Is it irrational or naive to accuse political systems about something, when political systems consist of people?

For example, in a recent book, the German left politician Sahra Wagenknecht accuses capitalism for hindering innovation and for monopolizing the economy.

First of all, such statements are insanely broad.

Secondly, is it rational to accuse "abstract" political systems, when for example capitalism is not some fixed "thing". That is, non-controlled (see I don't use the word "free") economies are only about, how people who act there, decide to act.

Therefore it seems far-fetched to accuse entire nations of people as causing a harm, but perhaps this is ideological war, rather than "realistic" argumentation?

  • Not nations are causing a harm, but political systems are incapable of promoting something (we consider under any conditions, with different people, rejecting idealism).
    – rus9384
    May 8 '18 at 19:50
  • Society runs on abstractions. Laws are abstractions and laws can still be wrong. For example no domestic laws were broken by Nazi Germany. Their legal system itself had become corrupted. Take the simple analogy of sports. In any given team sport there are som strategies and tactics that are better than others, even though the teams are made up of people. Of course collective actions and systems of organization are real. See Searle's The Construction of Social Reality for an extended discussion of this point.. amazon.com/Construction-Social-Reality-John-Searle/dp/…
    – user4894
    May 8 '18 at 19:53
  • @rus9384 Also I consider the practice of believing that certain state actions can "promote" or "dispromote" something to be pretty speculative. As if the people acting under government did no thinking on their own and the government uses it's skills to make everything work out. It's clearly not that way and there's a list of policies that don't work as expected and waste people's tax money. The more I think about, the less I think people need the government for anything else than basic material safeties (bodily safety mainly, and the police is for that).
    – mavavilj
    May 8 '18 at 19:55
  • @user4894 May have run, but I'm thinking that in the internet and computer age at least, societies have the tools to evolve to "scientific" politics. Big data and all sorts of stuff can be used to measure large-scale effects truthfully or at least more truthfully than mere abstractions.
    – mavavilj
    May 8 '18 at 19:57
  • Then it just means you are a minarchist. But still, that means you have something against other social models and that you have some critique on those.
    – rus9384
    May 8 '18 at 19:58

A political system consists of people acting on ideas. If you can point out some specific set of ideas and explain a problem that results from people acting on those ideas, then you have a criticism of those ideas. So if you point out some specific set of political ideas and call it a system, you can criticise a system.

Many people use terms like capitalism without being able to explain what set of ideas they are referring to. Those specific criticisms are irrational, but not all criticisms of political systems are irrational.

  • Okay so it depends on the premises.
    – mavavilj
    May 9 '18 at 11:53

Your question is asking two independent things: generic (is it irrational to critique a political system) and specific (specific author's critique of "capitalism"). Let's answer them separately:

  1. Yes, it can be rational to criticize a specific political system.

    For example, direct democracies (ala Athenian) have their own weak and strong points. One criticism is difficulty of scaling, for example as society/government deals with more and more nuanced issues, you end up asking people to vote on literally millions of minutae decisions. Democracies in general have been criticized for a concept called "tyranny of the majority", where minority interests are at risk. Absolute monarchy has its own criticisms.

    Some criticisms are systematic (such as the above-mentioned concerns of tyranny of majority in democracy); while others are more empirical - while there seem to be a fairly obvious case that a centally planned-economy Marxist single party state suffers from obvious flaws, some of the criticisms of that are systematic (see Hayek), while others are more empirical (we know that every time this has been tried, dissidents were suppressed brutally, and anyone trying to emigrate was oppressed).

    If you wish to discuss specific criticisms of specific political systems, Politics.SE can be a good place provided the question fits the SE overall framework.

