Thoughts on Socialism

Socialism, like many topics I enjoy, is like a big tangled bag of twine. Everything is entangled in everything else. Every time you try to discuss it with someone, it’s like a whole new bag of twine to untangle because it has different meanings to different people.

What is Socialism

There are two threads of thought I see commonly discussed when it comes to socialism. The first is the idea of a socialist society, one in which the means of production, capital goods, are owned by the larger community as a matter of principle and law. I’m going to call this idea “Soveirgn Socialism” (SoSo) owing to the idea that socialism is the governing principle.

The second thread of thought is the intrusion of government into otherwise private markets or the creation of socialist institutions operating within an otherwise capitalist system. I’m going to term this “Ad-Hoc Socialism” (AhSo) in that it is not governed by some ideology or rule and is focused on some specific area of concern or interest.

I am not a socialist

I think of myself as a pragmatist when it comes to economics. I think if something works to accomplish your aims, then it’s a good system. If it doesn’t work then it’s not a good system. If it is antithetical to your aims, it is an outright bad system. Human aims are wide ranging so human agreement, even under a pragmatist agenda is going to be tenuous.

Sovereign Socialism (SoSo) has shown itself to be a pretty destructive force over the 20th century and into the 21st. Those countries that adopted it have generally descended into Authoritarianism, political violence, and have not shown themselves to be as effective as Capitalist societies at promoting the general welfare. They have had some achievements in the areas of science and industrialization, but still fall short of their more capitalist brethren. There is a lot not to like.

Furthermore, many of the purely theoretical critiques of socialism have been born out in practice. The lack of personal motivation, the lack of individual liberty and innovation, the general weakness of their utilization of both labor and capital and so on. It does not seem like human nature is really all that compatible with SoSo.

That said, I don’t find the idea of socialism evil or even foolish. There are many aspects of human society that are probably best managed in a manner in keeping with socialist ideas. Sometimes, because there are no good alternatives, such as when we face natural monopolies. Other times it is because we are naturally social animals and strict cooperation for mutual goals is essential and effective.

Ad-Hoc socialism seems like a pretty good option for a pragmatist. The underpinning critiques of capitalism that inspired socialism in the first place have real merit. It’s easy to see that capitalism does lead to some exploitation, concentration of wealth, and subversion of democratic values when it is unrestrained. The pragmatist still seeks solutions to these challenges.

Many socialist style programs within an overall market economy have yielded success in meeting a number of goals and mitigating some of the problems in unrestricted markets. Numerous social and logistical problems have been solved by monolithic institutions or through public funding when private efforts were otherwise not achieving success.

Of course, there are also failures. AhSo, not being purely ideological requires some measure of reflection as to whether the situation warrants a collective approach and whether it will be pragmatic and effective.

Overall, I am a Capitalist. But I am not an ideological Capitalist. I simply find market economies are highly effective at utilizing labor and resources in most situations and that they generally make good decisions quickly in the aggregate. That said, I don’t believe in the “magic” of capitalism to get things right 100% of the time or the idea that is inherently moral or that it only works when unfettered by any restriction or distortion.

The Socialist Agenda

Socialism didn’t just spring out of nothingness fully formed. It was a reaction to both the destruction of monarchies and the rise of capitalist mercantilism. A critique of these two social structures led to the idea of socialism and communism as a means to address the observed problems.

Those critiques are based on aspirations for society. Those aspirations are both the overall growth and advancement of societies wealth, power, and security, but also to create an egalitarian world minimizing suffering and maximizing prosperity. This is the nurturing nature of the human family writ large across the wider community.

This is contrasted with the hierarchical ideal of the monarchy in which your rank in birth determines your due in society, and the cutthroat competition of capitalism in which the strong survive and the weak perish. Both of those are exaggerations\simplifications but remain the heart of the critiques.

Socialist goals seem to fall into either an aspirational vision of what could be achieved through social harmony and cooperation or a reaction to the current social and economic ills as they see them. Likewise, the moral underpinning tends to either focus on egalitarian justice or contrarily, a kind of egalitarian intellectualism that only a select few can rationally and justly guide the rest.

There are also multiple schools within Sovereign Socialism on how a socialist state is to be achieved. Roughly they divide into revolutionary socialism which proposes that only by violent revolution is it possible to wrest control from the capitalist elite or those who think socialism can come through democratic institutions.

So ultimately, the socialist agenda is anything but unified. It’s a fragmented map of motivations, means, and goals. If you argue with a Socialist, you should probably figure out what flavor of Socialism you are dealing with before you go too far with any specific critique.

The only socialist agenda I actually fear would be the revolutionary SoSo variety, especially backed by a “we know better than the plebs” kind of authoritarian underpinning. I detest political violence in a democratic society and as I mentioned SoSo is riddled with significant flaws including its tendency for Authoritarianism.

The socialism we already have

America is already decked out with plenty of Ad-Hock Socialism. Some of it, like Medicaid or Social Security we are well familiar with after decades of critique, they remain popular institutions. Others are hidden in plain sight. For instance, the US military is largely ordered in a way any socialist country would be proud to have accomplished. And then there is our long-standing public Education system and various state-owned utilities.

We also have a cavalcade of public-private partnerships, regulated private monopolies, worker-owned enterprises, and various other socialist leaning entities. Corporations are an exercise in shared ownership and control, though they are more oligarchy than egalitarian.

Even the American family is organized in a way that is far closer to socialism than capitalism. Each according to their ability and each according to their need is pretty much how most families do business. Authoritarian control of children is the norm under the auspices they are not able to take care of themselves and rules are created and enforced for the good of the children.

What about Authoritarianism?

There is an intrinsic connection between authority and socialism. Any cooperative effort relies on everyone participating to some degree and you need a mechanism to minimize free riders or exploitation of the group. That mechanism tends to be some kind of force or control.

The bigger you scale up the socialist system, the more authoritarian power and control you are going to need to keep everything in line. Assuming the goodwill of all is just not going to cut it. The bigger you go, the more likely you will have dissent and rebellion. So I am wary of the authoritarianism that comes with wide-scale socialism.

What I am not truly afraid of is that in order to provide basic social healthcare for people we will turn into Nazi Germany or the USSR. We might need those most successful to chip in extra to the cause, but we don’t need to gas anyone or force people into gulags.

The real key is good old democracy and rule of law. If the onus of social programs is indeed too large, then the people should be able to curtail them by changing the programs. On the other hand, if they are popular and generally good for people, then we keep them around. Furthermore, the rule of law should protect essential liberties and prevent government over-reach in the name of paternalism.

What about efficiency?

Many like to argue that socialist systems are inherently inefficient, especially government institutions. There is some truth to that, but there is also a lot of bullshit. Having worked in government and in the private sector I’ve seen both show great inefficiencies and both show unique advantages.

Again, for me, as a pragmatist, its merely a matter of observing and experimenting. You try different solutions and you continue with the one that works best for a given situation, goal, and circumstance. What you don’t want to do is get hung up on pure ideology and just assume one solution is always best because it matches your dogma. What is truly inefficient is placing ideals over results.

How much Socialism should we have?

Again, it all depends on how well it’s working to meet our goals. We should have as much as we need and probably not a lot more. We should not have more than most people can tolerate, and we should have at least enough to keep most people satisfied. And we should be willing, without violence, to change how much that is in any given sphere of society.

At a ballpark, I think a good measure of public expenditure vs private expenditure should be around one-third public and two-thirds private. Mind you, I think that within that private sphere, I think cooperative efforts are great and to be encouraged but should be left to voluntary participation.


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