May 17 2009

The Spiritual Poverty of Socialism? Part 2

The previous post in this series is here.

First, in order to be able to talk about this, let’s agree that no purely socialist society has ever existed.  Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to observe that some government policies and programs are more socialist than others.  So it’s the morality of socialist policies and programs in general that is in question, without regard to whether they exist in a purely socialist system.  In any case, experience suggests that it’s a smokescreen to argue that particular politicians or governments “aren’t socialist” in some absolutist sense.  What’s very clear is that some policies are socialist.  Governments and politicians who primarily pursue those policies can reasonably be called “socialist” in normal speech.

So what ARE socialist policies?  Basically, socialist policies attempt to disconnect outcomes for individuals from the efforts made BY those individuals, and to do so with money and other resources taken from other individuals in the form of taxes, fees, restrictions, regulations, and sometimes outright confiscation.   This isn’t a theoretical economic definition, but is rather an observation of what animates socialist policies (the disconnection of outcomes from individual efforts) and the means by which socialist policies are carried out (taxes, fees, restrictions, regulations, and confiscation).  Call it an operational definition that allows the correct identification of “socialists in the wild” without first capturing them, checking their DNA and doing a complete morphological exam of their complete economic policy.  If it walks like socialist, talks like a socialist, and generally acts like a socialist….

You can look up socialism in several online references and get various definitions, some requiring “state ownership of the means of production” and “central planning of economic activity” and other things.  The problem:  the definition of “state ownership” is vague.  If I theoretically own something, but the state can tell me IF I can use it, how to use it, when to use it, who I have to pay to use it, how much I have to pay them to use it, who I have to hire to use it, where I can sell it, IF I can sell it, perhaps price limitations on what I can sell it for, what kinds of conditions I am required to provide for those I hire, etc., and after all that the state confiscates a large percentage of whatever money I can make using it, even with all those restrictions, regulations and requirements, at what point does my putative “ownership” cease to mean “ownership” in the normally accepted sense?   Particularly if the next “owner” to whom I sell it has the same relationship with the state that I did when I owned it? And now, what if all the people who (theoretically) don’t own my property are still allowed to vote for regulations and policies and taxes that impose all the restrictions I just listed, for their own benefit as they see it?  Who, exactly, owns my property?  Well, quite a few of us, apparently.

This is why those textbook definitions are of little benefit in really identifying “socialism on the ground.”  When someone tells you that European nations “aren’t really socialist,” it means they are looking at the textbooks, instead of the realities on the ground.  It’s like saying that the Soviet Union wasn’t really a dictatorship because they had elections.

So, while textbook definitions of “socialism” often obscure more than they reveal, it’s easy to see that socialist policies attempt to disconnect outcomes for individuals from the efforts made BY those individuals, and to do so with money and other resources taken in the form of taxes, fees, restrictions, regulations, and sometimes outright confiscation.

Statism and socialism have much in common.  It’s pretty safe to say that socialism requires statism to function; if there isn’t much statism going on, there won’t be much socialism, either.  On the other hand, some forms of statism (the purely kleptocractic dictatorship, for example) aren’t particularly socialist, because they have no intent to secure ANY particular outcome for individuals other than those in power.  So:  all socialists are statists, but not all statists are socialists, although in the modern world most are.

In what follows, therefore, everytime I use the word “socialist” it would be good to remember that it means “socialist and statist.”  I just don’t want to say it that way everytime.

Most people who reject socialism are really rejecting statism, its unavoidable symbiote.  I am one of those.  If there was some way of having an entire culture participate in “voluntary socialism,” where everyone worked as hard as if they were working only for themselves, and behaving as responsibly with public resources as if they were personally owned, I might be willing to consider it (though I would have several reservations…  and since we don’t live in Heaven yet, and the Fall happened, this is a ludicrous conjecture anyway).  For me, the deal breaker is the degree of statism that must accompany socialism.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss the continuum of socialism/statism, i.e., starting with those “socialist” policies that most of us agree about, and moving to those that are more controversial.   Then, we can get to the spiritual implications of all this, the moral questions, the really interesting stuff.  Stay tuned.  I know this has been a bit dull, but it’s about to get much more interesting.

The next post in this series is here.

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One Response to “The Spiritual Poverty of Socialism? Part 2”

  1. enharmonic says:

    Better start gearing up for comments from Dave.

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