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Revisiting the tired “cows under capitalism” meme

By Benjamin Wetmore

Social media makes all things new again in its desperate appetite for content. One of those things is an old listing of what life would be like under various forms of government. 

It goes like this: 

“Socialism: You have two cows. Give one cow to your neighbor. 

Communism: You have two cows. Give both cows to the government, and they may give you some milk. 

Fascism: You have two cows. You give all of the milk to the government, and the government sells it.  

Nazism: You have two cows. The government shoots you and takes both cows. 

Anarchism: You have two cows. Keep both cows, shoot the government agent and steal another cow. 

Capitalism: You have two cows. Sell one, buy a bull.” 

This is a typical Americanism: a short and witty extended joke meant to teach something about complicated ideas by distilling them down to one example. But in doing so, we do a disservice to the underlying ideas.  

In the given example, the practical differences between socialism and communism aren’t well made, and the practical differences between fascism and Nazism are also obtuse. Some of this is because the historical experience with communism is too often defined solely by the Soviet Union. Additionally, there have been so few Fascist states, and so few true Fascist thinkers, that the ideology is still nascent and undeveloped. 

Similarly, capitalism as a concept is mostly understood as it is defined by its detractors. The history of capitalism is better understood as the history of western political freedoms combined with a desire for efficiency. 

The excesses of that system are usually the subject of left critiques, but those excesses are often enabled and supercharged by state interference.  

One thing all defenders of these various ideologies usually proclaim is: “but that’s not real socialism/communism/capitalism!” Yet do we know what life would be like under these different regimes? 

Each one of these systems has a variety of modifications and permutations, a thousand different flavors of socialism as it were, but at their core they do represent some basic claim to how government should operate and consequently how individuals should live. 

Socialism is defined by its obsession with equity. The example meekly offers that you “give one cow to your neighbor.” However, every socialist government has used state coercion as its way to achieve equity. 

In America, other than failed communes where hippies couldn’t figure out how to grow potatoes, socialism has only existed as state socialism. It’s not hard to understand why; when working harder results in no benefit, why would the industrious do so? What is man’s inner passion and drive to subsidize both the needy and lazy? 

Another defining trait of socialism is either the state or common ownership over the ‘means of production.’ This includes the raw materials, resources, facilities, and machines necessary to produce goods and services. 

A truly socialist economy would likely have state-owned cows that no one owned, no one tended, and no one milked. 

communism is as much a historical and political theory as it is an economic theory. Marx outlined a likely progression of systems from feudalism to capitalism, to socialism, to communism. 

Communism suggests people understand themselves primarily from their economic station in life and will eventually revolt against their elites because of the injustice of that order. Lenin and Leninism took this historical theory and applied it to a political force where a group of revolutionaries would seize power and rule by committees. In Russian, this translates to “Soviet,” an elected governmental council. 

Communism believes in sole rule by the people, or the people’s representatives, to enact their will and that any dissent to that rule or position is oppression. 

There’s an important reason that every Communist system has resulted in the mass murder of millions of its citizens. If dissent is treason, and oppression, then dissenters can’t even be allowed to leave. 

Communism relies on dividing every society into classes and pitting them against one another for perpetual revolution. It thrives on hatred of the hated class whether they are the rich, the middle-class, or people who own one cow too many. The system is about the aggrandizement of power to the political class that rules every system and nothing else. It consumes every person and soul within it until it eventually extinguishes itself.  

A communist economy would blame milk shortages on cow owners, who would all be shot as economic wreckers. 

Fascism is poorly defined because its few examples were relatively short-lived. There was Germany, Italy, and Spain. Generally, it is a militaristic and regimented system that holds the state up as just as important, and in many ways more important, than the individual. These few countries have all exalted strength and discipline and demanded its citizens to rise to meet its many demands upon them. 

A Fascist economy would demand you milk your two cows at a set rate for the benefit of the state and if you refused you would be imprisoned. 

Nazism is even more poorly defined than fascism because it only existed for 12 years in one country. The main difference between fascism and national socialism is in the racial theories the latter held, that put the needs of the nation’s majority race above those of the individual. 

Whereas fascism held the nation as the most important consideration, the National Socialist state held the interest of the dominant race, as protected by the nation, as the most important consideration. These racial theories obviously led to major historical crimes that are the subject of every broadcast of the History channel and about half of all documentaries. 

A Nazi economy would demand you milk your two cows for the benefit of the state’s preferred national race and would minimally compensate you if you weren’t from the same race or pay you handsomely if you were from the right race. 

Anarchism is deceptively simple political philosophy, but in practice quite complex. There are many variants of anarchic political theories. Many varieties exist based on whether the theory allows for private ownership, and whether there’s any kind of authority. 

But power dislikes a vacuum. The places in the world closest to an anarchic ideal often tend to be dominated by warlords and a rough rule by force. 

An anarchic economy would have your strongest neighbor take your cows by force and sell you your milk at his high prices. 

Capitalism is the one economic theory we all think we know, because we’re told we live under it. But what we think of capitalism is just the Communist critique of western economics. The term in its current meaning comes from the mid-19th century. The current meaning then explodes on the scene when Marx and the emergent Communist school of thought critique the excesses of what they call capitalism. 

But it rarely means more than simply private ownership and private profits. Ironically, that system is not what we live under, as so much of our lives are regulated and controlled by a state bureaucracy. 

Theorists, often thinly veiled communist apologists, reframe the debate by saying that we have a moderated or slight variation of pure capitalism. But you can’t go start a business and keep the profits without getting a wide variety of state approvals. You can’t even legally cut hair in America without a license, with a separate license for a haircut location, and a separate license for having a responsible person in charge. 

That isn’t private ownership and private profits, nor is the system of taxation which takes up to 37% of income from workers, in addition to up to 21% average tax on profits by any enterprise. Any time you want to spend that money you earned, you’ll pay a sales tax for the privilege of spending that money, in addition to property taxes for the privilege of living under a roof. 

Some have noted it’s actually easier to start a business in Communist China than it is in supposedly capitalist America. Many choose to do business with communists rather than capitalists

The truth is that America fears the inequalities that would come from true capitalism because it would separate the hard-working from those who weren’t. It would separate those stuck in dead-end jobs, from those who have the flexibility and time to capitalize on a good idea. It would reward the rich who have a useful source of information about what’s profitable from those without access to such information.  

A true capitalist economy would be one where you owned no cows because milk and meat were so cheap it didn’t make sense to be a farmer. You instead focused your attention on the skills that made you the most money or were otherwise most rewarding to you.  

Memes like this can be silly to dissect because they seem like just a joke, and who wants to over-examine a joke? But these frames of mind reinforce misconceptions about various economic systems. 

Our society teaches and preaches about our economic system so poorly that many are clamoring for major systemic change. However, they’re woefully ignorant about the starvation, depredations, and dehumanization that come with alternatives like socialism and communism.  

Words have power, and jokes even more so, because of the way in which they reduce complex ideas into simple memes. We can enjoy the passing humor while at the same time use its mistakes as teachable moments to truly consider the horrors suffered under alternative economic systems.

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Benjamin Wetmore

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