they are inadequate as human beings. They could desire these things; they could bring them about–and within the capitalist system. But when they fail to do so, and socialism steps in and compels such things to be brought about, it is not because, ethically, a higher level has been reached, but because the people have despaired of the higher level. They have said, Men will not do what they ought without being compelled to do it; so we shall have to compel them. We shall have to compel ourselves. We are not good enough to do as we ought without compulsion; so we must deal with ourselves as we are. We cannot master our greed, so we will ask the government to take away the temptation. We cannot be just on our own initiative–not enough of us all at the same time to make the system work–so we shall have to be ordered to do what we should have done on our own account.

Socialism, therefore, in spite of the high aspirations of its idealists, eventually comes about, not because of idealism, but because of despair. That is how it came about in England. Not because the people wanted socialism, but because they did not want the evils of capitalism. It was not the charm of Clement Attlee that won for the socialists the British vote; no, it was the memory of Neville Chamberlain. Rather than have what they had in the 1930’s, they would accept something which, in itself, they didn’t very much want. They would even give away a part of their freedom because they could not trust themselves and each other to act fairly on a voluntary basis.

That is what happened, and that is what will always happen, or so I believe, in every instance where socialism displaces capitalism. It will not be out of high aspirations, or because the people are utopians, but out of despair and because there is no other tolerable alternative. This, quite obviously, is not ethically superior. It is merely what happens when capitalism will not remedy its faults. To put it into a sentence, socialism is first proposed by idealists and optimists, but finally adopted by defeatists and pessimists.

When therefore, churchmen draw closer to socialism and say it is the necessary outcome of religious idealism, they are mistaken. It is the necessary outcome not of religion but of irreligion; that is to say, it is the necessary outcome of the evils of the human heart which prevent us from doing voluntarily what we are therefore obliged to do from compulsion.

As to further aspects of the question, I am saying nothing today. We have remained close to one particular inquiry, the only one with which we were concerned: is socialism ethically superior to capitalism? And the answer is, or so I would affirm, that in itself socialism is not superior. From the viewpoint of religion, there is no more evil in the profits of a capitalist than in the vanity of a socialist politician. The one seeks money, the other, notoriety. Both may do a great deal of good; and also some evil. A socialist’s hunger for power can be as treacherous a temptation as a capitalist’s greed for wealth. Ethically, men are not necessarily better because they adopt one system rather than another. But ethically they are better for what they do voluntarily than for what they are compelled to do, even though they themselves consent to the compulsion.

What it comes to, then, is this: what we are ethically is what we are as people, not as units in a system. That one system may be better than another, I fully agree. For my own part, my preference is for a capitalism, reformed and regulated in the public interest; and the reason for my preference is that such a capitalism leaves more room for liberty and encourages ethical maturity and voluntary righteousness. Compulsory systems, paternalistic and authoritarian, foster attitudes which are ethically not grown up. Not, you understand, that I think regulation by the government is at the present time unnecessary. Far from it! I recognize as well as any man that a considerable amount of government compulsion and control are indispensable. But I would like to see it kept as little as possible. Again and again, I am in favor of compulsion from practical necessity, but I regret the need of it. I lament the evils that require coercive measures to correct them. I support such measures because I must. But I do not deceive myself about their ethical significance. What I would like to see is the voluntary level kept as high as possible. I love freedom. I want more freedom than any socialist system, or so I fear, would eventually permit. For human nature under either system would exploit the weaknesses of that particular system, and I fear the weaknesses of compulsory systems more than those of voluntary ones.

Yet I am quite sure that more and more compulsion will come –here in America just as certainly as elsewhere–if we do not use our freedom better: use it in restraint of selfishness and in the general welfare.

Nevertheless, ethically it is the voluntary that is higher: that which truly lives in the hearts of people and supplies the higher motivation. And as to religious sanction for this view, it was given long ago. You will recognize the words. “If I bestow all my goods to feed the poor…and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.” In other words, no matter what the economic system I approve, the final test is the true quality of my own motivation. If I bestow all my goods–mine and everybody else’s–to feed the poor, even through acts of government, through changes in the economic and social system, it “profiteth me nothing”: neither me nor anybody else, ethically, unless the fullness of it is in my heart. That is the test, and there is no other–ethically.

And so, in these days of many changes, these days so fraught with danger, yet so rich with promise, let us remind ourselves once more of what for many centuries mankind has labored to learn, only to forget: that the laws of righteousness are written first of all in the human heart, and that greater than all systems is the greatness of the soul.
Prayer: O God, whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts, teach us how to change our ways and raise the level of our thoughts, and what we learn, teach us not to forget. Amen.

Comments are closed.

  • Support Our Work for Justice, Hope, Multi-Generational Multicultural Community, and Religious Education
    in Prince George's County and beyond