Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Socialism’ Category

Socialism: Right Idea, Wrong Species

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Jason Brennan, discussing G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? shares an interesting thought experiment:

Cohen’s book proceeds as follows.  First, he has us imagine a camping trip among friends.  Food and goods are shared freely.  Everyone abides by  (purportedly) socialist principles of community and equality. Everyone does his part. No one takes advantage of anyone else. No one free rides. Everyone contributes. Everyone shares.

After a while, people begin to act like capitalists (as Cohen understands realistic capitalistic behavior). Harry demands extra food because he is especially good at fishing. Sylvia demands payment when she finds a good fishing spot. Leslie demands payment for her special knowledge of how to crack nuts. Harry, Sylvia, and Leslie refuse to share without extra payment. Morgan, whose father left him a well-stocked pond 30 years ago, gloats over having better food than the others.

Cohen concludes that the camping trip was better when the campers acted like socialists.  When the campers act like capitalists, the trip becomes stifling and repulsive.

. . . .

We tolerate capitalism only because we think we must.  Perhaps, given our moral and cognitive failings, capitalism delivers the goods.  But socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were better.  On Cohen’s view, capitalism promotes the common good by relying upon greed, fear, and people’s limited knowledge. 

As I posted in the comments to that post, the problem with socialism, and specifically with Cohen’s camping trip, is that equality is a lie.  Even by the terms of Cohen’s thought experiment, each camper has unequal abilities.  Worse, they know they have unequal abilities.  Because of this, they naturally chafe against a system that provides no recourse for realizing the advantage of their unique skills and efforts, and instead forces the identical outcomes on non-identical individuals.

Again, the difference comes down to one between procedural and substantive justice: the ideal of substantive justice (i.e., equality) cannot withstand the natural human urge to see procedural justice done (i.e., a proper respect to each’s special, individualized talents and efforts). The idea that "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were better" might be more accurately stated: "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings didn’t care about procedural justice." But they do. So socialism has a rough time mustering any intellectual force as a workable political theory.

Alternatively, it might be said that "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were truly equal." Again, they’re not, and basing a theory on a fundamental untruth results in a fundamentally untrue theory.  True reality is socialism’s worst enemy.  

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Written by Tim Kowal

March 29, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Entitlements: “Cutting them will lead to human misery and death”

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So says Freddie deBoer:

Here’s what you won’t find at the Daily Dish, or at the Corner, or in any of the other places showily demanding seriousness: the actual, human, negative consequences of harsh entitlement cutbacks. I mean, from reading online today, you’d be hard pressed to know why we have Social Security and Medicare at all. I’ll tell you why: because our winner-take-all economic system leaves defenseless, impoverished people in its wake. We have Social Security because the sight of so many elderly people left literally homeless and starving , too old and weak to work, was unseemly to an earlier generation that was willing to take less for themselves to provide for others. We have Medicare because it is an obscenity for a country responsible for the atom bomb and the moon landing and the Hoover Dam to allow suffer and die from lack of health care access due to the vagaries of birth and chance. That’s why those programs exist.

Cutting them will lead to human misery and death. It will. Cutting Social Security will mean the difference between subsistence and a pitiful existence for untold thousands of senior citizens. Cutting Medicare will mean some people won’t get the health care they need when they need it and will suffer the physical pain and indignity that comes with that. That’s just the way it is. Yet I keep reading all of these very serious people today failing to mention this reality at all. It’s as if we have entitlement programs for no reason.

Certainly many on the left believe this, and increasingly with the distance from the center.  I’m on the right, so I don’t believe it.  Now, being on the left or right or any disposition comes with lots of biases, which one ought to earnestly challenge.  But frankly, I think Freddie’s been overcome by his when he suggests the weeping and gnashing of teeth that would occur if we compromise the current entitlement state.  At this advanced stage of the American economy, it is difficult to imagine that scaling back some of these entitlements would result in the significant human casualties Freddie suggests.  Am I too impoverished of imagination?

