I presented Why Not Capitalism? at the College of New Jersey this past week. In the book, during a parody of G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, I describe what might happen if the anarcho-capitalist Mickey Mouse Clubhouse villagers suddenly started acted like real-world socialists. E.g.,

a. Donald decides to forcibly nationalize and control all of the farmland, murdering millions in the process, and causing a massive famine that murders tens of millions more. He uses terror tactics to assert his control…

b.  Things do not go as well as Donald planned, and the other villagers begin to resist. Goofy stifles dissent by creating gulags in the coldest reaches of Disney World. Anyone he deems an enemy is sent to the gulag to be tortured and worked to death…

c. Mickey Mouse stifles free speech, crushes all political opposition, and installs himself for life as the Premier. He becomes increasingly paranoid. At one point, to assert his control, he murders nearly all members of the governing party…

In my parody, I show that some of Cohen’s complaints about capitalism work equally well or better as complaints about socialism. Here, e.g., I take Cohen’s criticisms of capitalist societies and just substitute some socialist societies.

In the USSR, Venezuela, or Cuba, cooperation is based largely on greed and fear. A person does not care fundamentally, within socialist interaction, about how well or badly anyone other than herself fares. They cooperate with other people not because they believe cooperating is a good thing in itself, not because they want all people to flourish, but because they seek to gain and they know that they can do so only if they cooperate with others, or because they worry they will be punished or murdered if they do not do as they are told. In the mutual provisioning of a socialist society, we are essentially indifferent to the fate of the farmer whose food we eat: there is little or no community, respect, or beneficence among us, as those values were articulated above. In this kind of system, what we tend to find is that the people pretend to work and the government pretends to pay.

During the Q and A, a faculty member in attendance (a literature professor, for what that’s worth), made something like the following objection:

The USSR, Cuba, Cambodia, were not socialist societies. Calling the Khmer Rouge socialist just seems crazy to me; it just seems like such a fantastic stretch to call them socialist. [I don't remember his exact wording, but that was the gist.] These aren’t socialist societies, but totalitarian ones.

My response:

I don’t think you’re using the word “socialism” properly. “Socialism” just refers to collective ownership of the means of production. The USSR was not a nice or just socialist society, and it’s not the form of socialism any decent socialist would advocate today, but it was a form of socialism.

However, if you insist on saying that the USSR, Cambodia, China, etc., were not socialist because they don’t match the moral ideal of a socialist society, keep in mind that this same move is available to capitalists. If you complain about bad behavior or injustice you see in real-world commercial societies, I can just respond, “Oh, that’s not real capitalism, because that kind of thing would never happen in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village.”

Some socialists–including Gerald Cohen at times–try to define socialism in terms of values or moral principles instead of terms of institutions. But that’s bad lexicography:

We must be careful not to equate socialism with moral virtue or community spirit. Capitalism and socialism are simply ways of organizing the ownership of property. In capitalism, individuals may own the means of production. In socialism, they may not—the means of production are owned collectively (or by the representative of the collective, such as the State). Socialism is not love or kindness or generosity or oceans of delicious lemonade. Socialism is not equality or community. It’s just a way of distributing the control rights over objects.

Cohen asserts that capitalism runs on greed and fear. Yet Cohen cannot simply assert this as a conceptual claim. Capitalism is not analytically tied to greed and fear. Whether a regime is capitalist or not has nothing to do with people’s motives. A fearless, greedless capitalist society—like the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village—is no less capitalist than a fearful, greedy capitalist society—like Denmark or Switzerland. A social system is capitalist to the extent that it has private property in the means of production, decisions about the use of property are made by owners rather than by governments or society at large, people may make contracts as they please, legal monopolies and subsidies are absent, and so on.

So, if Cohen had said, “By ‘capitalism’, I just mean a predatory system of greed and fear,” that would be no stronger a condemnation of market societies than if Adam Smith said, “By ‘socialism’, I just mean a system of bloodthirsty dictators who starve and slaughter peasants.” We cannot just decide to insert evil motivations into the very definition of capitalism in order to argue that capitalism is evil. That would be both bad philosophy and bad lexicography.

Cohen would respond, I suspect, that we can imagine capitalist economies free of predation, greed, and fear, but real capitalist economies are not free of greed and fear. He would be right. Yet, a defender of capitalism could retort that we can also imagine socialist economies free of greed and fear, but real socialist economies are not free of predation, greed, and fear. Quite the contrary.

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Some links:

John Hasnas, “Is There a Moral Duty to Obey the Law?” Social Philosophy and Policy Vol. 30, Winter 2013. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&pdftype=1&fid=9167194&jid=SOY&volumeId=30&issueId=1-2&aid=9167191

Hasnas says that “For most of my intellectual life, I have held a strong belief that there is no moral duty to obey the law. Recent reflection has led me to question my conviction on this matter.” Hasnas argues that there is a moral obligation to obey the law in customary/common law systems. Hasnas’ argument for an obligation to obey the law does not justify political obligation—an obligation to conform one’s behavior to the dictate of one’s government. Indeed, an implication of his argument is that a moral obligation to obey the law is compatible with anarchy.

