Notes From Babel

Posts Tagged ‘Socialism

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.  

Written by Tim Kowal

March 29, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Producers vs. Parasites

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I’ll grant that the “producer or parasite” distinction paints with a pretty broad brush.  There are certainly some interesting discussions we can have about what it means to be a “producer,” and perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to categorize.  I often ponder exactly what my contribution is to society as a lawyer (which reminds me of something I wrote on that subject a while back that I might try to revise and post here). 

Jonathan Chait, on the other hand, complains that the “producer or parasite” slogan is repackaged white supremacy.  I suppose one way to attack a broad brush is to use an even broader, more ridiculous brush.

Written by Tim Kowal

June 23, 2010 at 6:46 pm

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:


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