Saturday, October 17, 2015

What's so bad about socialism?

I'm not really a socialist, in the sense that Bernie Sanders is a socialist. There's a lot to criticize about Sanders from the left, primarily that he seems — from the secondary sources I've read — to buy into American imperialism. However, I think a lot of criticism ostensibly from "progressives" is misguided. For example, "Iron Knee," author of the blog Political Irony, uses Sanders as a vehicle to criticize some of the foundational tenets of both socialism and communism. I like the author, and I like his blog; however, I think he or she has some incorrect opinions, which I'd like to address.

Iron Knee's first criticism asserts that socialism is about equality of outcomes, and that equality of opportunity is superior. This position is flawed on several points.

I don't think that socialism really is about strict equality of outcomes, and in the present context — the United States in the 21st century — I don't think that it's even possible to talk meaningfully about equality of outcomes; the problem right now is the massive inequality of outcomes. One does not need to assert that everyone must be exactly the same to point out that the enormous magnitude of the existing differences seem unjustifiable and oppressive.

Second, the concept of equality of opportunity is not really coherent, and to the extent that it is coherent, is not by itself moral. How do we know when we really do have equality of opportunity, as distinct from equality of outcomes? How would we measure it?

Curiously, in another post, Super Bowl Socialism, Iron Knee labels the NFL as socialistic just because they do enforce equality of opportunity, and regulates the individual teams for the benefit of the collective sport. And second, Iron Knee points to the potential inequality of outcomes as the justification for providing equality of opportunity: " If big or rich cities were allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money then . . . would most likely win most (if not all) of the time. What a dull sport that would be, with the same teams winning game after game, year after year." If Iron Knee is in favor of equality of opportunity, and labels as socialism a system that enforces that equality, is he in favor of socialism or not?

Finally, there is a distinction between the kind of equality of opportunity where anyone can win to the kind of equality of opportunity where everyone can win. We could have a system with absolute equality of opportunity, with a literal lottery where the winners became slave owners and the losers remain slaves. Sure, anyone could become a slave-owner, but not everyone could be, and we would still have slavery. Of course, I don't believe for a second that Iron Knee would assent to such a system; I just think he hasn't really thought the whole issue through: it's not so easy to strictly separate equality of opportunity from equality of outcomes.

Second, Iron Knee criticizes Sanders' call for "massive government job creation programs," which he or she believes "unwise." The author points out that "Even socialist countries failed at that," a somewhat vague assertion. But Iron Knee ignores that there have been a lot of (more or less) successful massive government job creation programs, notably many provisions of the New Deal in the United States. And, of course, the military is nothing but a massive government job creation program; the obvious connection between the military and U.S. imperialism notwithstanding, What Paul Krugman calls "weaponized Keynesianism" has not brought the U.S. economy to its knees.

Moreover, regardless of what one might think about the reasons, it is objectively true that presently, the U.S. is not creating a sufficient number of private sector jobs. Unemployment is economically persistent: because unemployed people don't have money, they don't generate aggregate demand, and thus they provide no incentive for businesses to invest. There are only three possible responses: give people jobs, give people charity, or let people starve. I don't think for a moment that Iron Knee wants anyone to starve, so the choice is between work and charity. I prefer work, not only from moral position that charity is fundamentally subordinating, but also from the pragmatic position that if we're going to give people money, we might as well get some socially useful labor from them.

To a certain extent, Iron Knee has a point: there are certainly a lot of ways massive government jobs programs can go awry, especially when the government in question is owned through and through by the capitalist class. If there is going to be a massive government jobs program, I would much rather it be run by Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton. But in any case, I suspect Iron Knee is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Third, Iron Knee believes Sanders — and, given the tenor and title of the post, socialism in general — attacks the rich "seemingly just for the offense of being rich." I understand the limitations of the blog format, which is not a scholarly article, but I really would like more substantiation for this point; it's a long-established canard against socialism and communism.

Although individuals can definitely be envious, socialist and communist theory has never been based in mere envy. The fundamental theory of socialism and communism is that the capitalist class, the private owners of the means of production, i.e. "the rich," exploit and oppress the working class. Not because they're bad people, but because the relations of production entailed by the private ownership of capital structurally entail the exploitation and oppression of the working class. It's not a fault of individual capitalists, it's a fault of the structure of capitalism. Whether or not you believe this analysis, it is emphatically not simply envy of differences in material reward.

