The economic history of the twentieth century is often summarised as some kind of big battle between unfettered capitalism on the one hand (as supposedly demonstrated by the United States) and full blown socialism/communism on the other (as the Soviet Union was supposed to have been).
Each extreme is touted to have its unique, positive aspects while being weighed down by equally unique disadvantages. Capitalism, for instance, is able to raise the standard of living by several-fold in a person’s lifetime, showering us with more goods at more affordable prices than previous generations could possibly imagine. On the other hand, it supposedly promotes a consumerist, materialist, “sink or swim” society that has no regard for the unfortunate and less well off. Hence the vision of the US as the kind of place where – if you are lucky enough to have money – you can buy whatever you want; but should you be struck down by poverty or illness then you are on your own.
Socialism, for its part, stagnates and reverses the standard of living, destroying capital and productivity so as to drive the population down to a level of permanent poverty. On the other hand, everyone is apparently more equal, benefiting from a “fair” system of distribution of any goods that are actually produced. (Of course, there is also the small matter of the tyrannous nature of socialism which, in the Soviet Union, resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. One might have thought that such a negative feature, being so completely off the scale, would warrant the summary dismissal of socialism as a serious proposition. But we will leave that to one side.)
Thus, if one accepts the nature of these two extremes as we have described them, a better society is seemingly reliant upon combining the economic growth of capitalism on the one hand with the supposed equality and fairness of socialism on the other. Such a path would allow us to discard the negative aspects of each those two systems in order to arrive at we have today: a social democracy, a “third way”, an economic order that is somewhere in the middle between greed and need.