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.