Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Closer Look at the Survival Incentive

One of the most common criticisms of communism is that it does not provide a clear incentive for individuals to work, since each will receive “according to his/her needs.” Many of us have expressed this concern on the blog and have supported it with detailed arguments. Inherent in these arguments seems to be the belief that the need to provide the necessities of survival offers the only reliable and universal incentive to work. I do agree that capitalism offers a much stronger incentive to work for survival than does communism. Nevertheless, I would like to question here whether that actually offers an argument for capitalism, rather than one against it.

First, I would like to ask which seems like a better society: one in which everyone must work for his or her survival (and consequently has a strong incentive to do so), or one in which everyone’s basic needs are provided for, so that they can labor for other reasons if they so choose and for other incentives.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the first society in itself. If it happens to be the case that one’s survival can only be provided for through the sweat of one’s brow, then there is absolutely nothing ethically right or wrong with that set up. There is, furthermore, nothing ethically right or wrong with one’s choosing to work or not to work in this situation – it is merely a question of survival. Even so, I think that there is strong reason to believe that living in the second society would be more desirable. For one thing, there is more freedom and less stress, and nobody would die for lack of resources if society could do anything about it.

But let’s consider a third society: namely, one in which there would be enough resources to provide for everyone’s basic needs, except a relatively small segment of the population controls far more than it needs or could ever use, while, because of this, the majority of the population is unnecessarily forced to work for survival. In this case, there is something ethically wrong, because the minority is depriving the majority of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as someone famous once wrote.

The first society, if it ever actually existed on earth, would be akin to the most primitive of hunter-gather societies. The second, which has never existed on earth in any significant size, is a communist society. The third, which exists in this country and many others, is a modern capitalist society.

Now, if I were to rank the societies in order of personal preference, I would put society #2 first, society #1 second, and society #3 in a very distant third (assuming that I would be one of the minority). Furthermore, if I were to rank the three in terms of ethical value, society #1 would be neutral, society #2 would be clearly positive, and society #3 would be clearly negative. I think that many of you would agree with me in both of these evaluations.

Notice that society #3, the modern capitalist society, comes in last on both accounts. This is because we find something inherently wrong with a society that places on individuals an unnecessary and artificial requirement to work for survival. Thus, I hope it is now clear that the fact that capitalism brings about a situation in which people are incentivized to work for survival is not mark for capitalism. Rather, it is a mark against it.


  1. Colin,

    This was a compelling argument. Here are a few comments in response.

    You define your second society as "one in which everyone’s basic needs are provided for, so that they can labor for other reasons if they so choose and for other incentives," and you say that you would rank it as the best out of your three societies. I agree that, on the individual level, it would be ideal to be completely free to choose to work or not work, and to be able to divorce that decision from considerations of survival. However, I disagree that this would ideal society-wide, because I still see incentives problems. This society will still needs its garbage collectors, its paper-towel manufacturers, etc. But it seems unlikely that many people would choose to perform these types of roles in society. Given the choice to perform an unpleasant job or to not work (but still have their needs met), why would someone choose the unpleasant job?

    In your third society, individuals still would not want to perform unpleasant jobs, but given this scarcity of labor, the market (generally) would have to compensate them well enough to make these types of jobs more appealing. It seems to me that the combination of generally free markets, the assurance of private property, and a healthy dose of government regulation/social programs to help the poor and combat excessive income inequality, would be more desirable and more practicable than a communist society.

    So, now to tie this in with your conclusion that the survival incentive is a mark against capitalism. I have tried to argue in this comment that a generally capitalist society, paired with good government policies, should outperform communist societies. I agree with your assessment that capitalism's survival incentive is pretty brutal. However, I think good policies can overcome these types of shortcomings (e.g. welfare to ensure that people can sustain themselves if they lose their jobs), but communism still suffers from fundamentally destabilizing incentives problems.

  2. Mills,

    As always, you present excellent objections to my argument. What our discussion, and the discussion concerning capitalism vs. communism in general needs is a clear separation between questions of ethics and questions of practical application. What I have attempted to argue above is that because the modern capitalist economy artificially perpetuates the survival incentive, it is ethically bankrupt. Capitalism points to its use of the survival incentive as one of its great strengths vis a vis communism, but I ask us to question this.

    My argument is grounded in the assumption that our ethics should guide our practice, rather than the other way around. What I mean is that our fundamental concern should be to determine what is ethically best, and then to determine how, and to what degree, this can be practically achieved. This is opposed to us pursuing what is practically most expedient, and then using ethics to justify it. I hope that you will agree with me here.

    Now, under this logic, our primary concern is to determine which economic system is ethically superior. I hope that in my post I have demonstrated that communism is ethically superior to capitalism. I have much more to say in that regard, but I think that my argument above suffices.

    In regards to the practical application of communism, I'll admit that I simply don't have all the answers. What I will offer, however, is a rejection of the idea that self-preservation is the only incentive strong enough to make people perform tasks that they usually find unappealing. Human beings are incredibly complex social creatures and we quite often do things in direct contradiction with the principle of self-preservation. Think of the countless men and women who have willingly sacrificed their lives in the wars of history. A great number of them did so, and continue to do so, because of causes that they believed to be greater than their own self-preservation. Surely, if people can be led to believe that dying and killing each other is something honorable and greater than any individual, so too can they come to believe the same of respecting, feeding, teaching, and healing each other, even when this requires them to sometimes engage in unpleasant tasks like garbage collection or paper towel manufacturing.

    Consider, for example, non-violent protest. Having sampled a variety of historical ethical systems through reading in the Search program, it seems clear to me that for most of human history the notion of non-violent protest would be perceived as cowardly and contemptible. Can you imagine Achilles praising a course of non-violence? And yet, slowly, over the course of millennia, drawing from such examples as Socrates, Jesus, and Gandhi, we have developed a social ethics which, by and large, celebrates non-violent protest. This is a testament to how radically our values and motivations can change.

    In response to your argument that capitalism paired with social programming can pass the bar ethically, I would argue that you would need a whole lot of social programming to make a system of capitalism that could even approximate the ethical value of a system of communism. In fact, I doubt how different such a system would be from communism if it really were to be as ethically valuable. We have quite a bit of social programming in this country - we spend billions on it each year - and still people go homeless, people freeze, people starve, people are failed by our educational system, and 50 million people are without health insurance. Frankly, I find it disgusting that we can have an endless, straight-faced debate in this country over extending tax cuts for the ultra-rich and cutting medicaid.


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