On a different note, a couple of Freddie’s recent posts reminded me of what Daniel Walker Howe said about Robert Owen’s social engineering ideas, which captured the imagination of even president John Quincy Adams.  Yet, when Owen publicly confessed his disbelief in the scriptures and denounced the institution of marriage, he betrayed his views as too far beyond the mainstream of acceptable American opinion.  Today’s more moderate leftists, like Ezra Klein, might compromise their beliefs not because they don’t care about the ideals of the left, but because they actually “care[] enough to actually get SOMETHING done for justice.”

Yet, Freddie has confessed he has no intention of confining his views within the limits of mainstream or acceptable opinion.  This is something I find admirable.  Ideas announced apart from their preconditions and derivatives are not ideas at all, but schemes.

[Update: To be more specific about the kinds of entitlements I’m thinking about, consider these hand-outs we currently provide to even ostensibly able-bodied Americans (note I have not verified each of the cites, but the sources at least appear to be reputable):

H/T Professor Mondo.]

[Update 2:  Notice I do not include the 57 million Americans are on Medicaid, or the 46.5 million Americans on Medicare, for a total of nearly one-third of the United States population on government insurance. In conversations about health care reform, the question invariably arises whether I’d let the poor and the old die in the streets, to which I invariably point out we already have Medicaid and Medicare for just these reasons.  Implicitly, then, I gather I must be in favor of the continued existence of these programs on some level.  More to the point, eliminating these programs altogether would lead to “human misery and death.”]

Written by Tim Kowal

February 16, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Labor unions, and other compromises between capitalism and socialism

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First, on the off chance there is any doubt still left in your mind that public sector unions are a disaster, Kenneth Miller’s review of Steven Greenhut’s Plunder! gives a nice primer that you can consume in less than 10 minutes.

Though I’m pretty reflexively anti-union, I’ve come  to acknowledge they represent what is almost certainly an inevitable and necessary binding agent between a technologically and politically empowered industrial elite and a displaced working class.   As I explained in recent posts on the progressive movement here and here, unions and industrial regulations, though anti-competitive and anti-individualist, were in part a response to the destructive forces of rampant competition and individualism.  The most shrewd, competitive, and fiercely individualist of Americans helped create the most wealthy, productive economy in the world.  Yet, discontent with those elites seemed to grow in proportion with their success.

What would America’s economy be like without those rampant capitalists? This is the counter-factual the labor movement would have us imagine.  An America in which no individual need work more than just a few hours a day, allotting the balance for reflection and consumption.  I have to admit, I find it enticing, too.  And as far as I can tell, there are only two main objections, both of which are hard to make.   First, that man is made to work.  Second, that economies cannot long endure without hard, sustained effort.

The problem with the first proposition is that it is a value statement, not a fact statement.  Though I believe it to be true, it is not the sort of truth that wins any converts.  More problematic, most people probably do believe it, but will disagree on what exactly is meant by “work.”  While early 19th century Americans toiled hard on farms for a mere subsistence, their work defined them and gave them pride.  This probably cannot be said of modern laborers who work fewer hours than any other point of human history, yet vie for workweeks that contain less and less work.  Whatever modern laborers think man is made for, it is not for working.

The second proposition leaves me skeptical. Surely, we could devise a path to universal comfort not too unlike what folks like Edward Bellamy and Robert Heinlein have sketched out, in which “No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.”  Oh, there would be sacrifices: inefficiency, a decline in the rate of growth and innovation, the yield of freedom to bureaucrats. But it could work, on paper. The problem is always with the first proposition: that man is made to work, to see the results and consequences of his own efforts and choices, and, ultimately, to be an individual in the world.

Man belongs to society, but not exclusively. He belongs first to God and to nature, and to himself. Attempts at socialsm have first to contend with these lienholders.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm

The Conservative Contribution to Progressivism, Part 2

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This is the follow up to my first post describing the historical and social underpinnings of the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, drawing largely from Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920.  The thesis, arrived at in this post, is that while conservative values may have played a role in progressivism’s initial volley, the ultimate goals of progressive movement were anything but conservative.

