In Praise of Socialism

The term “socialism” is sometimes used as an insult. Typically this tactic is used by those who feel that they’re strong supporters of freedom. They have been told, and have allowed themselves to become convinced, that socialism is the enemy of freedom. Hence their hostility.

In order to clear away the problems with this line of thinking, it would be useful to define what socialism is. I’m not a political theorist, just a concerned citizen, so I may not have the nuances nailed down. But I consider myself a socialist, so I’m happy to explain what I mean by the term. The principles of socialism, in my view, are these:

  • We’re all in this together.
  • It’s good to be kind. It’s bad to be cruel.
  • Life is uncertain. Some people are less fortunate than others. Most of us, at one point or another in our lives, have needs that we cannot easily satisfy through our own action.
  • To ignore the suffering of others, when we could ameliorate it, is a form of cruelty.
  • Some helping activities work most efficiently and effectively when administered by a central governing authority rather than by private individuals.
  • When those who are least fortunate are helped, society as a whole reaps benefits. To reckon the costs of helping without also taking account of the benefits is a form of cruelty.
  • Those who make decisions that affect our lives must be held accountable for their decisions.
  • Nobody has a right to special privileges based solely on their wealth, social status, physical strength, or possession of superior weaponry.

Taken together, these concepts provide a bedrock upon which specific social programs and broad social policies can be built.

I know a few conservatives of the libertarian persuasion, and I’ve tangled with a few in online discussions. Perhaps I don’t understand their views. If I don’t, I hope somebody will correct me. It strikes me that almost all of the principles listed above would be objected to by this type of conservative. (I’m ignoring religious conservatives here. They would quite likely agree with points 1, 2, and 3, though they might vigorously disagree about whether certain particular actions are cruel.)

Conservatives, from what I’ve seen, believe that they have no obligation to help those who are less fortunate. They tend to see personal misfortune — poverty, for instance — as being caused by personal weakness. They are contemptuous of those whom they consider weak.

Conservatives tend, also, to believe that government-run programs are inherently evil. They meanwhile extol the virtues of private enterprise. They fume about government bureaucrats. I’ll cheerfully agree that the government we actually have is a horrendous bureaucratic mess. Nonetheless, it’s clear to me that government bureaucracy is vitally necessary. Before you rush to condemn this idea, consider today’s example:

In the modern world, we require that a doctor have a license in order to be allowed to practice medicine. A medical license is, quite simply, an example of government bureaucracy in action. The licensing process is centrally administered by the government, not by a private agency, and nobody in their right mind thinks it should be otherwise. To the apostles of unbridled liberty, I say this: “Hey, I’m a surgeon. See, I’ve got a really sharp knife, and I’ve got a diploma on my wall from a private licensing firm that says I’m qualified. I paid good money for that diploma! I see you have a suspicious lump. Would you like me to operate on you?”

Oops. All of a sudden government bureaucracy doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, does it?

The idea that private charities can be relied on to provide social services to those in need is charming, but naive. Private charities are not always unbiased in choosing whom they will serve, or in what manner. I’m thinking, for instance, of Salvation Army soup kitchens where you could eat a free meal only if you were willing to listen to a sermon. Maybe they don’t do that any more, but we dare not assume no strings would ever be attached to an offer of help.

It’s also clear that some parts of the country are better equipped to provide private charitable help than others. If you live in a small town and can’t drive due to a physical disability, getting to the grocery store may be a real problem. If you live in a city, you’ll almost certainly have an easier time finding a charity (or an individual) who can provide transportation.

Private charities are inefficient in their distribution of resources. In your town there might be five soup kitchens, because five churches or other organizations felt motivated to provide food, yet there might be nobody providing transportation for the disabled. Or vice-versa. One of the advantages of central government is that resources can be allocated efficiently.

In the real world that seldom happens, of course. The government is quite often woefully inefficient. We need to ask why. Cronyism is a problem. Prestige-seeking (self-aggrandizement) is a problem. Ignorance is a problem. Government is run by human beings, and human beings are far from perfect.

The alleged advantage of the free market is that it weeds out inefficiency and rewards those who do the best job. Sadly, there’s more to the story than that. The mechanism of the free market works well in certain areas. But as a way of distributing services to those who most need them, the free market is a flop. It’s a disaster. You think not? Take a look at how health care services are distributed in the United States.

