What Is “Socialism?”

imagesBernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” The word “socialist” has gotten much use in the past century. “Nazi” was actually short for “National Socialist.” Not that Sanders uses the word in the same sense as Hitler.

There’s a lot of effort to sugar-coat it, to persuade voters it’s nothing to fear. Sanders says it means nothing more than economic fairness. UnknownHumpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” One caller on a radio forum chirped, “Do you like the fire department, the police, military, run by government? Why, that’s socialism!”

Well, no. That’s simply government. Not everything government does is “socialism,” so that if you like government doing anything then you must be a socialist.

Time for some Political Science 101.

Why was government invented in the first place? Philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained: in a “state of nature” your neighbor could bash your head in and grab your food, or wife. Unknown-2Imagine people getting together to discuss this predicament. The answer is for each to give up his* freedom to bash a neighbor in return for others giving up theirs. Now you can devote less time and effort on self-defense, and tending your wounds, and more on getting food or nookie. But this system of law (the “social contract”) needs an enforcer. That’s government.

But notice this is a faustian bargain. You give up your right to use violence, to government – which can now use it against you. That’s a terrible power, and you want to be very careful it’s limited. And while we have found many other worthy functions for government (like fire protection, mentioned by that caller), government doesn’t work by voluntary cooperation, but through its ultimate power to put non-cooperators in jail. Unknown-3With all the talk these days about “corporate power,” remember that no corporation can put you in jail.

What “socialism” really means is government performing not only its social contract function, via a legal system, and communal functions like fire protection, but also economic functions; in the lingo, “owning the means of production, distribution and exchange.” What, in a market economy, is done by people individually or, more commonly, grouped together in businesses. A purely socialist economy doesn’t even allow that.

Now, of course, just as we don’t have a purely market economy, and America actually is already partly socialist, so too one can imagine a socialist economy that isn’t pure but is still partly capitalist. But that doesn’t negate the basic dichotomy between the socialist and market economic concepts. Though you can have a mix, socialism means government taking the place of private business activity.**

images-1Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is really something of an oxymoron, because it is, once more, the essence of socialism to supplant private activity. And the more pervasive government becomes, in running society, the harder it is to be democratic. While a market economy entails numerous non-government institutions (importantly, businesses and corporations) as independent power centers, a counterweight to government power, a socialist economy undermines that power dispersal and concentrates power in government hands.

And so it has indeed been the experience that countries with basically socialist economies have not been what we would recognize as democratic. The two ideas are fundamentally incompatible. This is one key reason why the world so decisively turned away from socialism in the late twentieth century.

The other reason was that it just didn’t work. While the idea of socialism is purportedly to give ordinary people better economic outcomes, in practice it did the opposite. Government has proven itself incapable of creating wealth, as does a market economy of enterprises competing with each other to give consumers better products and services at better prices. You can redistribute till the cows come home, but without a market economy creating wealth in the first place, people will be poorer. Whine all you like about the unfairness, the “harshness” of capitalism fueled by greed, but the ordinary person is still better off than under socialism.

Unknown* One is supposed to use gender-neutral language nowadays. But of course women don’t bash anybody.

** Socialists talk of “common ownership.” However, in reality that means nobody except government owning anything.


15 Responses to “What Is “Socialism?””

  1. Lee Says:

    Would a proponent of a negative income tax be a socialist or democratic socialist?

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    A conservative, as was Milton Friedman who originated the idea.

  3. Lee Says:

    I suppose Friedman wanted to replace government services with cash … is that right? What if I want the cash to be measurably more than the value of the government services it is replacing, increasing the amount of redistribution of the wealth? How does it get labeled then? (Well, you may say “bad idea” 🙂 … but is it “conservatism” or “democratic socialism” or what?)

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    This is the confusion about “socialism” that I was writing about. “Socialism” has a particular meaning in political science, referring to government taking on roles that in a market economy are performed by non-governmental actors. It has nothing to do with, say, redistribution, via progressive taxation and government outlays.
    (The lefties on Facebook completely ignored what I wrote to this effect and commented with shrill, venomous screeds.)

  5. Lee Says:

    Much as a “hot dog” has nothing to do with a dog (I hope!), perhaps it is okay that the common use of “democratic socialism” has almost nothing to do with the original use of “socialism.”

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Speaking of dogs, Lincoln used to ask, if you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have? Answer: four. Calling the tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.

  7. Lee Says:

    When the “organic food” movement began I objected strongly to the nomenclature. After all “organic” is a chemistry word meaning a compound containing carbon. With very rare exceptions (e.g., salt), all foods are organic, whether “organic foods” or not. Alas, I have joined Humpty Dumpty and now use “organic” as others do.

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    Language changes, and “organic” in a food context now has a meaning different from its chemistry context. But I think “socialism” in a political-economic context still means what I explained it means, despite the obfuscations and soft-soaping of some advocates who actually don’t seem, themselves, to know what they really mean by it.

  9. Use Reason Please (@UseReasonPlease) Says:

    There was a good NYT article about this. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/20/upshot/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialist-capitalist.html?_r=0 ) I think the main reason why socialism is becoming so misunderstood is because far rightists like the Tea Party use it as a smear word against anyone to the left of them even enter rightist. This leads many esp. the youth to conflate, social democracy like Scadinavia as socialism rather than its traditional academic definition.

  10. Use Reason Please (@UseReasonPlease) Says:

    Center rightist not “enter rightists”

  11. rationaloptimist Says:

    The NYT article is in fact very good, thanks. As that article elucidates, the main reason for misunderstanding is not that the right uses “socialism” as a smear word but that the left tries to fudge the issue by trying to make it refer to basic government functions, so that everyone is a socialist, in which case the term is meaningless.

  12. Lee Says:

    I guess Sanders could call himself a liberal … except that I think I remember you saying that “liberal” also used to mean something fairly different.

  13. Lee Says:

    Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head. The debate is about whether, e.g., single-payer healthcare should be a basic government function.

  14. rationaloptimist Says:

    “Liberal” still has a very different meaning everywhere outside of USA — the classical John Stuart Mill type philosophy of limited government and free market economics. I consider myself that kind of liberal.

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