* * *

The new standard of living being conceived in the minds of Americans at the end of the 19th century put individualism in the crosshairs.  At the beginning of the 19th century, individualism was a hard lot, but a seemingly fair one.  A fledgling national government, a nigh-nonexistent system of roads, and a still sparsely populated nation rendered individual sustainability difficult but relatively predictable.  By the end of the 19th century, however, the vagaries of national macroeconomics were already beginning to render markets less predictable; the vast expansion of federal power rendered economic activity an increasingly political affair; and the maturing American economy, fortified by extensive rail and telegraph networks, saw industries becoming dominated by big firms.  All the while, increasing numbers of common working Americans were funneling into urban factory life.  While farms seldom provided more than subsistence living, Americans felt relatively proud and fulfilled.  They had a markedly different experience in the new American factories, however.  All this made working class Americans increasingly discontent—all they needed was a reason to impugn the individualism that sustained the unhappy state of affairs.

Conservative activists were all too eager to supply such reasons.  The expansion of pleasure-seeking to the middle-class worsened the problem of vice and had weakened the family structure.  The Social Gospel leader, Washington Gladden, for example, traced prostitution to middle- and upper-class affluence, as young men increasingly began to put off marriage “until they are able to support a wife in good style.”

“[A]nd as the wealth of the land increases and their neighbors live more and more luxuriously, the phrase ‘in good style’ is constantly undergoing changes of meaning. Young women become accustomed in their parental homes to a certain amount of comfort and of leisure, and they do not relish the thought of beginning to live more plainly and more laboriously in a home of their own.” When these people postponed marriage, Gladden affirmed, “one of the inevitable consequences is the increase of social immorality”: young men, single for too long, would seek sexual satisfaction with prostitutes. The attack on the brothel, then, might not get at the real problem that threatened the home. “I do not believe that there is any remedy for this social disease but the restoration of a more wholesome sentiment concerning this whole subject of family life,” Gladden concluded. “The morality of what we call our respectable classes needs toning up all along this line.”

(Emphasis added.)

It is this sentiment—that “morality . . . needs toning up”—that represents the conservative contribution to progressivism:  as new social, political, and economic forces began to disrupt cultural and moral values, many conservatives sought to push back in kind not merely to curtail those effects, but to counteract them.  Man and his moral character were no longer something to be left to the sole province of himself and his community; they must be “toned up” and remade through the law.  Under the progressive construction of man’s moral predicament, man was no longer accountable for his own actions.  Because people were malleable and defined by their environment, criminals were not wholly to blame, since their crimes owed in part to the sins of society.  “What we have got to have,” said Gladden, “is a different kind of men and women.”

Thus, a renewed vigor for morals legislation ensued, directed at card playing, gambling, horse racing, Sabbath breaking, pornography, dance halls, contraception, and, most famously, liquor.  Liquor, more than all other vices, was seen as the root of man’s moral decline—particularly, the breakup of the family and the degradation of women.  In this respect, McGerr recounts Carry Nation’s attack of a nude painting in the bar of the Carey Hotel in Wichita:

“It is very significant that the pictures of naked women are in saloons,” she explained. “Women are stripped of everything by them. Her husband is torn from her, she is robbed of her sons, her home, her food and her virtue, and then they strip her clothes off and hang her up bare in these dens of robbery and murder. Well does a saloon make a woman bare of all things!”

Yet, progressives quickly realized that prohibition of vices was not enough:  remaking man could not be achieved by negative campaign alone—it required an affirmative component.  Progressives would have to find “substitutes for the saloon.”

Alcohol free clubs and dance halls were needed to fulfill people’s desire to meet and socialize; libraries and gymnasiums were needed to fulfill the desire for stimulation. In short, the transformation of individuals required a more sweeping transformation of their environment.

With the progressives’ transition from a prohibitory campaign to more affirmative attempts to reshape mankind came the end of any partnership with conservatism.  Progressives moved beyond their “conservative” agenda to restore Victorian values, and instead began to explore a more radical, activist agenda.  Progressives began to remake rather than merely preserve society.  Law was not merely an anchor; it could serve as a sail.

