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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May 08 2009

The Spiritual Poverty of Socialism? Part I

Category: capitalism,economy,government,religion,socialismharmonicminer @ 9:46 am

In a brilliant challenge to social theorist Charles Murray, Greg Forster points to the incompleteness of Murray’s argument that socialism is spiritually negative on moral grounds.

Faced with Charles Murray’s argument that the welfare state makes everything too easy, a socialist could ask: Should everything therefore be made more difficult? How can Murray say the welfare state is bad for making life easier while praising other state functions that make life easier, like the police? Only a moral perspective can oppose socialism while affirming legitimate state functions.At the American Enterprise Institute’s annual black-tie shindig on March 11, Charles Murray gave an outstanding lecture on the spiritual (as distinct from economic) dangers of the European-style social welfare state. But Murray’s analysis, though otherwise excellent, is missing a crucial element: an appreciation that these spiritual dangers ultimately arise from disregarding the moral law. And just as a small curve in a funhouse mirror changes the whole image, the single missing piece in Murray’s logic bends his whole argument ever so slightly, but crucially, out of shape.

The topic of Murray’s talk was well chosen. Whatever one thinks of its virtues, socialism on a scale that would have been unthinkable just two years ago is already the law of the land. We see government asserting de facto rights of ownership over our largest financial firms. We have seen a sizeable portion of the economy being brought under direct government control, financed by trillion-dollar borrowing. We have made steps to undermine the Fed’s independence that could bring about inflation that would make the 1970s look tame. Some are beginning to raise tentative but credible questions about the security of America’s sovereign debt. And the top two items on the legislative agenda this year will be near-irreversible first steps toward socialized medicine and a giant new energy tax disguised as environmental regulation.

Murray argues that, even aside from its demographic and economic flaws, the European welfare state undermines the aspects of civilization that make for “a life well-lived.” By a life well-lived, he means a life characterized by a lasting and justified satisfaction that one’s life was worth living. He identifies himself with the Aristotelian preference for seeing human beings fully “flourish,” and argues that this, as opposed to mere hedonism, is what Madison had in mind when he wrote that “the object of government” is “the happiness of the people.”

Only a limited number of human activities can serve as sources for this kind of deep satisfaction. Murray identifies three characteristics that all such activities must have: they must be important, they must be difficult, and they must involve individual responsibility for consequences. Activities that are trivial, effortless, or disconnected from consequences can be fun, but cannot make for a life well-lived.

Murray asserts that there are only four areas of life where such activities take place: family, community, vocation, and faith. The assertion is plausible, if only because Murray is careful to define these concepts broadly—a “community” need not be a neighborhood but can be geographically expansive, and “vocation” can include avocations or, more nebulously, “causes.”

The crux of Murray’s case is that the European-style welfare state undermines all four of these areas of life—and on a deeper level than even most conservatives now appreciate. The welfare state doesn’t just eat away at the material preconditions of these activities, but also detracts from their ability to provide a life well-lived.

—-In the lecture’s most powerful passage, Murray discusses how this deeper dynamic has been at work destroying the family in America’s poor urban communities—where something approaching a European-style welfare state already exists. Welfare makes it much harder for the family to be a source of deep satisfaction for men in these communities:

A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. Think of all the phrases we used to have for it: “He is a man who pulls his own weight.” “He is a good provider.”

If that same man lives under a system that says that the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away. I am not describing some theoretical outcome. I am describing American neighborhoods where, once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn’t.

Welfare removes the difficulty from providing for the family, and therefore the importance of the husband and father.

And notice how, once family is undermined, two other areas of deep satisfaction—vocation and community—are undermined as well. The menial job loses its significance, and the now-superfluous father is no longer an important part of his community.

Murray is not saying that the welfare state removes absolutely all deep satisfaction from these areas of life. But the empirical evidence before our eyes, both in Europe and in our own poor urban neighborhoods, ought to convince us that the negative impact of the welfare state is extremely damaging.

—-…. faced with Murray’s argument that the welfare state makes everything too easy, a socialist might well retort: Should everything therefore be made more difficult, so you can have the deep satisfaction of overcoming difficulty? If the welfare state is bad, why are police good? Why not abolish the police so that walking home safely requires more effort (such as arming yourself) and can thereby become a source of deep satisfaction?

