There are two ways you might accidentally find yourself in a socialist economic system. One, you might live through a revolution, such as occurred in Russia and China. Or you might gradually, unknowingly, back your way into it while pursuing goals that seem benign and benevolent.
We seem to be taking the latter approach. Our government’s focus on “compassionate” social policies – that is, taking from each according to his means and giving to each according to his needs – is fundamentally changing our economic structure (I put “compassionate” in quotes because, as I have said before, those policies do not and cannot have anything to do with compassion). As a consequence of these policies, our economy is taking on more of socialism’s distinctives as it casts off those of capitalism.
In polite circles it is fashionable to laud socialism as an economic arrangement morally superior to capitalism. Just ask the poli-sci professor in his elbow-patched tweeds. Or the Chavez-loving Sean Penn, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover or Oliver Stone. Or the socialist revolutionary-wannabe wearing the Che Gueverra t-shirt (brought to you, of course, by a host of profit-making capitalist companies).
But is that superiority, well . . . please forgive my directness . . . true? Look, before we follow moral titans like the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and Venezuela into the promised land of liberty, equality, and prosperity, we might want to check on socialism’s moral bona fides.
Perusing socialism’s moral implications is not something one ought to attempt in a blog post. It’s a book-length project, at least. What I’ll do instead is a series of posts that will survey some of the more obvious moral features. By necessity, these posts will be just conversation-starters. But I believe you’ll find enough to challenge some of the conventional wisdom about socialism’s supposed superiority.
Let’s start with a few quick definitions. For the purpose of this conversation, “socialism” is an economic structure featuring common ownership of the means of production, and distribution of goods according to the Marxist dictum “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Capitalism, on the other hand, is the private ownership of the means of production, with goods distributed through voluntary transactions in a free market. Let’s see how they stack up.
Today’s exercise is to determine whether freedom and socialism are compatible. If liberty is an essential part of a moral economic order, socialism stumbles right out of the gate. Its primary feature – the common ownership of the means of production (traditionally encompassing factories, machines, and tools) – creates a dilemma that can be resolved only by extinguishing liberty. Stick with me as I describe why; we’ll have to work a little backwards to find the key.
We’ll start with the purpose behind the “common ownership” requirement. It’s pretty simple, really. If the state is going to distribute goods based on need, it must first own them. Otherwise you just have an organized criminal gang writ large, stealing from one group to give to another. So the trick is to produce goods that don’t belong to individuals, thereby making them available for state-directed distribution without offending anyone’s property interest.
The socialist recipe for commonly-owned goods, therefore, involves feeding individual abilities into one end of the commonly owned means of production, and squeezing the product out the other end. Commonly owned means of production, so the recipe says, beget commonly owned products. And why not, if there is no individual ownership contaminating the process? So the products are ready for state distribution because they bear no taint of individual ownership, yes?
Mmmmm . . . no. Well, it’s “no” if we are going to account for your involvement in the process.
If liberty means anything, it must mean that no one can claim to own you. So the abilities and resources fed into the system – your abilities and your resources – belong to you. Using commonly-owned tools to turn them into automobiles and air-conditioners does not make your abilities or resources any less yours. So one of two things must follow. Either your ownership interest in what you contribute follows through to the goods you produce, or you receive a freely-negotiated compensation for the release of that interest.
Socialism, however, provides for neither. You receive according to your needs, not according to your valuation of your services. So there is no negotiated release of your ownership rights. But neither do you have any recognized ownership in the produced goods because the whole point of using commonly-owned means of production was to strip away that interest. There is a way, however, to make this work. And that is to have common ownership of not just the means of production as we traditionally define them (factories, machines, tools), but all of the means.
The profound secret hiding in the very bones of socialism is that when it speaks of the common ownership of the means of production, it’s talking about common ownership of you. You bring the creative talent. You contribute the resources. You work the factories, and machines, and tools. And from that comes the goods.
But the state cannot distribute those goods unless it owns them, and the only way it can own them is if it also owned everything that went into their production. To the extent the goods incorporate something the state did not own, it’s stealing. So if the state is to avoid stealing the goods, it must own you.
But that’s just backing up the theft one step, isn’t it? There is a reason countries following the socialist path have had a liberty deficit. Soviets were not free to leave their country, East Berliners were literally fenced in, and but for the moat surrounding Cuba, it would be a depopulated island today. Apologists for socialism, when pressed on this history, mumble something about transitional periods, or imperfect application of the doctrine, or capitalistic sabotage.
But the truth is that socialism is genetically illiberal. State ownership of the economic part of your life is necessary to ensure the goods you produce are owned in common so that the state – not you – can decide how to distribute them.
Socialism’s first act, therefore, is the theft of your liberty. I’ll get to some of socialism’s other moral implications (such as the instrumentalization of the individual, the rejection of equality, and the institutionalization of greed) in future posts. Until then, I’ll look forward to your thoughts.