Socialism seems to have a growing appeal as an economic system that should be implemented in the United States. However, many of those advocating socialism rather than capitalism sometimes lack a historical understanding of how these contrasting economic systems have actually worked. This video course, Capitalism vs. Socialism: Comparing Economic Systems, offers a way to remedy that problem. It should serve well for homeschooled high school students, probably providing partial credit toward both economics and government. (It doesn't cover all necessary topics for a complete course for either subject, but it makes a great supplement.) The course should also be interesting for adults. Ideally, in a homeschool setting, a teen will watch with his or her parents then discuss the questions for each lecture.
The course presenter, Professor Edward F. Stuart, begins the course by explaining his upbringing. He grew up in Texas with parents on opposite ends of the political spectrum. His father, who worked in the oil industry, was a conservative who preferred limited government. His mother was a liberal Democrat and a Catholic who admired Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, a movement more closely identified with left-wing positions. Professor Stuart attended schools where he was taught by Jesuits who supported his mom’s views, but he was living in Texas where such views were very much in the minority. These conflicting influences helped to shape his thinking about economic issues in their utilitarian, political, religious, cultural, and interpersonal aspects. Consequently, in this course, Stuart discusses economics in light of the very real effects policies have upon the lives of people.
Throughout his lectures, Stuart relates many of his own personal experiences from travel, teaching, and work in other countries. These anecdotes are often entertaining, and they help students understand the reality of economic policies and how they play out in real life.
While one might assume from the course title that this course compares only capitalism and socialism, it actually presents a more expansive and realistic comparison of those two economic systems in their different incarnations and adds comparisons of communist and mixed economies.
The course consists of 24 lectures (each running about 30 minutes) and a PDF guidebook. The 273-page guidebook appears to be the scripts for the lectures. (The portions I read seemed identical to lecture material.) For each of the lectures, the guidebook presents two questions. Questions require complex responses which could be written, although discussion would be ideal. There is no answer key.
In the first lecture, Stuart discusses many of the economic decisions that political entities have to make as they balance the needs and wants of the people with the role of government, the creation of programs and their requirements, the effects of government subsidies, potential infringements on personal freedom. He considers the pros and cons of government control and the far-reaching consequences of governments' economic decisions. He sums it up as a fundamental question that he will try to address: “Is the public sector and government the best provider of some products and services, or should human needs be left mostly to the private sector, albeit with some modest amount of government regulation or subsidy?” Stuart then addresses this question by examining the governments and economies of countries around the world, primarily in recent history.
In this course, students also learn about the ideas of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and Milton Friedman since Stuart says that these four men represent all of the major theories about how economies should be organized.
He uses the United States as the strongest example of capitalism, covering the economic influences at the founding of our country as well as the shifts that have taken place since then. He pays special attention to changes under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the influence of John Maynard Keynes.
Interestingly, Stuart discusses the Judeo-Christian influences behind most socialist thinkers in their desire to provide for the common good. But he also explains how socialism has drifted from religious roots toward dependence upon the government to supply everyone’s needs. He points out that the imbalance of wealth created by capitalism, the booms and busts that seem to inevitably accompany capitalism, and social ills that have occurred under it have driven more people toward socialist attitudes.
In some lectures, Stuart seems to praise socialism as it appears in the mixed economies of Europe as the better alternative. In the twelfth lecture, he uses Sweden’s mixed economy as an example of how such economies work at their best. But he ends that lecture with questions about the viability of the Swedish economy, given an aging population, globalization, and increasing competition.
Stuart continues by analyzing France, England, Germany, the countries of the former Soviet Union, China, other Asian countries, and the European Union. In his discussion of the Soviet Bloc countries, he explains their economic failure in relation to other countries—failure that is best exemplified by the contrast that existed between East and West Germany before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Stuart explains why the state-owned, large-scale enterprises that existed in Soviet countries always tended toward inefficiency. He points out that collectivized, state-owned agriculture has been a failure everywhere it has been tried.
China’s modernization is the basis of an interesting lecture on China’s mixed economic approach even though it maintains strong government control. Stuart also evaluates the European Union, which he describes as both a success and a failure.
His final example, the country of Slovenia, provides an interesting case study. Slovenia was created from the former Yugoslavia, the most lightly-controlled of the Soviet Bloc countries. Slovenia has been able to modernize and produce amazing economic results while still maintaining many elements of a socialist economy.
At first, I thought Dr. Stuart was overly positive about socialist economies, but after his lectures about the Soviet Union and Communist China, I realized that he seems to support mixed economies rather than the extremes of either capitalism or socialism. As he covers the pros and cons of the various economic systems, the overall effect is well balanced.
Stuart acknowledges that there are trade-offs to be made under different economic systems. Shifts toward socialism result in less personal freedom and more government control. He concludes that this sometimes works in favor of the general population, and sometimes against. Because he is concerned about the impact of economic systems on the lives of individual people, Stuart includes an assessment of the distribution of wealth as a measure of the fairness of each economic system as implemented in each country.
Stuart repeats information from time to time. For example, he repeats basic information about the origins of the Marshall Plan in a number of lectures since it played such a major role in the postwar economic development of so many countries. Likewise, the Gini Coefficient that compares income inequality between countries is mentioned many times. The context is different in each case, but the way he introduces it as a new topic each time seemed overly repetitious. Keep in mind that I binge-watched these lectures, so it was probably more noticeable to me than to a student spreading out the sessions.
As socialism becomes increasingly popular among younger generations, there is a need for better education about socialism, capitalism, and other economic systems. This course offers a valuable examination of how socialism works in various implementations along with a briefer examination of capitalism. Ultimately, it’s a reminder that reliance on the government comes at the costs of higher taxes and less personal freedom. As Stuart points out, choices about economic systems reflect what each country values most highly.