We can’t ultimately answer this question without distinguishing between morally legitimate and illegitimate ways of making things easier. Policing the streets makes our civilization more conducive to deep satisfaction because it is right. Coercive redistribution of wealth makes our civilization less conducive to deep satisfaction because it is wrong. Able-bodied people who live on welfare for extended periods are cheating—just as much as an athlete who bribes the judges. That’s why the welfare state has the corrosive effects it does.

—-Those who are now building the socialist utopia around us are convinced that their way is morally superior, and increasing numbers of Americans (especially in the rising generation) are beginning to think that they’re right—especially as they come to see unbridled capitalism as morally hollow and corrosive. The moral case for economic freedom—the rightness of capitalism in the context of an ethical culture—is indispensable if the disaster Murray rightly warns us against is to be averted.

It’s more or less received wisdom on the Christian Left that its socialist leanings are morally superior to those of the selfish, capitalist Right.  After all, didn’t Jesus come to minister to the poor and downtrodden?  Wasn’t His ministry about challenging everyone else to care for the poor?  Isn’t selfishness evil?  Aren’t we supposed to “give till it hurts”?  What about “widows and orphans” in the New Testament?  Aren’t Christians morally required to vote for politicians and policies that will provide more resources for the poor?  Wasn’t a form of communism the pattern of the early church?

These are serious questions, of course, and I plan to treat them seriously in upcoming posts.  If you’ve been lurking around this blog for awhile, you probably know what my general position is, but you may be surprised at some of the reasons.

The next post in this series is here.

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Apr 07 2009

Socialism in class

Category: economy,humor,socialismharmonicminer @ 8:42 am

The following came to me in email.  I don’t know if this really happened, but it SHOULD be true, since, from what I know about college students, this is exactly what would happen:

An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student before, but had once failed an entire class. The class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.

The professor then said, “OK, we will have an experiment in this class on socialism.”  All grades would be averaged, and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A.

After the first test the grades were averaged, everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset, and the students who studied little were happy.  But, as the second test rolled around, the students who had studied little, studied even less, and the ones who had studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too, so they studied little..

The second test average was a D!   No one was happy.  When the 3rd test rolled around the average was an F.

The scores never increased as bickering, blame, name calling all resulted in hard feelings, and no one would study for anyone else.  To their great surprise,all failed, and the professor told them that socialism would ultimately fail because the harder to succeed the greater the reward, but when a government takes all the reward away, no one will try or succeed.

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Jan 18 2009

Our Socialist new Climate Czar

Category: economy,environment,global warming,left,socialismharmonicminer @ 10:51 am

When you think about it, it’s kind of funny that anyone is called a “climate czar.” Generally, a czar is someone who had power over something, and I think it’s pretty obvious that humans have very little power over the climate. But Obama’s new “climate czarina” is Carol M. Browner, and she is a card carrying socialist with bad plans for U.S. sovereignty and our economy.  (Much more at the link.)

Until last week, Carol M. Browner, President-elect Barack Obama’s pick as global warming czar, was listed as one of 14 leaders of a socialist group’s Commission for a Sustainable World Society, which calls for “global governance” and says rich countries must shrink their economies to address climate change.

By Thursday, Mrs. Browner’s name and biography had been removed from Socialist International’s Web page, though a photo of her speaking June 30 to the group’s congress in Greece was still available.

Socialist International, an umbrella group for many of the world’s social democratic political parties such as Britain’s Labor Party, says it supports socialism and is harshly critical of U.S. policies.

The group’s Commission for a Sustainable World Society, the organization’s action arm on climate change, says the developed world must reduce consumption and commit to binding and punitive limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Many of us have long said that “climate change” is just a smokescreen for socialist takeovers of various aspects of the economy, or maybe just the whole thing. Obama’s appointment does nothing to allay such concerns.

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Nov 24 2008

One of the more depressing columns I’ve read lately

Category: socialism,taxesharmonicminer @ 9:16 am

George Will reminds us that “spread the wealth” has been the order of business for quite some time in Washington DC, and suggests that we use the term “socialism” a bit more circumspectly. (More at the link, and all worth reading.)

McCain and Palin, plucky foes of spreading the wealth, must have known that such spreading is most what Washington does. Here, the Constitution is an afterthought; the supreme law of the land is the principle of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Sugar import quotas cost the American people approximately $2 billion a year, but that sum is siphoned from 300 million consumers in small, hidden increments that are not noticed. The few thousand sugar producers on whom billions are thereby conferred do notice and are grateful to the government that bilks the many for the enrichment of the few.