This aspect of the progressive agenda was clear by the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, who stated:  “Our problem is not merely to help the students to adjust themselves to world life. . . . Our problem is to make them as unlike their fathers as we can.”  Progressivism had by this time become a different thing entirely than the post-Victorian conservatism it set out as.  Indeed, it could be said the project never was truly conservative in the first place, and that the lament of the decline of Victorian values was merely lip service to justify the brewing radicalist urges.  Thus, perhaps even the prescriptive components of the early progressive agenda were less about preserving Victorian values than preliminary efforts at remaking all of society—the symbols of Victorianism simply served as a convenient cover of authenticity for an otherwise radical movement.

Whatever their original intentions, progressives eventually settled on an agenda that harmed conservative values:

Ironically, reform could destroy what it was intended to preserve. Crusading in the name of the home, reformers were supplanting the very thing they wanted to protect. As outside agencies supervised children in and out of school, ordered the material environment of tenements and parks, and regulated adult behavior, the family and the home became less important. “As in the human organism, when one organ fails, its functions are often undertaken and more or less imperfectly performed by some other organ,” Josiah Strong noted; “so in the great social organism of the city, when the home fails, the church sometimes undertakes the functions of the home.” A host of other “organs”—settlements, playgrounds, Boys’ Clubs, schools, courts, municipalities, state governments, the federal government—were undertaking those functions as well. But even the most reflective progressive activists appeared oblivious to the actual impact of their reforms on many homes.

According to E.A. Ross, progressivism eroded man’s moral fiber:  “Too much consideration for moral weakness would fill the world with moral weaklings,” he insisted. “To abolish temptation is to deprive the self-controlled of their natural right to outlive and outnumber those who have a cotton string for a backbone.”

“Once work was so constant that married women did not realize their loneliness or the want of appreciation which befell them,” Kate Gannett Wells contended in an essay titled “Why More Girls Do Not Marry”: Now society and the middle class have leisure to examine their states of mental solitude, and to see just where husbands are wanting. Fifty years ago the woman was too busy to stop for the morning kiss as her husband went to work.  Now she has time to think about the absence or infrequency of the greeting for half an hour before she reads the morning paper, in which she finds some fresh instance of man’s wickedness.

Thus conceived, progressivism cannot be sustained as a practical tool put in the service of conservatism—it is a wholly new conception of man, society, and government.

Capitalism versus Socialism Is NOT a “Lesser of Two Evils” Question

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Elijah posted this comment over at CAI, suggesting that, even if socialism isn’t perfect, it’s no worse than capitalism:

Mark,

Under what conditions would any system qualify as ‘better’ to you? It seems as if you are completely closed to the possibility of anything else being better. The general opinion out here, even among conservatives, seems to point to the possibility of more socialism in a mixed economy. What is the ‘power’ necessary to convince you that a mixed system is better? What about the nations with the highest standard of living? Norway? Sweden? Canada? Each of these three countries at the top of a standard of living list has a strong mixed system. You’ve argued using the movement in Sweden to re-privatise healthcare, but that is a minority movement and most other European countries are very optimistic about the ‘Nordic Model’.

I know you and Tim have laid out how any amount of socialism is coercion, but I simply disagree. I take far greater issue with tax money being sent to fund wars in which soldiers are killing and being killed for a cause I strongly disagree with. The welfare of the state involves not only ‘protecting of borders’ (which is not necessarily what America is doing in the Middle East), but also the care of American citizens. Libertarianism is often associated with anarchy – do you believe in the complete dissolution of the federal government since it is so utterly corrupted and useless? Do you approve of a national military and national public works projects, or should this all be privatised?

Also, against Tim’s anti-populist views, American politics allows for the possibility of a greater implementation of socialism in America if the legislators (and correspondingly the majority of citizens) approve. I know you believe the government is utterly flawed, but I believe that while it is flawed the government has the infrastructure to accomplish great tasks and doing so while employing more Americans.

To which I responded (at least I think I responded—my comment didn’t show up right away):

I have a feeling I’ve corrected this before, but whatever you feel about the beneficence of state action, it is most certainly coercion.  It is only a matter of definition.  This is why the “nanny state” moniker is not merely a clever derogation—the relationship between a state that purports to restrict and compel action as it purports to know best how to serve the needs of its constituents is exactly the relationship between parent and progeny.

