Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Socialism and Communism by the Numbers

Barefoot Bum has been putting up a lot of posts recently describing communisim. I've found the discussion fascinating, but I've had difficulty picturing how it all would work in practice in the real world. He was kind enough to offer a more detailed example, though as I commented to that post, I still don't feel like I see the big picture. I am really curious how communism in practice would actually work, with real numbers, for a cross-section of professions, especially with a side-by-side comparison to capitalism. The experimenter in me wishes one could run an actual simulation of both and compare them directly to see what happens.

As I mentioned in that post, something I've often thought about is how one could balance making sure everyone in society can live comfortably while also allowing for ambition and non-welfare type incentives. As I alluded to in my comment there, I have thought about a bifurcated system. I don't know how it would work, but the basic idea would be that you have a minimum level of support provided for everyone for the basics: Food, shelter, and medical care. Nothing fancy, but comfortable. Then for those that want more, you can go out and earn it just like today (well, without the "do it or starve" threat that forces people to do all sorts of things they'd rather not). Given our abundance of food, probably the food part would be the easiest part. Some form of universal health care is also doable - other countries have done it - even if you think it would be a crappy thing to do, at least it would cover everyone. I tend to think providing shelter would be the hardest part - the costs vary so much depending on where you are, and I can't help think of how successful housing projects are - or rather, were not. But maybe that was avoidable. In any case, I'd wonder if you'd have to keep some sort of limit on how comfortable people were without working, or else you'd end up with very few people feeling much incentive to work. Or would you pay for it by your own labor? But then how would that work? How would it be measured? Hours of labor alone seems a rather poor measure - it doesn't reward innovation or efficiency. Just the opposite. If I can build a shoe in an hour just as good as the average good-shoemaker can make in five hours, it seems unfair to force both of us to work five hours before we earn a shoe we can keep.

Any more good examples out there to help me make sense of this?

1 comment:

The Barefoot Bum said...

Hours of labor alone seems a rather poor measure - it doesn't reward innovation or efficiency. Just the opposite.

Grown-ups can innovate and become more efficient because it makes rational sense to do so. We don't need to reward innovation and efficiency with the power to exploit others' labor; we can do it with social prestige and other mechanisms.

Remember too, capitalism primarily rewards price-cost "efficiency" (monetary price divided by monetary cost) by paying labor the cost of their labor power, not the value of their labor. This is not a mutually beneficial sense of efficiency.

Even under a socialist hours-of-labor-limited extended economy, though, use-labor efficiency (use-value divided by socially necessary labor time) should improve over time, although perhaps not as quickly. But we already have an advanced industrial economy; we don't need to put most of our resources into improving productivity.

If I can build a shoe in an hour just as good as the average good-shoemaker can make in five hours, it seems unfair to force both of us to work five hours before we earn a shoe we can keep.

I have no idea where you're getting this case. Even under a socialist economy, you, the better shoemaker, would indirectly pressure to poorer shoemaker to become more efficient. Because you can make shoes more efficiently, a socialist economy would force you to undercut the poorer shoemaker's price. Since, however, there's not cutthroat competition under socialism, the government would help the poorer shoemaker become more efficient, and you yourself — since you can't exploit your customers' surplus value — wouldn't have a disincentive to keep your competitors from becoming more efficient.