September 13, 2018


What We Talk About When We Talk About Socialism: From Jim Carrey to the Chapo Trap House to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the "s" word means different things to different people. Here's how libertarians should engage. (Nick Gillespie, Sep. 12, 2018, reason)

Bernie Sanders has admitted that he doesn't want the government to run everything as much as he wants it to run or regulate more stuff. The details aren't all there, but even his Medicare-for-All pitch doesn't involve making all health-care professionals public employees. He's not really far from Warren, who denies being a socialist and is at pains to say that she really, really likes markets--as long as they are tightly regulated so, in her view, they perform more equitably. As she recently told The Atlantic,

What excites me about markets? I was telling you that gains-from-trade argument, but really what excites me about markets is competition. I want to make sure we've got a set of rules that lets everybody who's got a good, competitive idea get in the game....We need to make capitalism work for your family and we need to make democracy work for your family.

Writing in The New York Times, CUNY's Corey Robin demotes economics to secondary importance for today's socialists, arguing:

The socialist argument against capitalism isn't that it makes us poor. It's that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.

Listen to today's socialists, and you'll hear less the language of poverty than of power.

Robin's emphasis is also evident in some of the contributors to Politico's symposium, such as the head of the Democratic Socialists of America, who writes that under socialism "we will have true freedom, not just survival--the choices available to us now that depend on the whims of the few." In significant ways, many recent calls for socialism echo the early issues of the anti-Soviet socialist magazine Dissent, which got started in 1954. Like National Review, which got going a year later from a right-wing perspective, the founders of Dissent were first and foremost promoting individualism in an age of perceived conformity. The differences between Big Government and Big Business were less important perhaps than maintaining one's unique identity in a world of mass commerce, mass culture, mass warfare. The editors even invoked the adjective libertarian in their statement of purpose:

We shall try to reassert the libertarian values of the socialist ideal, and at the same time, to discuss freely and honestly what in the socialist tradition remains alive and what needs to be discarded or modified....We share a belief in the dignity of the individual, we share a refusal to countenance one man's gain at the expense of his brother, and we share an intellectual conviction that man can substantially control his condition if he understands it and wills to.

There is some of that, however submerged, in today's calls for socialism. It's not a bad ideal, to want individuals to be able to flourish however they see fit. In fact, that corresponds almost perfectly with the ways most libertarians talk and think about social organization. What system is most likely to allow individuals to become whomever they want to become? In this sense, socialism and capitalism (to use incredibly oversimplified terms) are both part of the liberal Enlightenment project that begins with autonomous, equal individuals.

What remain vastly different, of course, are attitudes and understandings of economics and of power differentials. Contemporary socialists will insist that regulating more and more of economic life at all levels will improve outcomes, though from a libertarian perspective, all that does is create the sort of hassle factor that drives barbers, tattoo artists, and gig-economy contractors out of business.

History having Ended, no one really argues with the reality that capitalism is uniquely suited to the creation of wealth. There's not even much denial any more that the rising tide lifts all boats. It is well, if not universally, recognized that the near global adoption of free markets and free trade has radically reduced extreme poverty and raised the living standards of the "poor" in developed nations to levels that barely warrant the name.

Instead, what we now have are political discussions about how to redistribute that wealth once it has been created by capitalism.  These discussions are increasingly being driven by the way in which the technological/information revolution threatens to displace not just the labor of the least among but of most of us.  When you lack work it is because you are lazy; when I lack work it is a societal crisis.  What we are going to determine over the next few decades is how we choose to replace the job as the means of redistributing wealth.  This is, indeed, a political (or power) question, not so much an economic one. 

Mr. Gillespie notes, though doesn't pursue, a couple ideas that are implicated here and that unite even libertarians and socialists, if reluctantly: we desire a system where individuals are able to flourish, but the potential inequality that would be imposed by a purely capitalist economic system, in the absence of any political power to temper it, would be the sort of inequality that would make freedom an illusion and widespread human flourishing impossible. 

Traditionally, the Left has only really been concerned about the economic threat to freedom; the Right only about the political threat.  The great middle, on the other hand, has arrived at the realization that there is rather little difference between being "rich" in the gulag and being poor in the republic.  We want that system which is best optimized to preserve our political freedoms and relieve material want.  Thus the emergence of Third Way politics in the Anglosphere/Scandinavia, with the promise of using First Way means (capitalism) to deliver Second Way ends (social security) and the electoral success of leaders of both the left and the right who are effectively indistinguishable: Thatcher, Clinton, Blair, Clinton, Bush, Obama, etc.

Given that all that is left of Socialism at this late date is those vague social security ends; it is little wonder that the term fails to repel.  Socialism has long since stopped referring to government ownership of the means of production.  Today it means extending our most popular government programs--Social Security, Medicare, etc.--to more of the population.  Hard as Republicans try, you simply can't make that scary to voters.

Posted by at September 13, 2018 5:55 PM