Sunday, July 15, 2012

Socialism: What's in a Name?

We were fortunate this past week in being treated to political science theses from two acclaimed film directors, Milos Forman and Joss Whedon. I am not going to begin this brief critique by criticizing the credentials of these men, because I expect thoughtful and intelligent movies and such a demand necessitates a thoughtful and intelligent director. Nor will I suggest because these men are wealthy they ought not hold such positions, and though it indeed may be irrational or hypocritical for them, it is their ideas and not their characters which are in question.

What political theories have they brought forth? Similar ones, it turns out. Both directors take issue with the oft-repeated claim that President Obama is a socialist or that his policies are socialistic. It must be noted that of their arguments, at least as they have been reported, Forman's is the more complete. He at least acknowledges the question of government authority and the United States' exceptional grounding in liberty. For Whedon whoever disagrees has, "gone off the reservation," a downright embarrassing rhetorical sleight. The directors' arguments, however, are most similar: President Obama's policies are not socialism because they do not contain the essence of socialism, which Forman claims is in fact twofold: totalitarianism and the desire to eliminate social classes. In contrast, President Obama's policies merely seek to ameliorate suffering.

Before continuing, I would like to note that this is a conversation worth having: a discussion of what something is. Public political conversations in particular often focus on administration and policy but seldom on theory.

We first should note that most Americans, left and right and center, want to avoid the term socialism. In varying ways and to varying degrees it is associated with foreign affairs, Marxism, totalitarianism, and not-so-successful revolutions, so everyone wants to ditch it. However it gets remade or renamed, though, we must define its essence. We must also be diligent not to define it arbitrarily or simply define it as something we do not like so we may distance from it ourselves and our own ideas.

Outright we can see that the attempt to define the essence of socialism simply as any policy not for promoting social welfare is a failure insofar as it attempts to define something by what it is not. Unfortunately, Whedon's attempt at definition goes no further, although Forman's does. Forman defines it as totalitarianism or an attempt to create a classless society. We may dispense with his definitions also for they already constitute other ideologies, totalitarianism and egalitarianism.

So what is socialism? One might be tempted now to say, in a more precise wording of Whedon's inchoate and confused statement, that most laws are social because they concern how people relate to one another, even laws prohibiting murder and larceny. Exempted from this definition of social laws might be religious laws such as, for example, laws against blasphemy or laws against saying, having, or doing certain things simply because they are immoral. Yet this definition of "socialism" will help us very little since it would include most laws. Clearly and despite its name, some other principle besides social intercourse is at work. Besides, no one would call a law prohibiting murder a socialistic one. We need to develop a more restricted definition of socialism.

Yet if we exclude social living and appeals to morality, for example, appeals to ideas or to a deity, what remains to discuss? Material things. The question here is now whether the individual may own as much as he wishes or whether, at a certain point, someone or some other body, decides he has made enough. The confiscation of property might be carried out in a monarchy, oligarchy, or tyranny, and for egalitarian, bureaucratic, tyrannical, or non-social moral reasons, yet in all cases the means of production are taken from the individual. Consequently, we may add, the confiscators decide how to spend the confiscated resources and thus plan the economy. In all of these systems it is property which is at stake. It is only a question of who takes it from you, and why.

Recommended Reading

Mises, Ludwig von. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Chapter 15: Particular Forms of Socialism.

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