The underlying problem in health care is that there is a profound disconnect between the need for services and the ability of those who need the services to pay for them. The free market says, “You can’t pay? Then you get nothing.” With respect to basic human needs, this is cruel. You want to own a yacht? Fine, use the free market. You need an operation? Different situation — different rules apply, or should.

One of the central reasons why conservatism is a failure as a philosophy is that it attempts to apply solutions that work well in some areas (such as, perhaps, yacht-buying) to entirely different areas, areas where other approaches would yield greater benefits. Conservatism is an across-the-board, one-size-fits-all philosophy. Conservatives freely ignore evidence that is right in front of them, if the evidence doesn’t square with their philosophy.

Socialism rolls up its sleeves and says, “Let’s figure out what works. Let’s figure out how we can help one another.”

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9 Responses to In Praise of Socialism

  1. Ron Greenman says:

    Too short Jim. Funny that we characterize almost the same. I have always explained the difference between a liberal and a conservative as a “we’re all in this boat together” mentality versus “everyman for himself.” At some point a conservative merely becomes an impediment to the next victory of the former mantra, extolling the latter, while embracing without hesitation the last progressive act of the liberal. A true political conservative would be praising the virtues of priest-based despotism and a landed/slave economy. Or perhaps, tribal democracy. I’m for rule by Indian Wrestle a’la Klopstockia. Poor attempts at humor aside I like this explanation.

  2. Ken says:

    It is funny how both perspectives often portray the extreme extension of the others’ views. Since we live in a fairly progressive country (IMHO,) isn’t the debate is over where the middle ground is when it gets tugged back and forth?

    How do we pull the bottom up without pulling the top down? At what point do the “productive” folks check out and not bother working as hard, when they don’t enjoy the fruits of their labors? Likewise, what is the cutoff point for the folks that truly need help versus the ones that might need just a slight boost, or otherwise could pull themselves up by the bootstraps?

    When it comes to taxes, wouldn’t a flat-tax rate for everyone be fair? “We are all in this together” applies- everyone chips in the same percentage, whether you make $5,000 or $5,000,000. No write-offs, incentives, etc. But then we’d have all those unemployed IRS folks…

    • midiguru says:

      Ken, I understand that you mean well, but you seem to be parroting slogans you’ve heard on right-wing talk radio. Or at least, that’s what it sounds like to me. I never listen to right-wing talk radio, so I’m guessing at the origin of the slogans. Maybe you’re more thoughtful than that.

      First answer: No, the debate isn’t over where the middle ground is. The debate is over right and wrong. Do you see how muddled your thinking is, that you would even frame the question that way?

      Second answer: The argument that the rich are productive is entirely specious. The top managers at large corporations are not productive, they’re parasites. I worked for more than a decade in a large corporation, so I’ve seen it from the inside. I was the one who was productive, not the managers! The managers were only in it to pump up the profit margin for the benefit of themselves (via yearly bonuses) and the stockholders (more parasites).

      Third answer: It’s up to a well-trained social worker (whose salary will be paid by your taxes) to decide on a case-by-case basis whether an individual who is receiving public benefits is just coasting or truly needs the help; and in the latter case, what sort of help. It would cause needless suffering and also leave loopholes to write this decision-making process into law.

      Fourth answer: No, a flat tax rate wouldn’t be fair. The poor cannot afford to pay taxes at all. The rich can easily afford to pay a higher percentage without the remotest threat to their physical health. The poor spend a higher percentage of their income on basic necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and doctor visits. If we tax everyone the same, that poor woman will have to choose between food for her children and riding the bus to work. If she doesn’t ride the bus, she loses her job. The rich never face these painful choices, so it is very appropriate that the rich should pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes.

      • Ken says:

        The word “productive” was in quotes because I somewhat agree with your 2nd answer. The point was more about working versus not working, not tied to the real output/usefulness of that work. Similar to the managers in your 2nd answer, I’d be concerned about the self preservation of the social workers in your 3rd answer: more cases = job security.

        I understand your point in answer #4, but think if you want to soak rich people, it can be done via consumption taxes like sales tax. Maybe a flat tax could start at a point above poverty, though I still contend we should all contribute if we all benefit.

