Socialism Mis-Defined

Our culture is wrestling with some big-picture economic questions. As polls show us, we are in a fairly precipitous slide toward the acceptance of socialism as a kind of universal panacea for culture’s ills.

Having spent the first four years of my University education in economics, I am usually baffled by the general popularity of one of the globe’s most destructive philosophies. Then I hear popular leaders and academics describe socialism. “Well, of course”, I think to myself, “if that is how you define it, then naturally it is the answer to all our problems.”

The one catch – it is mis-defined. Here is a screen shot of what you get when you google “socialism”:

Whatever dictionary Google uses gets it wrong. The means of production and capital are not “owned by the community as a whole.” That is, in fact, an undefinable term in this context – “community as a whole”. When you use a phrase as fuzzy as that, you can fill it in with whatever set of people and ideas you desire, making it universally attractive. And useless. In socialism, the “state” owns means of production and capital. That’s a definable and definite term – the government owns, and thus controls – significant parts of the economy.

In his recent essay, “How Tocqueville Identified Socialism’s Folly and Capitalism’s Challenge”, Samuel Gregg adds the data regarding general perceptions of socialism.

Another 2018 Gallup survey indicated, for example, that just “17 percent of Americans define [socialism] as government ownership of the means of production, half the number who defined it this way in 1949 when Gallup first asked about Americans’ views of the term.” But most revealing, the same survey underscored that socialism’s meaning has less to do with specific systems than with certain conceptions of justice and equality. For 23 percent of Americans, socialism was about “equality—equal standing for everybody, all equal in rights, equal in distribution.”

That’s more than double the same answer in 1949. Socialism, from this standpoint, is concerned with equality in the sense of sameness: equal starting points, equal outcomes, and equal entitlements. This suggests that those Americans willing to give socialism a hearing are more informed by the vision of a levelling equality expressed in books such as John Rawls’s Theory of Justice than by the economic analysis of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

This helps us make sense of why many believe that socialism is some kind of guarantor of human rights and equality when its history is exactly the opposite. If your definition is the result of reasoning by homonym (“socialism” must be about “society”, and I like a good and fair “society”), then you will get both the idea and your history wrong.

How will someone get history wrong when they get the definition wrong? When actual examples of socialism are pointed out to supporters of the theory, they don’t recognize it. They look at actual socialism, deny it is socialism and reply with some version of, “but they did it wrong. We will do it right.” [Don’t believe the dismissive remarks that Venezuela is not socialist and Sweden is. The truth is just the opposite. See here. You can even watch a documentary.]

Gregg makes this point,

The need for more principled defenses of markets is especially important given what socialism means to many Americans today. It turns out to be as much about value commitments as about particular economic policies….

This has implications for how socialism is critiqued. Tough-minded and unsentimental criticism of the economic dysfunctionalities that socialism engenders—whether the command economies of the former Soviet bloc, the Latin American version that has destroyed Venezuela, or the social democratic models favored by many Western Europeans—are essential. Facts do, after all, matter. But they must be accompanied by an emphasis on socialism’s flaws in the realm of values.

Gregg is right calling this a matter of values. It isn’t just a matter of jobs, wages, “big business”, and the stock market. It is, in the end, about how people value each other and their potential.

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