Saturday, December 23, 2017

Why choose socialism?

If socialism is so great and capitalism is so terrible, should we dismantle capitalism and implement socialism?


We cannot. A social system such as capitalism is not like a building that can be torn down, cleaned up, and something new built in its place. It's not even like the ship we must rebuild a piece at a time as we are sailing. Capitalism isn't something that we live under, it is what we are. You, her, I, we are capitalism. We have jobs, bank accounts, homes we rent or pay a mortgage for, superiors, subordinates: capitalism is that web of social and economic relationships.

The argument for socialism is not that we (who?) should replace socialism with capitalism. The argument for socialism is that capitalism will eventually fall of its own accord (with perhaps the occasional nudge here and there), and we should fill the resulting void with socialism.

So long as capitalism does not fall of (mostly) its own accord, we will have a capitalist society. However, we know that at the technological level of the railroad or higher, the capitalist class is unable to reproduce capitalism. The only reason that capitalism limped into the 21st century is that the professional-managerial class ran it for four decades. The capitalist class couldn't stand it, took back state power in 1980, and today we have Donald Trump. 'Nuff said. In the next decade (perhaps as soon as next year) everything is going to collapse 1929-style, and the PMC will be unable to save capitalism yet again.

After capitalism, we have two choices: fascism (or something very much like it) and socialism. I prefer socialism.

If you like capitalism, if it works for you, and you want to try and save it, by all means, try to save it. But I argue you should hedge your bets. If you do lose, which way do you want capitalism to fail? I urge the supporters of capitalism (who are not themselves fascists) to really see that they are doing worse by holding up socialism, not fascism, as the chief threat to capitalism.

What is socialism?

Although I am speaking generally, what follows is, and can be, only my opinion. There is no ISO committee for the definition of socialism. No matter what anyone says about socialism, a thousand other socialists will agree, and a thousand vehemently disagree.

Socialism is, first and foremost, about the working class taking and exercising political power.

Capitalism is about the capitalist class taking and exercising political power. Because the capitalist class is limited, it is, depending on how one feels about capitalists, an aristocracy or an oligarchy. How capitalism actually works is a complicated and subtle topic; its fundamental goal, however, seems clear: all power to the owners!

Economics is political: the development of capitalism opened up a new sphere of political power: the firm or factory and the manufacture of goods. Before capitalism, the land and agricultural production was the sphere of political power. Thus, socialists attend not only to the "ordinary" political sphere of individuals interacting with each other, but also to the political economy, the organization of firms and workplaces. Socialists hold that while the former is important, the latter is more important.

The parallel is not exact, but by and large capitalist firms are organized in the mode of feudal authoritarianism. There are greater and lesser individuals (CEOs) each atop a hierarchy of authority. Those below must comply absolutely* with the authority of those above; if they fail to comply, they will be punished (sacked). These feudal fiefdoms compete with one another, not on the battlefield but in the "market". For many decades, the parallel between feudalism and capitalism was even closer: firms used considerable coercion to prevent workers from leaving, rendering them the moral equivalent of serfs. The key comparison is that under feudalism, individuals owned political power; under capitalism, individuals own economic power.

*A subordinate may legitimately disagree with a superior only with the superior's permission.

There are a lot of differences between capitalism and feudalism, and no one should try to understand how capitalism works by studying feudalism. I introduce the comparison only to note that socialism rejects any form of individual power: under socialism, no individual has power; only the working class as a class has power. Socialism does not distinguish between state power (the power to directly arrest, imprison, or execute individuals) and economic power (the power to withdraw social permission to obtain the material necessities of life). Economic power rests on police power anyway: If I lose my job, have no money, and try to take the food I need to live, I will experience the pointy end of police power.

Socialism has two final goals: for workers to control firms and for workers to control the state. The workers in a firm will have democratic power over each other, and the workers in a country will have democratic power over each other, but no individual or select group will have state or economic power over other individuals.

A lot of people ask, how would this actually work? While I have some advice, the fundamental answer is that the working class must first take power; then it is they, not I, who must build socialist institutions.

What about non-workers? There are only five fundamental economic classes: owners, workers, administrators, students, and the non-productive (young children, retirees, and disabled people). Socialism proposes to eliminate only the owning class. Administrators (the civil service, the police, the army, etc.) must be politically subordinate to the working class; the rest, well, the workers will have to figure out the role of students and non-productive people; regardless of what they decide, they would have to work hard to do worse than the capitalist class.

That's really it. What the workers do with their power is up to them, not to me. As a socialist I just want to help them take power.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Friedman on Libertarianism

In his critique of libertarianism [PDF; link fixed], Jeffrey Friedman (1997) argues that libertarianism can be justified either morally or consequentially and that libertarian advocates fail to do either. I don't want to summarize Friedman's argument except to say that he uses almost 60 pages to fault the logical arguments for libertarianism as circular and the empirical arguments as unevidenced. I agree with both of Friedman's points, and I've written on them extensively myself. Rather, I want to examine two essays critical of Friedman's arguments.