Conservatives rightly think, or once did, that much, indeed most, government spreading of wealth is economically destructive and morally dubious — destructive because, by directing capital to suboptimum uses, it slows wealth creation; morally dubious because the wealth being spread belongs to those who created it, not government. But if conservatives call all such spreading by government “socialism,” that becomes a classification that no longer classifies: It includes almost everything, including the refundable tax credit on which McCain’s health care plan depended.

Hyperbole is not harmless; careless language bewitches the speaker’s intelligence. And falsely shouting “socialism!” in a crowded theater such as Washington causes an epidemic of yawning. This is the only major industrial society that has never had a large socialist party ideologically, meaning candidly, committed to redistribution of wealth. This is partly because Americans are an aspirational, not an envious people. It is also because the socialism we do have is the surreptitious socialism of the strong, e.g. sugar producers represented by their Washington hirelings.

In America, socialism is un-American. Instead, Americans merely do rent-seeking — bending government for the benefit of private factions. The difference is in degree, including the degree of candor. The rehabilitation of conservatism cannot begin until conservatives are candid about their complicity in what government has become.

The power to tax, in any amount, for any purpose whatsoever is at the root of the corruption of the American ideal.   The founders understood this, and carefully limited what Congress could do.  But Amendments since then, put in place by a people with less wisdom than the founders, have allowed essentially unlimited taxation of anyone for any purpose, limited only by what is politically feasible, and does not produce immediate economic disaster (long term disaster being just fine, it seems).  We may be about to find out, the hard way, exactly what those limits are.

There is one sentence in Will’s article that I’m sure has been true in the past, but I’m not so sure is true in the present: “Americans are an aspirational, not an envious people.”

I am afraid that, for a majority of Americans, their main aspiration may be to acquire the objects of their envy, by any means necessary, except actually earning them.

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Oct 08 2008

Obama the radical socialist. Literally true, it seems.

Category: election 2008,Obama,politics,socialismharmonicminer @ 10:16 pm

Many of us have commented that many of Obama’s policies and plans are essentially socialist, whether his campaign likes the term or not. However, I didn’t know that Obama had literally been a member of a socialist political organization in the 1990s until I read this article at Power Line. Here’s a teaser, but you should really read the entire article at Powerline (which includes archived web pages showing Obama’s relationship to the socialist “New Party”), then return here for my doubtless brilliant comments.

In June sources released information that during his campaign for the State Senate in Illinois, Barack Obama was endorsed by an organization known as the Chicago “New Party”. The ‘New Party’ was a political party established by the Democratic Socialists of America (the DSA) to push forth the socialist principles of the DSA by focusing on winnable elections at a local level and spreading the Socialist movement upwards. …

After allegations surfaced in early summer over the ‘New Party’s’ endorsement of Obama, the Obama campaign along with the remnants of the New Party and Democratic Socialists of America claimed that Obama was never a member of either organization. The DSA and ‘New Party’ then systematically attempted to cover up any ties between Obama and the Socialist Organizations. However, it now appears that Barack Obama was indeed a certified and acknowledged member of the DSA’s New Party.

On Tuesday, I discovered a web page that had been scrubbed from the New Party’s website. The web page which was published in October 1996, was an internet newsletter update on that years congressional races. Although the web page was deleted from the New Party’s website, the non-profit Internet Archive Organization had archived the page.

Powerline thinks it is inconceivable that the American people would elect a socialist President.

Sadly, I don’t.  That has been the trendline in the Democrat Party for decades, and we now have two radical Leftists leading the Senate and the House.  The energy in the Democrat Party has been on the Left for a long time, not anywhere near the “moderate center”.  The Democratic Leadership Council (nominally moderate, though its members all vote in lockstep with the Left) is moribund, energy-wise.  If Obama wins, it will be due to organizations like ACORN and the DailyKos/Soros crowd, combined with the racial politics of the NAACP and others.

It is no secret that Hamas essentially endorses Obama.  Shoot, the Communist Party USA endorses him.  The nominal opposite of the Communist Party USA (if you buy into the far left/far right dichotomy between Communists and Nazis), the Nazi Party, is no fan of McCain/Palin.  Check their site.  They don’t like anyone who supports Israel.  They call Palin a liar on their site.

The point?  This is not a case of the far Lefties endorsing the candidate closest to them on the political spectrum, with the same thing happening on the Right.  This is a matter of the far Left recognizing a more-or-less fellow traveler, while the Nazis know that McCain/Palin will be no friend of theirs, in any way, at any time.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the main stream media to pay any attention to this.  Expect the Obama campaign to cry “foul” and “personal attack!” and “politics of personal destruction!” and the like.  But imagine:  what if John McCain had been a member of, say, the KKK or the Nazi party or something similar in the 1990s?  What if he had even been ENDORSED by one of those groups, even if he wasn’t a member?  What if there was a webpage archive showing his relationship to such an organization?