        It’s all a moot point, given the reality of the situation. Curious on your take on the debt ceiling- subject of a different blog?

      • midiguru says:

        I’m not an economist, so I’m ill-equipped to talk about the debt ceiling. It’s quite clear, however, that it was the conservative policies of George Bush (tax breaks for the wealthy and two ruinous, pointless, unfunded wars) that drove up the national debt. Obama inherited the debt, and he has done precious little to improve the situation, so he deserves part of the blame — but he didn’t create it. It’s a Bush baby.

        Again, I’m not an economist, but I have read statements to the effect that sales tax is actually regressive — that it affects the poor more than it affects the rich. I’m not sure about that … if food, housing, and medical care aren’t subject to sales tax (and I don’t think they are), then we would naturally expect that the poor would pay a smaller percentage of their income in sales tax.

        The underlying point is that tax law is used for social policy purposes. That’s why you get a tax break on your mortgage payments, for example — because home ownership is assumed to be a socially desirable thing. Once you have a flat tax, if you’re serious about it, the government loses an important and flexible tool with which to provide positive reinforcement for activities that are felt to be socially desirable. Also, home ownership will tank, which will have a further disastrous effect on the economy. Everything is connected to everything else. Simple answers are fraught with peril. That’s the lesson of socialism: Let’s figure out what works.

        With respect to social workers preserving their own jobs by making sure the case load is hefty: (a) I’m not sure how you think individual social workers would do that; (b) you’re insulting social workers, most of whom see far too much suffering and misery to suit them and would love to see everyone on their case load list be happy and gainfully employed; (c) your comment echoes a broad conservative criticism of people who work for the government, which makes it highly suspect in my book; and (d) you think empire-building and its associated waste never happens in the private sector?

  3. Terry Cox says:

    I’m reminded of a statement made over fifty years ago:
    “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery..”  Winston Churchill

    • midiguru says:

      …and yet today, England enjoys socialized medicine. Churchill was reacting to the socialism he was familiar with, as practiced mainly in Russia. Socialism in its Russian incarnation was (a) structured in a primitive way and (b) distorted by Stalin, who was a megalomaniac.

      Even there, however, there were advantages that Churchill probably overlooked. My friend Bob spent several weeks in Russia in the 1980s, before the end of the USSR. He mentioned, when he returned, that in Russia, if you got sick, you went to the doctor. There was no issue with how you were going to pay for your medical care. You went to the doctor, the doctor did his or her best to help you, and that was the end of the story. Now, it’s likely that the quality of care was not that great, but that would have been true in no small part because the Russians (who started out rather paranoid with respect to their national character) felt they had to spend most of their available money on the military. Why? Because of the threat from the United States. The same thing has been true of Cuba. We can’t really look at Cuba for evidence of how well or poorly socialism works, because Cuba’s economy has been devastated for decades by the irrational enmity of its giant northern neighbor.

      • Terry Cox says:

        Thinking of the Brits socialized medicine, did you notice that a former director of the NHS died this spring when her care was rationed (a needed operation was repeatedly cancelled/postponed)?

      • midiguru says:

        Interesting story, Terry. There will be abuses and inefficiencies in any system, because all systems are run by humans, and humans are, generally speaking, fuck-ups. That being the case, one anecdote, however tragic the circumstances, is NOT an indictment of NHS. If NHS is a mess, then I have some good news: It’s within the power of the British people to elect legislators who can wade in and fix it. The legislators may fail to do so, because they’re fuck-ups too, but in theory there is a direct and legal form of public oversight.

        That is emphatically NOT the case in the U.S. I had a situation a couple of years ago, for example, where Kaiser charged me an egregious co-pay for an appointment with a physical therapist. I pointed out to them that the charges could not possibly be reasonable, because an out-of-network provider would have given me the same treatment for less money than the co-pay! Kaiser was unmoved. So I went to the state regulatory agency in Sacramento, where I was told, in so many words, “The state does not regulate rates.” In other words, Kaiser can damn well charge whatever they like, and my choices (in the free market, God bless it) are as follows: I can pay whatever Kaiser bills me for, or I can cancel my health insurance and live without insurance until I turn 65.

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