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.”