  2. On the other hand, the specific instance your question mentioned suffers from two distinct systematic flaws (I will omit a third major flaw, in that the person is just dead flat out wrong :)

    • "Capitalism", as other answers noted, is a rather vague and amorphous concept. It's not a "system", or even a coherent ideology. While there are some coherent ideologies/systems that are often associated with the term (e.g. Laissez-faire economy/free market), overall, "capitalism" has very little substance aside from "concentration of capital" to be subject to any systematic criticism.

      To illustrate just how vague the concept is, it can be noted that even the "socialist" systems in USSR/Cuba/China are often described as "State capitalism", not without good reason (PRC is probably the best example) - ironically, the term was un-ironically applied by everone from Mussolini to Trotskyties.

    • Less relevant, "capitalism" isn't a political system. It's an economic system. As noted above, one can apply the "capitalism" label to any and many things, most of which have little in common with one another, especially politically - from Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile to rather totalitarian state in Singapour to "Socialist" Peoples Republic of China to more-socialist-than-capitalist France to USA.


Capitalism is poorly defined, and problematically vague. It's one of those words like 'soul' which you should never take at 'face value' bg assuminv some shared definition, and for the sake of clear argument avoid with a clearer substitute wherever possible, imho. Like globalisation, capitalism gets given a character, as a savior or bogeyman depending on politics. Don't accept casual and vague use of these words, and mistrust arguments from those who do.

The bigger part of what you are saying, suggests it's possible for there to be no collective responsibility at all. Was the holocaust just on Hitler? Clearly a political organisation was responsible, also an ideology, but also ordinary Germans who allowed themselves to be manipulated by their prejudices. It is crucial to be sceptical of populist racist demagogues (a hot topic around the world again now), so to put safeguards in place like holding freedom of the press and freedom of association and protest sacred. Also to prevent authoritarianism & centralising power to one group through mechanisms like the division of powers. And last but not least, to defend in our own lives and conversations and actions, the values we consider important. You personally, have some responsibility to prevent another Hitler and another holocaust. Capitalism isn't an ideology like fascism, it is a culture practiced in different ways in different places. Cultural patterns can be identified, and questioned or criticised, if they are properly evidenced.

You can use tools like the sorites paradox and thd ship of Theseus, to question conventional notions of identity, and try to observe overlapping and conflicting identities in action. But the same phenomenology that grants you identity, must allow some measure of group identity, even though in some sense both are imaginary. We make them real, by acting as if they are real, like money and human rights.

Define terms. Ask for evidence. Question whether that gives causation, or only correlation, or fits a confirmation bias. Use that to bring clarity and intelligence to your own conversation, and that helps shape your community for the better, and your world.

  • I don't understand why it's necessary to try to even define whole groups of people, because it's humanly impossible. No-one can understand everything that occurs under an economy, everyone can only interpret certain parts from it. Therefore it could be also a fallacy of false induction, trying to "prove" the macro thing wrong by drawing few time-dependent, place-dependent, group-dependent examples. I'm pretty sure that one cannot truthfully even apply induction to society.
    – mavavilj
    May 8 '18 at 20:06
  • It's also possibly and old phenomenon by now that politics ought to be "fight about ideas". The computer age very much allows for REAL data about what exists, what happens and so on. But to interpret it requires computer literacy.
    – mavavilj
    May 8 '18 at 20:11
  • You can't get how the world ought to be, from how it is, however much data you have. Buddhists, eliminative materialists and others, deny any fundamental reality to personal identity. But like everyone else, they keep acting like there is, because it's useful. Like group identities. Useful. But, even more at risk of en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagueness Your focus on individual voluntary transactions reminds me of existentialcomics.com/comic/234
    – CriglCragl
    May 8 '18 at 20:24
  • And the dangers of seeking to eliminate vagueness.. :P existentialcomics.com/comic/170
    – CriglCragl
    May 8 '18 at 20:32
  • Who says one needs to consider ideologues that are "further off" then the best science? I don't think one needs to consider people that are naive and unscientific in their views. That's their problem, essentially.
    – mavavilj
    May 8 '18 at 20:35

It is obviously easier to say "Economic System X" is responsible for these terrible things than list any number of people who are manipulating Economic System X - people whose identities you might not even know. So, in terms of simple communication, it's often hard to avoid this mistake.

