Democracy and Terminology

I am sorry to have to report that two terms, “capitalism” and “socialism,” have died. We all know what they used to mean, forms of practical economics, “capitalism” involving private ownership and free trade; while “socialism” implying common ownership of all property and government control of prices and wages. At least, that’s how I understood it; I’ll admit I’m not an economist.

They died by being transformed into crude epithets. The new definitions seem to be:

  • Capitalism (according to liberals): unregulated trade designed to enable the exploitation of poor people, and permit corporate takeover of all governments.
  • Socialism (according to conservatives): unlimited government for the purpose of making all people economically equal.

Then you have the corresponding definitions by the opposing sides:

  • Capitalism (according to conservatives): free trade, unencumbered by restrictive regulations; the economic basis of democracy.
  • Socialism (according to liberals): appropriate government regulations to insure that everyone has equal access to basic necessities of life and opportunities for improvement.

Of this latter set, I would only argue that capitalism is not the basis of democracy. Wikipedia offers this as part of a definition of socialism:

As a social structure and set of social relations, socialism is democratic or participatory management based on adhocracy or democratic forms of organization in the workplace and in the economy. This is based on equality of opportunity or equal power-relations.

To me, this conflates economic and political realities. Capitalism and socialism, properly defined, are economic systems that both contribute to a functioning democracy. A country without corporate regulations will be taken over by robber barons while the poor beg in the streets, and a country with too many unreasonable regulations is probably being ruled by a political aristocracy and heading toward national bankruptcy.

If we want to be understood, we can no longer freely use the old definitions of these terms. Whether those definitions were proper or not, they are defunct. What remains are the epithets. If you are a “socialist,” you are trying to destroy our democracy and become part of the government aristocracy. If you are a “vulture capitalist,” you are trying to enrich yourself by trampling the rights of others.

It is a sad fact of linguistics that words die, or, more accurately, they evolve to have different meanings. What we can do is try to make sure that all parties of the conversation are using the same definitions. Either that, or avoid using loaded terms (as these have become) altogether. Meanwhile, I will assume you intend the most flattering definition of whatever terms you use on me.


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