And even a committed capitalist should, I think, admit that the rich are in fact the ruling class not just of the country but the world, and as such have voluntarily assumed responsibility and accountability for the well-being of society. If things are bad, if there are
people who get richer from government corporate welfare, like hedge fund managers who take advantage of insane tax breaks, bankers who throw lavish parties for themselves using bailout money, or CEOs who cash in their golden parachutes after destroying the companies they were supposed to lead.
then it is primarily the responsibility of the rich to correct these deficiencies.

Finally, Iron Knee asserts that "the problem is not capitalism, it is what wrongly passes for capitalism in this country." I think this is to a certain extent a cop-out. I don't think there is any such thing as True Capitalism™. We have the system we have, which is a form of capitalism, which differs from various theoretical ideals of capitalism. Iron Knee argues that according to his theoretical ideal, free markets are the sine qua non of capitalism. However, this construction is very problematic, because the free market is unacceptably vague, and where specific, it is incoherent. Briefly, the free market can be defined as trading free of government interference beyond the enforcement of property rights. In this sense, "protectionist things like copyrights beyond the lifetime of the creator," are just definitions and enforcement of property rights, theoretically justifiable by any capitalist system but the most extreme of Rothbardian libertarianism.

Since Iron Knee would, I think, reject this definition, then the idea of the "free market" becomes incoherent. In what sense can markets be "free"? Does it just mean that markets have only those regulations the speaker likes and are in his or her interests? Absolutely free markets are impossible: markets must have property rights, and property rights entail coercion. This coercion might be justifiable, but I think it is an offense against language to call one kind of systematic coercion "freedom" and another kind of systematic coercion "tyranny" just because the second implements systematic coercion. We would need a much deeper account of what kinds of systematic coercion are legitimate and, more importantly why some kinds are legitimate and others illegitimate.

Iron Knee closes his post with the claim that he does not want "a system like socialism where everyone is guaranteed success." To be honest, I have no idea what the author means here. What is "success"? Can socialism can actually guarantee success, and doing so would be wrong? Alternatively, Can socialism not actually guarantee success, and trying to do so would be harmful? (I suspect the latter, but Iron Knee is not explicit.)

I do not, however, think that any kind of socialism, from the weakest tea welfare capitalism to democratic socialism to outright communism purports to guarantee "success." All forms of socialism and communism instead seek to eliminate catastrophic failure. Regardless of anything else, the first goal of all socialist philosophies is to make sure that no one starves*, no one freezes, no one goes without ordinary medical care, no one is homeless, everyone is appropriately educated. This is not a goal the United States, the most capitalistic country on Earth, has been able to achieve, or even come close.

*At least not involuntarily. If you really want to go live in the woods and eat bark and berries and bugs, no one is stopping you.

If Iron Knee wants to define "success" as having more material wealth than most people, then socialism cannot possibly guarantee "success"; no socialist would want to make such a guarantee.

If Iron Knee wants to be precise about what actual socialist theoreticians, including Sanders, purport to guarantee, then he needs to be much more specific.

If Iron Knee wants to define "success" as not starving, freezing, dying of treatable diseases, etc. then yes, socialism does purport to guarantee "success." And it would then be incumbent on Iron Knee to explain precisely why we should not guarantee such "success," to explain precisely why we should let people starve and freeze.


  1. re: "free" markets -

    Check out Iron Knee's About page:

    "I completely believe in capitalism and I’m pro-business and pro-free markets. But unfortunately those terms have been co-opted and have thus become dirty words, mainly because capitalism as it is practiced by large, multinational companies looks more like fascism than true capitalism. You cannot have a truly free and open market without some level of regulation and law, because otherwise you just end up with robber barons. So it is better to say that I’m in favor of small business and free — but fair — markets with simple but strong rules and regulations." (

    Good luck trying to untangle that mess...

  2. Good luck trying to untangle that mess...

    Indeed. Still, that's what I'm trying to do.


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