Socialist battles capitalist in fiery debate, captivates audience

Daniel Mitchell (left) and Nathaniel Robinson (right) were invited to participate in a “Capitalism vs. Socialism” debate, organized by the Pomona Student Union Oct 16. (Chloe Ortiz • The Student Life)

“Well, this won’t be a very good debate because I agree with some of what Nathan says,” said capitalist speaker Daniel Mitchell immediately after hearing his debate opponent, socialist Nathan Robinson, introduce socialist ideology at Pomona Student Union’s “Capitalism vs. Socialism” event Oct. 16.

Contrary to what Mitchell had anticipated, the crowd of about 40 students at Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theatre witnessed an explosive debate between two speakers with starkly different ideologies. The speakers sparred over most issues raised by the moderator, Sarthak Sharma PO ’20.

Multiple attendees who spoke with TSL judged Robinson to have won the debate handily.

Mitchell, a former senior fellow at the Cato Institute specializing in fiscal policy and tax reform, lauded unregulated free markets, asserting “what makes poor people richer is a fast-growing, thriving economy, not slicing an already shrinking pie.”

Meanwhile, Robinson, editor-in-chief of “Current Affairs” magazine, countered that “redistribution is almost always economically efficient.”

Robinson argued that deducting tiny amounts of wealth from figures such as Jeff Bezos would massively benefit the poor, while barely harming Bezos.

Mitchell praised the rapid growth of economies like that of Hong Kong, while Robinson argued that this growth does not necessarily correlate with increased overall well-being. While Mitchell said, “[C]ompanies aren’t democratic, and they shouldn’t be,” Robinson pointed out that this philosophy can lead to workers being “tyrannized by their bosses.”

I found my opponent’s views to be atrocious and morally reprehensible. The kind of society that he would build is one that no one who has just a basic moral functioning should ever want to live in. This ideology is going to drive humanity into the abyss.”

Nathan Robinson
At one point, Robinson directly asked Mitchell if he believed that a boss had the right to fire a pregnant female worker, to which Mitchell responded: “I believe in private contracts. If I set up a contract and say I want people [who] can work for three years with no interruption, I think that’s something the government should not interfere with.”

“‘Sucks for you,’” Robinson said, “is almost the libertarian philosophy of life. If you sign a contract, you have to deal with it.”

A major point of conflict in the debate was the definition of socialism. Mitchell criticized Venezuela, the USSR, and even Nazi Germany as socialist regimes, but Robinson repeatedly insisted that such regimes were not actually socialist. Instead, Robinson praised European nations for universal healthcare and paid family leave, stating that no Europeans “want to live like Americans.”

Robinson also repeatedly mentioned the Pomona Dining staff’s 2013 unionization as an example of positive socialism and worker organizing.

Following the debate, Mitchell and Robinson maintained strong opinions about their opponent’s viewpoints.

“We were talking at cross-purposes,” Mitchell said. “Nathan was saying that basically every country that has ever identified itself as socialist was not. He had this idea of anarchical socialism, and I was focusing on the real world examples of socialism.”

On the reverse, Robinson criticized Mitchell’s ideas.

“I found my opponent’s views to be atrocious and morally reprehensible,” Robinson said. “The kind of society that he would build is one that no one who has just a basic moral functioning should ever want to live in. This ideology is going to drive humanity into the abyss.”

The speakers took student questions, which focused on topics such as differences between capitalist and socialist approaches to climate change, along with connections between colonialism, capitalism, and slavery.

On climate change, Mitchell declined to opine, stating that it wasn’t his area of expertise. Robinson attacked this response.

“If it were up to [right-wing politicians], this is what you’d hear a lot: ‘It’s not my issue; I don’t know; who knows?’ And then they do nothing,” he said. “I don’t think any of us can afford to talk that way anymore. . .This is clearly a crisis of unregulated capitalism.”

Robinson spoke passionately and appeared frustrated at many of Mitchell’s points, rapidly taking notes and rifling through his papers. Mitchell presented a mostly calm demeanor, only occasionally becoming more agitated. Robinson said afterwards that it was his first debate.

Following the debate, a group of about 20 students flocked to Robinson, while only a few approached Mitchell. While students responded with enthusiasm to Robinson’s points, they reacted with frustration to Mitchell’s argument.

“When I saw the debate’s poster, Mitchell seemed far more qualified and experienced, and I feared it would be a very unequal debate,” Daniel Savin PO ’22 said. “On the night, however, Robinson clearly emerged victorious, and if anything, it was a mismatch in his favor. Mitchell was unconvincing. Robinson was sensible and pragmatic.”

Attendee Ivette Fernandez PO ’19 concurred. “Robinson came a lot more prepared than Mitchell from a holistic perspective,” she said. “Mitchell came from strictly economics, while Robinson considered the entire well-being of the nation.”

PSU committee members said they considered the debate a success.

“When we came up with the questions, we were thinking about how to highlight differences between these ideologies to help people learn,” said Anam Mehta PO ’21, one of the event organizers. “It was definitely more geared towards learning than winning.”

Sharma added: “It was a very productive conversation. A lot of people who talk about these terms a lot don’t really know what they mean in practice, so I think this was a great learning experience for all.”

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