What is socialism and why do people love it?

What is socialism?

What is socialism? What is right or wrong with it? And how did it become such an important issue in contemporary politics? There have always been radical left-wingers lurking in the shadows, out of the mainstream of political discourse, but we now have socialists in the House and a popular candidate for the presidency who is proud to call himself a socialist. How did this happen?

A few generations ago, most Americans thought of socialism as "communism-lite". Communist Stalin would confiscate your property and send you to a gulag in Siberia. A socialist would not do that without first passing a law saying it was OK for them to do it to you. Either way, you end up in Siberia. Modern day American socialists will generally disapprove of many of the atrocities committed by the Soviet socialists, but are enamored of "democratic socialism", in which due process is maintained while the law is employed to play a much greater part than Americans are used to in the realms of income transfers, regulation of businesses, labor policy, environmental policies and so on.

What is the appeal of socialism?

Why is socialism popular now? Part of it is that people have short memories - it has been a while now since the Soviet Union was dissolved and there are enough young voters for whom the gulags are not even a memory. Older Americans are more likely to remember but young voters now get their information about socialism from Bernie. And I would like to add what I think is another reason young voters are interested in socialism. I, like most kids, grew up in a family, which was my principal introduction to issues of resource distribution. I didn't have a paying job while growing up, but I got fed and clothed and housed. Although the family political organization was clearly totalitarian, my parents distributed resources to my sister and me according to rules that seemed to be based on our need and our parents' love and financial condition. Small wonder, then, that I, still barely hatched from the egg, looked for the same set of rules to be applied to the distribution of resources across society as a whole. Who needs money more, the rich man or the poor? Who do we feel more empathy for, the successful man or the one undergoing adversity? Who has more money to contribute to the common good? Case closed!

This notion of society as a big family also resonates with the way that homo sapiens developed in the early days. Early humans did not make it as a bunch of libertarians wandering about in small groups, arguing over the merits of von Mises versus Hayek - sadly, no matter how penetrating their arguments may have been, they were quickly trampled by wooly mammoths or eaten by tigers. Teamwork was key to survival, and teams need to be led; therefore the tribal model emerged victorious. Tribes are just like big families, and the tribal leaders divide up resources in a similar way. In addition, members have to feel a strong bond with the tribal identity, so they would be willing to make whatever sacrifices are needed for the survival of the tribe. The explicit identification of "Uncle Joe" Stalin with the family tells it all - you can trust your uncle to do the right thing.

Does socialism embody an ethical goal?

When I left home to go to the university, the socialist model seemed just fine. But when I left school and got a job, my thinking about this issue changed abruptly. This was in the 70ies - my salary was not a princely one, but I realized that already more than a quarter of it was being deducted for various taxes. I started thinking more clearly about the needy - I didn't actually know anything about hard their lives were, but I did know that many of them were voters, and I began to think more carefully about the political calculus behind income redistribution.

Politicians tend to discuss policy issues in ethical terms: "the poor deserve a living wage", "quality medical care is a basic human right". Thus objections to these policies can only be seen as cold-heartedness. This does not only apply to overtly socialist politicians, of course, but it illustrates the idea that politicians characterize themselves as purveyors of justice. Some politicians may indeed have high morals, but this is the crucial point at which the analogy between the government and the family breaks down. Suppose that I am concerned about my daughters' financial condition as a result of the coronavirus - I might announce on this blog "Peter proposes giving each daughter $1K a month for the duration of the crisis."

Now, this sounds very similar to a sentence I read recently in the newspaper - "Maxine Waters proposes giving adults $2K a month and children $1K for the duration of the crisis." But in fact, Maxine is not proposing to give her children or my children a single penny. Instead, she is proposing that a check be cut against the government's bank account for this purpose. As far as I am concerned, this completely negates any claim she might have to be acting out of altruism. Maxine's proposal that sounds so generous is really based on a political calculation that this policy will make her more electable; recipients of the funds will be grateful for getting the checks and those who are paying the freight are either not aware of this burden (perhaps not even born yet), or are of a lesser consequence to Maxine's electability. So the claim by politicians to be following the ethical path should be viewed with extreme suspicion. I love Ambrose Bierce's definition of politics in his Devil's Dictionary: a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.

While more or less all politicians make use of this fake ethical argument, socialists have placed it front and center of their approach to government policy. Equality becomes the prime consideration, whether the issue is property rights, industrial regulation or taxation. Indeed, if we spend a moment looking at the discussions of almost any issue in the newspaper, it is clear that equality has already become the most important consideration, suggesting that the socialists already took over the country without our even noticing. Even a discussion of the coronavirus points out that certain ethnicities have been hurt more than others, suggesting that some remedial action might be required. (By the virus?)

So no, I don't believe that socialism embodies an ethical goal. By mimicking acts of generosity, it is able to gain support from well-feeling (but not well-thinking) citizens. Fundamentally, though, it is just the forcible taking by of resources from one group of people and giving them to another group when it is profitable to a politician.

Is socialism a threat to civil society?

By threat to civil society, I mean that the government might degenerate into a constant fight over who can put their hand into the other's pocket. Since I am characterizing socialism as just an extreme version of what all politicians do, I guess I should rephrase the question as "Are politicians a threat to civil society?" And I think the answer is a yes - they will always be looking for a way to benefit their constituents at the expense of others. However, a democracy needs politicians in order to turn the voters' preferences into laws, so maybe I need to rephrase the question as "Are voters a threat to civil society?" And the answer is again a yes.

The founding fathers, perhaps surprisingly, were not big fans of democracy, although they were even less enthusiastic about living under an all-powerful monarch like George III. Accordingly, they spent a lot of time and effort trying to preserve democratic government without allowing it to degenerate into a struggle over who gets to profit at others' expense. James Madison wrote:

The most important such auxiliary precaution has been the constitution itself. Before the Sixteenth Amendment, the Federal government had very few avenues for raising funds - chiefly excise taxes and tariffs - which left very little room for the government to consider a role for redistributing income. The Sixteenth Amendment, however, which was ratified in 1913, authorized the collection of Federal taxes on income and that is the key moment when socialist policies became practical. After a big rise to pay for WWI, the top marginal income tax rate came down to 24%, where it held during the 1920ies. However, during the 1930ies, the top marginal rose to 80% and then, as WWII became imminent, above 90%. It was only after Reagan took office that there developed a consensus that high tax rates could be detrimental to the entire economy. The top marginal rate started to fall, and is now 37%. However, the new rise of socialism has shattered that consensus, and all Democratic candidates for president are promising large increases in taxes on the rich.

What is next?

Political commentators are commonly heard to bemoan the death of bipartisanship. But is exactly what you should expect when political parties focus almost exclusively on who gets the loot. Politics becomes a zero-sum game - if my faction feels that it is being treated unjustly, it can only seek redress by taking from your faction; if your faction feels the same, there is little opportunity for compromise. There are some additional "auxiliary precautions" - for one party to get its way, both houses of Congress have to be controlled by the same party. In addition, the President has the power to veto the bill if he doesn't like it, subject, of course to the possibility of having the veto overridden with a large enough majority in the Senate. These are all sensible and valuable precautions and go a long way towards holding in check the tyranny of the majority. But they do not guarantee that a strong enough socialist majority cannot succeed in creating the country the Madison feared, tearing itself apart like a pack of wolves fighting over the corpse of a dead animal.

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