However, as your question implies, the real villains are people.

There is another perspective, however. If one can find evidence that one economic system is more efficient than another, or if one economic system is somehow easier for evil people to manipulate, then one might judge one economic system "better" or "more fair" than the other.


Groups can easily do things that no individual can or would do. The diffusion of responsibility means that groups unified by some common trait can be responsible for things in a way that does not reduce to a collection of separate responsibilities. A collection of soccer hooligans might trample someone to death without any given one of them doing anything that would kill him, were the group not assembled.

We can't just isolate the last person who made the last impact at a point when he was still living, and accuse that individual of murder. And we cannot somehow parcel out the punishment for murder and apply part of it to each individual. No one of them could predict that their small contribution would add to that of others and result in fatal damage. The collection has a decision process that goes beyond the decisions of the individuals collected.

So no, this is not a naive or irrational way of speaking.

At the same time, we should not blame the notion of soccer for the death. We know that those individuals would not be there if not for the concept of soccer, but there is no logical connection between the reason for the group, and its effects.

So there is still a logical gap in this accusation. Capitalism may have motivated individual actions that limited innovation, but even if it did, those actions also have other motivations, and the same motivations, even the exact same actions, may well have had different outcomes under other circumstances.


Is it irrational or naive to accuse political systems about something, when political systems consist of people?

Not in of itself, no. Given that there is mounting evidence that small--even tiny--changes in law clearly affects the aggregate behavior of citizens for better or worse (consider the books The Empathy Gap by J.D. Trout, or Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein), it does not seem unreasonable that entire political systems could be if not the cause of some societal effect, than a cause--and a significant one.

Secondly, is it rational to accuse "abstract" political systems, when for example capitalism is not some fixed "thing". That is, non-controlled (see I don't use the word "free") economies are only about, how people who act there, decide to act.

Just because political systems and their associated economic systems are not tangible does not mean they are not things or that they have no consequences. And people decide to act depending on context and repercussions. For example, tax laws that incentivize charitable giving may matter: A study by Nicolas J. Duquette found that "a 1 percent increase in the tax cost of giving causes charitable receipts to fall by about 4 percent".

Therefore it seems far-fetched to accuse entire nations of people as causing a harm, but perhaps this is ideological war, rather than "realistic" argumentation?

Well, absent natural factors like weather, terrain, natural disasters, and the like, what else could be the cause of widespread societal harm, if not the actions of large numbers of people? And those actions are influenced by the laws, the police, the courts, the traditions, the stock markets, the innovation culture, and other features, some of which is captured by terms like "capitalism".


A political system, although composed only of interacting individuals, can have properties and produce consequences of which those individuals may not be aware and cannot control.

For instance if I along with 100 other people form a crowd, just because we are all engaged in activities at the same time and place, there may be an accident. Someone falls over and is badly injured. The injury can be attributed to the presence of the crowd even though it may be that no individual can be held responsible. Indeed, no individual in their rush and hurry may even be aware that there has been an accident in which someone has been badly injured.

The same goes on a large scale for social systems such as capitalism. The actions of interacting individuals can have properties and produce consequences of which those individuals may not be aware and cannot control.

In light of this one can quite properly blame a social system in the sense of attributing harmful consequences to it, without blaming all or perhaps any of the individuals of which it is composed.


Ned Block, 'An Argument for Holism', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 95 (1995), pp. 151-169.

J. N. Mohanty, 'Intentionality, Causality and Holism', Synthese, Vol. 61, No. 1, The Intentionality of Mind, Part I (Oct., 1984), pp. 17-33.

Elliott Sober,'Holism, Individualism, and the Units of Selection', PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1980, Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers (1980), pp. 93-121.

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