Chad Van Schoelandt “Markets, Community, and Pluralism,” The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 65, January 2014. http://pq.oxfordjournals.org/content/64/254/144.full.pdf+html

Van Schoelandt critically assesses G.A. Cohen’s objections to markets in Why Not Socialism? He argues that Cohen’s objections presupposes a stilted view of community that is at odds with pluralism and that his understanding of the motives of market participants is too simple. Markets generate socially cooperative norms and trust. Van Schoelandt arguments here are complementary with Jason Brennan’s arguments in Why Not Capitalism?

Baylen Linnekin “Raise a Glass: The Bill of Rights Was About Food Freedom,” http://reason.com/archives/2014/09/25/food-freedom-and-the-225th-anniversary-o

An interesting argument that the source of a number of the Bill of Rights were about the colonists struggle with Great Britain over “food freedom.”


This summer Russ Roberts at Econtalk had a number of discussions on the sharing economy:

Michael Munger On the Sharing Economy http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2014/07/michael_munger.html

Nathan Blecharczyk on Airbnb and the Sharing Economy http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2014/09/nathan_blecharc.html

And although the Podcast listed below has nothing to do with political philosophy per se, I recommend it because it is so moving and profound.

D.G. Myers on Cancer, Dying and Living. Myers is a literary critic who was dying of cancer and he and Russ talked about the importance of opportunity cost the most precious resource of all, our time. Myers died on September 26, 2014.


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In my third and final post on the political economy of Westeros, I want to address a question that has bothered me about A Song of Ice and Fire since I was first introduced to it. Many of the Lords Paramount have ruled their part of Westeros for thousands of years. The Starks, the Arryns and the Lannisters are the most obvious examples, but there are many others. In our world, however, there is far more turnover in who rules and who serves. This is not to say that families never stay in charge for long periods of time, but precious few families have kept their surnames and crowns for more than a few centuries. And to my knowledge, none have done so for more than 2000 years, like the Starks and the Lannisters. So it struck me that this was one of the least realistic things about social life in Westeros besides magic, of course.

But now I’d like to offer a theory as to how their power persists: Weirwood-modified genetics. Consider the following:

  • We know that some genetic effects in Westeros persist for very long periods of time. The Starks have long, brooding faces, and dark hair, the Baratheons have coal-black hair and the Lannisters have golden hair and green eyes, typically. The Targaryens, obviously, have silver-gold hair and purple eyes of various hues.
  • We know that genetics can be influenced by magic, from GRRM’s own mouth (I heard this by report from Aziz and Ashaya at History of Westeros, but I can’t find the source through Googling.
  • We have some reason to believe, following Greg Clark’s recent, extensive work in The Son Also Rises on the persistence of social advantages in many countries across history that there is probably some genetic basis for social dominance even in our world. In our world, the dominance of certain families lasts for generations longer than it should if some kind of social skill were not heavily heritable. In Westeros, this effect is far, far stronger for a few families.
  • We know that nearly all the great castles have Weirwoods, including Casterly Rock and Winterfell (though the Eyrie has no weirwood, as the ground is too stony). Storm’s End, White Harbor and Riverrun all have weirwoods.
  • We know that at least in White Harbor and Winterfell, the faces on the heart trees resemble the faces of the families. The heart tree in Winterfell has a “long and melancholy face” much like Jon Snow and Arya, Eddard Stark and Lyanna Stark. The face on the weirwood in White Harbor is carved on a “trunk so wide that the face carved into it looked fat and angry.” True, many different families have ruled from White Harbor, but the face seems to correspond to the incredible girth of the Manderly men.

So here’s my theory: weirwoods dramatically slow genetic drift for those who live in their presence on a day-to-day basis. The faces in the weirwoods even have an effect on the appearances of the families who rule there. Thus, the face on Winterfell’s heart tree shapes the faces of the Starks.

If social advantage is partly genetic, as appearance is, and weirwoods produce extreme genetic stasis, then so long as the Starks begin to live around the weirwoods at the right time, their social advantage will be retained far longer than those who do not live near weirwoods. We’ve never seen the weirwood at Casterly Rock, but if it doesn’t look clever, tricky and sly, I’d be very surprised.

The Arryns are a problem for my theory, as they have retained control for an extremely long time (at least 6000 years) and without a weirwood in recent memory. But there is no obvious common genetic appearance to the Arryns, as far as we know, so at least that’s consistent. But I still need to explain how they maintained their power for so long.

That said, I may have explained the dominance of many of the great noble houses.

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