Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy


In virtually every country around the world today, the most important and contentious issues revolve around which decisions should be made by governments and which should be left to individuals. From before Soviet Premier Khrushchev's early Cold War "we will bury you," to the fall of the Berlin Wall, this was the central geopolitical question.

The conversion hypothesis—the notion that all societies, capitalist and communist, would converge to the same socialist democratic welfare state model—was pervasive among post-World War II Western intellectuals. After the Berlin Wall fell, it was claimed that capitalist democracy had triumphed. But the champagne corks were popped prematurely. Some newly capitalist countries have remained undemocratic, democratic lite-socialist welfare states have struggled, and emergent state capitalism plus the recent Great Recession have many questioning the efficacy and desirability of capitalism.

Using facts and data, we will study intellectual, economic, and geopolitical history, and engage current political economic debate to understand the nature of various forms of capitalism and socialism and their interaction with degrees of democracy and the paths countries may take. We'll study the consequences of transitions out of communism in Eastern Europe, Russia, and China; compare East to West Germany and North to South Korea; and of course focus on the current debate on the growth of government in the United States, including the policy proposals of the presidential candidates.

Will the convergence hypothesis eventually prove to be correct after all? If not, can different systems coexist in peace and prosperity? Will capitalism's economic freedom eventually lead to political freedom? Or will democracy devour robust capitalism? Where on this spectrum will and should America be in coming decades? The answer will heavily affect your—and others'—economic well-being. The seminar will emphasize reading, discussion, and debate, and you will make brief presentations on your reading and research.


Meet the Instructor(s)

Michael Boskin

"I first became interested in the pros and cons of capitalism vs. socialism in my freshman year of college, reading some of the great works on the subject. Little did I anticipate becoming chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, or the president putting me in charge of America's programs for the economies in transition from socialism to some form of capitalism. My advising on the subject later expanded to Asia and Latin America. Both my research and popular writing focus increasingly on where on this spectrum America, and other advanced and developing economies, will and should go. The stakes are high for the future standards of living, opportunity, and geopolitical influence that your generation will inherit."

Michael J. Boskin is Tully M. Friedman Professor of Economics and Wohlford Family Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research. As chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, Dr. Boskin helped formulate the entire range of economic policies. He later chaired the highly influential Commission on the Consumer Price Index, whose report transformed the way government statistical agencies around the world measure inflation, GDP, and productivity. He is the author of more than 150 books and articles and advises top policy makers globally. His op-eds appear in the Wall Street Journal and other leading newspapers; his bi-monthly column is syndicated in 145 countries. He is the recipient of Stanford's Distinguished Teaching Award and the Adam Smith Prize for Outstanding Contributions to Economics.