You get the idea.  But the double standard is in full flower.

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Jun 27 2008

Canadian Healthcare: NOT the model for USA

Category: healthcare,socialismharmonicminer @ 3:31 pm

I wrote earlier on the problems of “universal health care”, or pretty much any heavily regulated or government funded health care scheme, which inevitably leads to rationing. That is, while we can find cases in free market systems where people won’t get care, through no fault of their own, we’re foolish to ignore the fact that in government run systems, which will of necessity be rationed, there will also be people who suffer for lack of care.

Writing in Investor’s Business Daily, David Gratzer gives the lowdown on the Canadian experiment with socialized medical care. Claude Castonguay was perhaps the most powerful driving voice behind Canada’s adoption of government run healthcare.

Castonguay’s evolving view of Canadian health care, however, should weigh heavily on how the candidates think about the issue in this country.

Back in the 1960s, Castonguay chaired a Canadian government committee studying health reform …..

The government followed his advice…. until eventually his ideas were implemented from coast to coast.

Four decades later, as the chairman of a government committee reviewing Quebec health care this year, Castonguay concluded that the system is in “crisis.” [emphasis mine]

“We thought we could resolve the system’s problems by rationing services or injecting massive amounts of new money into it,” says Castonguay. But now he prescribes a radical overhaul: “We are proposing to give a greater role to the private sector so that people can exercise freedom of choice.”

Castonguay advocates contracting out services to the private sector, going so far as suggesting that public hospitals rent space during off-hours to entrepreneurial doctors. He supports co-pays for patients who want to see physicians. Castonguay, the man who championed public health insurance in Canada, now urges for the legalization of private health insurance. [emphasis mine]

In America, these ideas may not sound shocking. But in Canada, where the private sector has been shunned for decades, these are extraordinary views, especially coming from Castonguay. It’s as if John Maynard Keynes, resting on his British death bed in 1946, had declared that his faith in government interventionism was misplaced. [emphasis mine]

What would drive a man like Castonguay to reconsider his long-held beliefs? Try a health care system so overburdened that hundreds of thousands in need of medical attention wait for care, any care; a system where people in towns like Norwalk, Ontario, participate in lotteries to win appointments with the local family doctor. [emphasis mine]

Years ago, Canadians touted their health care system as the best in the world; today, Canadian health care stands in ruinous shape.

Sick with ovarian cancer, Sylvia de Vires, an Ontario woman afflicted with a 13-inch, fluid-filled tumor weighing 40 pounds, was unable to get timely care in Canada. She crossed the American border to Pontiac, Mich., where a surgeon removed the tumor, estimating she could not have lived longer than a few weeks more.

The Canadian government pays for U.S. medical care in some circumstances, but it declined to do so in de Vires’ case for a bureaucratically perfect, but inhumane, reason: She hadn’t properly filled out a form. At death’s door, de Vires should have done her paperwork better.

Read the whole thing.

The facts of economic life are these:

1) When governments engage in any form of price fixing, whether it is intervention in the market by fiat, or wholesale takeover of a sector of the economy, shortages will result. Period. No credible economist denies this. But politicians, or populist/progressive politicians, at any rate, would like to pretend that they can repeal the laws of economics whenever they think they see a good reason (that is, one that will help them get elected or stay in office).

2) No one, absolutely no one, nor any conceivable consortium of geniuses, is able to centrally plan a health care system that is more humane, supplying more health care to more people in a timely way, than the one now in the USA. The very best in the world have tried… and they have failed, pretty much without exception.

3) The US government’s interventions in the health care market, and earlier in wage fixing (in WWII, which led to our entire system of employer provided health insurance, which hid the true costs of health care from the users of it, and, along with Medicare, led directly to our current price spiral), is the single biggest factor in the high health care prices in the USA. But at least we don’t have serious shortages, mostly…. yet.

All of which leads to:

4) The government can only make things worse by further regulation, and most especially by dreaming up more plans that involve taking money from some people in the form of taxes to pay for the health care of others.

As Lazarus Long said (more or less… I didn’t take time to look up the exact quote), “No one ever learns anything from other people’s experience.”

He was wrong, of course, because some people clearly do. But it certainly seems to apply to governments, in spades.

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