Jun 13 2009

The Spiritual Poverty of Socialism? Part 3

Category: philosophy,socialism,theology,Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 9:18 am

The previous post in this series is here.

Socialism, for its very existence, depends on powers of the state to make people do things they would not otherwise do (not merely to make them refrain from doing things that harm or threaten specific individuals), in order to achieve goals (outcomes) that seem good to the socialist.  In this sense, all socialists are statists.

I realize that the definition I gave of “socialism” in the previous post is not the textbook one.  That’s because it is not an ideological definition from the point of view of economic or political theory.  It is an operational one, since no significant strand of socialism avoids the 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, by the state.  Some will cavil that “socialism” requires “state ownership of the means of production.”  See the previous post in the series for discussion about why that is not a useful standard.

On the continuum of socialism (as operationally defined above), nearly every government/economic system has *some* element of socialism/statism.   The very nature of government involves some degree of collective action towards common goals, which will dilute the effect of any given individual’s participation on the outcome for that individual.  It is a matter of degree, and context.

Let’s start with the easy, noncontroversial stuff.  Public funding of roads is socialist.  So are government funded militaries, court systems, police and fire fighting agencies, schools, etc.   While extreme free market fans may theorize otherwise, these are things which are commonly conceived to be the province of government, even though government may execute them via private parties.  That is, governments usually hire private contractors to build roads (though cities often have a “roads department” for minor repairs).  On the other hand, judges, police, and fire fighters are usually government employees.  Oddly, K-12 teachers are either public employees in publicly funded schools, or private employees in privately funded schools, while college and university professors may be employed by private or public institutions, and the private ones often receive a good deal of government money, at least in the form of student financial aid.

What’s characteristic about all of these services (with the possible exception of schools) is that virtually everyone uses them at one time or another, in one way or another, and they are services that no individual COULD provide privately.  That is, no one could afford to build a road from New York to Los Angeles.  Who could afford to maintain their own private police force, court and prison system, just in case they needed it, or keep a fire department standing by locally, just in case?  Maybe Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, but that’s about it.  And, in any case, no one would want ANY private person to have judicial powers, the complete panoply of police powers, etc.  Nor would we want any private person, no matter how wealthy, to be able to decide just where roads would be built.

So, the defining characteristics of “socialist” policies and programs that virtually everyone will accept are:

1)  They provide services that virtually no person could supply for themselves.


2)  They provide services that would require a person to have so much personal power that we would not trust anyone to possess it.

Note that libertarians, radical free market believers, etc., may even complain about these.  But in general, most people who are suspicious of “socialism” — being suspicious of the statism in requires — will not complain too much about about these kinds of things.  Call it “socialism lite.”

These are areas where reasonable people can disagree.  How much should the state be involved in providing utilities?  How much should the state be involved in determining which cars are safe to drive?  What levels of risk are acceptable?  Any brief review of history of such things will reveal that various attitudes have existed, though the trend towards more and more statism in these areas is clear.  In any case, these are essentially pragmatic matters.  What will work best?  What will cost the public least, for the most benefit?

It is certainly not a “spiritual challenge” to seek or accept clean water delivered by a publicly owned utility with state supervision and management.

But, as we will see, greater levels of socialism/statism are clearly dangerous to the spritual health of the person, particularly those that intrude into matters that individuals ARE competent to deal with themselves, and which do not require the exercise of great personal power on the part of the individual.

That will be the topic of the next post in this series.

5 Responses to “The Spiritual Poverty of Socialism? Part 3”

  1. Rachel says:

    I guess that I am a radical free market believer, in part to the sickeningly incompetent job that government does in the areas of “socialism lite.” In theory, it seems that the private sector (not an individual doing it all for himself, but hiring a group or firm) could fill potholes, build bridges, teach children, provide water and electricity, police neighborhoods, maintain a court and prison system, and fight fires at LEAST as well as the government can, and likely even better and cheaper due to competition within the market. The government’s monopoly on everything, leading to inefficient use of our tax money and often slovenly work is pretty darn frustrating to me. I want another option other than waiting four years to fill a pothole!

  2. harmonicminer says:

    Rachel, I can’t disagree. I would prefer a great deal more to be done privately and for profit than publicly and “non-profit,” which always means merely that someone else profits besides the people who take the financial risks, i.e., the taxpayers.

    Nevertheless, if “socialism lite” was all we had, I could live with it, and wouldn’t complain more than once a month…. basically, the next time I saw the county tearing up a 1 year old road to make it again. The problem with “real socialism” is a couple of orders of magnitude greater, in my mind… a perspective which I will detail more fully in another post.

  3. Katherine says:

    I can’t find the next post in this series… who took it? [Droops head and shuffles off]

  4. harmonicminer says:

    That would be because I haven’t finished writing it yet…. I got sidetracked by a couple of composition deadlines, a visit to the hospital, and the start of a new semester. But I’ll get to it.

    And remind me to run a spell check… “spritual” indeed… yeech.

  5. harmonicminer says:

    OK, I have been recently harassed to finish this series. I’ll get something going soon.

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