How You Can Find Socialism in a Capitalist World
By Bryan Caplan
Before and after my “Capitalism vs. Socialism” Debate with Elizabeth Bruenig, we had quite a while to chat. While I was nonplussed by her case for socialism, she was quite gracious in person. There are probably plenty of socialists like her: Nice people who find capitalism disgusting. Which gets me thinking: If capitalism made my flesh crawl and I knew socialism wasn’t coming anytime soon, how would I cope? What is the best way for a can-do socialist to find socialism in a capitalist world?
Step 1: Live very modestly. Shop at Walmart – or better yet, Aldi’s. Move to a low-cost part of the country. Don’t own a car; just take the bus – or Uber if you must. Get books and DVDs from the library. Buy durables at estate sales; they’re practically giving furniture away. Use a 5-year-old phone. Victims of consumerism may scoff at your frugal lifestyle, but you know that real happiness comes from autonomy and community.
Step 2: Cheat the rat race. If you want to consume lots of luxury products, you’ll probably have to run capitalist rat races for decades. But if you practice personal austerity, you have flexibility. You can take a low-paid full-time job you enjoy. You can take a better-paid part-time job you don’t enjoy. You can run the standard rat race for a 5, 10, or 15 years – then shock your co-workers by retiring. Or any mix thereof.
Step 3: Get some roommates who share your values. You aren’t really living socialism until you live in a commune. Start by recruiting family members and close friends. Then expand from there. Sure, many landlords will object, but shop around until you find some outliers. And remember – you can approximate a commune just by living in the same apartment complex as your comrades.
Step 4: Delay child-bearing until you’ve found a livable escape from the rat race. If you’re an eco-socialist, of course, you might want to avoid kids altogether. If and when you have kids, don’t compromise with the outside world. No kid “needs” Nikes or iPads.
Step 5: Avoid capitalist vices. When greedy businesses try to sell you alcohol, sugar, tobacco, or illegal drugs, just say no. To repeat, real happiness comes from autonomy and community, not ephemeral and addictive stimulants.
The top objection to my advice, I expect, will be that it’s imperfect. What if a socialist doesn’t want to work a square job for a single second? This objection is true but childish. In the real world, there are no perfect solutions. You have to game the system as best you can. If I were a socialist, I would use my playbook.
You could also object that my approach is tantamount to surrender. I’m teaching people how to endure capitalism, instead of how to end it. Reply: Why not be the change you want to see in the world? You can live a socialist lifestyle and promote broad social change at the same time. The key difference is simply that you don’t have to convince the world to build your socialist Bubble. So why wait?
Last, you might object that you don’t want to live an austere, unambitious, communal, puritanical lifestyle. If so, some soul-searching is in order.
Yes, socialists have long quarreled about what ideal socialism would look like. Should we just meet everyone’s basic needs and focus on community – or produce enough to let everyone live like a millionaire? But in practice, this debate is premature. Whenever socialists actually acquire the power to remake society, the modest lifestyle I’ve sketched above remains far out of reach of most of the population. People in Cuba and Venezuela struggle even to feed themselves, and feel far more fear than fellowship; and both are paradises compared to the Soviet Union or Maoist China. As a practical matter, the best place to experiment with a socialist lifestyle is in a wealthy capitalist society. So why not give it a go – and tell the rest of us how it works out?