Sir Flinders Petrie said, “When democracy has attained full power, the majority without capital necessarily eat up the capital of the minority, and the civilization steadily decays.”  As Robert Weaver put it, the majority’s “outcry comes masked as an assertion that property rights should not be allowed to stand in the way of human rights, which would be well enough if human rights had not been divorced from duties.  But as it is, the mass simply decides that it can get something without submitting to the discipline of work and proceeds to dispossess.”  In short, a personal ethic that compels the forfeiture of property to those in need does not necessarily have anything to say about political theory.  More importantly—and here is an appeal to your own values, Elijah—why would you ever advocate for a political system that would allow others to decide whether you could express your personal ethics?  Indeed, if the “mixed” system is to succeed in besting a liberty-oriented system, it must reserve the right to commandeer the property that individuals might otherwise give to charitable causes that the state does not find to be in line with the “public good.”

Finally, there are strong reasons to believe that these “mixed” systems are not sustainable.  Europe will be crushed under the weight of its demography and entitlement systems.  And if the U.S. ever adopts a more European or Canadian style of regulations on medical and pharmaceutical research and development, the cost control issue will be a moot point.  As it is, cost controls work because there is at least one major market—the U.S.—where the medical industry’s investments and innovations pay off.  Take the U.S. out of that equation, and medical advancement will seriously diminish.  What will happen then?  Not much imagination is needed here:  coercion having gotten us that far, more coercion will be employed to get us out, and governments will begin considering taking over medical and pharmaceutical research altogether.  This lesson is played out over and over in the past.  The Left refuses to read the minutes of the last meeting.

Finally, I strongly object to the suggestion that socialism is permitted by our nation’s laws.  Perhaps if one takes the cynical legal realist position—that there are no natural rights or duties except what a judge or legislator declares—then the vast federal regulatory structure and expansion of the Commerce Clause can be explained.   But this view utterly betrays man’s moral quality, putting man below beasts in that regard.  See Tim Sandefur’s excellent explication of this here.

[Also, respectfully, what in blazes does anyone mean by a “mixed” system?  We already do live in a mixed system, if anyone cares to notice things like the U.S. government’s takeover of the world’s second (formerly first) largest auto maker, its stakehold in the national banks, and its control over whether Californians have access to water, to cite just a few.  I suspect this supposedly innocent plea for a sort of “middle ground” is the same brand of can’t-we-all-just-get-along flummery as all that fake “bi-partisan” claptrap.  It’s just re-branding:  “I’ve agreed to re-name my position “mixed regime,” so the least you can do is abandon your objections and go along with it.”  What kind of middle ground is that? ]

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 21, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Capitalism, Socialism

Tagged with ,

Socialism and Equality

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The notion that socialism may be becoming fashionable has me troubled, so I thumbed through some of the flagged pages of The Road to Serfdom for some comfort.

Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it.  Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number.  Democracy and socialim have nothing in common but one word: equality.  But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.

—Alexis de Tocqueville

The welfare and the happiness of millions cannot be measured on a single scale of less and more.  The welfare of a people, like the happiness of a man, depends on a great many things that can be provided in an infinite variety of combinations.  It cannot be adequately expressed as a single end, but only as a hierarchy of ends, a comprehensive scale of values in which every need of every person is given its place.  To direct all our activities according to a single plan presupposes that every one of our needs is given its rank in an order of values which must be complete enough to make it possible to decide among all the different courses which the planner has to choose.  It presupposes, in short, the existence of a complete ethical code in which all the different human values are allotted their due place.

. . . .

Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends.  And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower—in short, what men should believe and strive for.

. . . .

In a society used to freedom it is unlikely that many people would be ready deliberately to purchase security at this price.  But the polities which are now followed everywhere, which hand out the privilege of security, now to this group and now to that, are nevertheless rapidly creating conditions in which the striving for security tends to become stronger than the love of freedom.

—F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

—Benjamin Franklin

Written by Tim Kowal

August 26, 2009 at 10:21 pm