Tom G. Palmer (1998) spends several pages establishing that libertarianism must be justified consequentially; he denies that libertarianism is an a priori truth or categorical imperative. However, he does not, as the alert reader might expect, then turn to making an actual consequentialist or utilitarian argument for libertarianism. Palmer asserts (mistakenly, I think) that Friedman demands an impossibly high standard of proof. But in rebuttal, Palmer fails to offer any sort of evidence. If an author argues for an alternative standard of proof — and his standard is reasonable — then I expect evidence meeting the alternative standard. Palmer fails to even cite any empirical justification for libertarianism. I'm not saying such evidence does not exist, but I have degrees in both political science and economics, and I know the empirical case for libertarianism is not common knowledge in these disciplines; if the evidence is there, show me.

Instead, Palmer focuses on Friedman's supposed errors of logic. Palmer first faults Friedman's definition of "freedom". But Palmer does not seem to understand Friedman's argument, that by definition, all rules of behavior coercively take away some rights. Palmer's counterexample does not address Friedman's argument:
If that were true, then using force to prevent another person from having sexual congress with yourself . . . would be just as much a use of force as is using force to have sexual congress with another person. Therefore there must be no difference between the two, at least with respect to whether one approach is more or less coercive or free than the other.
But this is true. Both rape and resisting (or punishing) rape are equally coercive. It is just that socially, we have constructed the standard that coercion is justified in the former case and not justified in the second case. I will reiterate the point I've made many times before: the libertarian's moral case always seems to be that coercion for things they don't like is wrong because it is coercive, and coercion for things they do like is not coercion because it is for what they like.

Palmer quotes Algernon Sidney's (1990) definition of liberty, which "solely consists of in an independency upon the will of another" (p. 346; emphasis added) and quotes Locke at greater length in the same vein. Even if we are to accept that there is no "natural" right for one person to impose their will on another by violence, for a person to do whatever else they like seems to be identical with being independent of another's will. Alas, Palmer does not make any explicit connection between this rather banal definition to libertarian philosophy. The quoted passage of Locke seems to suborn some degree of interventionism: Locke asserts that disposing of one's property "within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is" (qtd. in Palmer 1998, p. 346) does not compromise liberty. Thus, it is unclear how Palmer would differentiate libertarianism from ordinary liberalism.

Palmer continues with a disquisition on morality in which I can see neither a substantive criticism of Friedman nor illumination of libertarianism, and closes with a few trivial quibbles. Nowhere in his response does he engage with either of Friedman's claims, regarding the circularity of the libertarian moral argument or the lack of evidence for the empirical argument.

J. C. Lester at least admits that many libertarians make deficient a priori arguments. He makes an argument similar to Palmer's for a reasonable empirical standard of evidence. And then, like Palmer, fails to offer any, handwaving vaguely that "libertarians have read of research and economic theory that appear to refute all the assertions that the state is the solution, rather than the problem" (p. 2; emphasis added). Again, this research and economic theory is not common knowledge in academia, and the lack of specifics fails to persuade. (There is evidence and theory that some kinds of state interventions do more harm than good, but there's a lot of evidence and theory that other kinds of state intervention are not only useful but seem indispensable.) And, like Palmer, Lester immediately switches to arguments that are meaningful only in an a priori context.

Lester argues that the true essence of libertarianism is "the absence of proactive impositions," which he claims is "what libertarians intuitively grasp" (p. 3). In addition to the question of whether this absence is morally or empirically justified, Lester's formulation suffers from the defect that not only do I not understand it at all, Lester himself does not understand it clearly: he admits that he cannot say it is "perspicuously clear and without philosophical problems" (p. 3). Indeed.

If you're going to make an a priori case, make it. If a person criticizes the a priori case, it is not enough to simply say they have misunderstood or made a logical error, even if such an assertion is true. You still have to go over the original argument and show me not that the criticism is bad but that the original argument survives the criticism.

As to the evidentiary case, when evidence is common knowledge (as with evolution or anthropogenic climate change), it is not unjustified to say so, and direct readers to the appropriate evidence. But the empirical evidence for libertarianism is not common knowledge, even in academia. So show me. I'm happy to apply an ordinarily scientific interpretation of the evidence: I do not expect perfection, but I insist on good enough.


Friedman, Jeffrey (1997). What's wrong with libertarianism. Critical Review 11.3: 407-467. doi: 10.1080/08913819708443469

Lester. J. C. (2012). What's wrong with "What's wrong with libertarianism": A reply to Jeffrey Friedman.

Palmer, Tom G. (1998). What's not wrong with libertarianism: Reply to Friedman. Critical Review 12.3: 337-358. doi: 10.1080/08913819808443507