A few days ago, it was my pleasure to spend two hours listening to the ideas and concerns of a well-educated and politically informed – dare I say socially privileged – self-described socialist. A Bernie supporter, of course. I tried not to argue back but rather listen and learn. Sadly, there wasn’t too much there that I found challenging or new but I tried to understand nonetheless.
Her soliloquy began with the usual complaints about the very rich. Millionaires. Billionaires. They should not exist.
Okay, I did slightly push back. Shouldn’t we aspire for everyone to be very rich rather than smiting those who succeed?
Not according to her. They got rich because they were fated to be that way by virtue of education, race, gender, social connections – and these are far from being evenly distributed throughout society. Moreover, because of some fancy (and ultimately fallacious) economic theory, their gains come at others’ expense, she explained.
The ideal society, she insisted, would be one in which everyone began at the same starting place. If people succeed by merit, that’s fine but then they should share their wealth with those who have not succeeded because they are not yet equal. In other words, the goal here is a society in which there are no accidents of birth. Also, any post-birth achievements need to be redistributed.
The idea here is to equalize opportunities (in every sense in which you can render that term) in order to realize equal results. Everything that exists between opportunity and result is purely artificial, from this point of view, and should be mitigated by state policy.
To be sure, nothing like such a system has ever existed but hope springs eternal. It’s not even clear how one would begin trying to create such a world. If you could somehow isolate geography, for example, as a variable with a significant probability of determining results in life success, it would be impossible to even distribute that evenly, simply for physical reasons.
Observe that this outlook is hegemonic in every respect; it would affect everything and everybody in every aspect of life experience. Maybe she is okay with that. But it does raise some questions, as follows.
There is probably not much point in a detailed demolition of the positive economic plan of socialism, given that this has been achieved millions of times over. A core problem that socialism has never solved is the need for any non-primitive, growing and changing society to produce new wealth. That problem has occupied the subject of economics for half a millennium, and there are good answers to it: the division of labor, capital accumulation, a market for capital, the security of private property, stable rules, tolerance for creativity, active and competitive markets, and so on.
The idea of socialism obsesses only about existing wealth without dealing with the ongoing problem of the need to create new wealth to feed and house everyone. There is a reason why every regime that has ruled in the name of socialism has flopped in this regard. There is no substitute for market forces.
But really, from this conversation, I got the distinct impression that her view of socialism was not really about the positive economic plan. It was about feeding an ideology fueled by anger at perceived social injustice, all of which is conveniently summed up in the word capitalism said with a snarl.
I was also struck by the sheer materialism of the socialist outlook. Somehow it all comes down to who owns what and how much they own and control, as if this is the very essence of life itself.
This perspective completely overlooks enormous complications over life-cycle changes, among other factors. Young people in school are typically broke and going deep in debt with the hope that this schooling will enhance life earnings over time. In assessing their material wealth in anticipating the great equalization, are we going to take from the bartender down the street, who has saved and scrimped his entire life in order to pass on inheritance to his grandchildren, and give to the poor student at MIT?
Maybe your answer is: no, we won’t do that. In which case: why? This is a complicated situation, one of the millions and billions of complicated situations. Who precisely is going to determine what is and isn’t just is a matter we’ll get to in a moment.
I had the sense that her materialist perspective overlooks epically important struggles in life having to do not with money as such but more with spirit, confidence, determination, character, and values generally. These factors are present in everyone whether rich or poor. Well-to-do parents also face problems (perhaps even more problems) ensuring that their kids are going to be good people with good values. Often this requires the parents themselves to material deprive their own children, which is one of the hardest decisions a parent can make.
Is there no reason at all to have sympathy with these types of struggles? They are real. The struggle is real for everyone, rich or poor and everything in between.
The truth is that the non-material aspects of life management are as important or more so than the material ones. A deterministic materialism is preposterously reductionist, flattening out every other complication of life itself. Even if you could somehow mathematically divide all existing wealth equally, there is no way to equalize the manner in which every individual confronts normal life challenges without blotting out human volition completely. So long as people are free to act and choose, wealth will be unequal again in a flash, and then you have to redistribute yet again.
And this gets us to the real point: the socialist mind presumes the existence of a powerful, wise, and just decision-making body at the top of society that has the capacity and competence to make vast and sweeping decisions over what people own, what they do, what is just, and what is equitable. Leave aside every other problem of socialism (such as how it can rationally manage an economic process or achieve perfect material equality), and you are still left with the massive problem of power. How to contain it and control it once it is created?
Here is the single most mystifying aspect of the socialist mind: its enormous leap of faith to presume without question that the state will magically become a proxy for the compassionate mind of the socialist dreamer. But the state is not your proxy. It’s never happened. It’s not happening now. There is no plan in place to somehow make the state become this. The problem doesn’t really seem to enter the mind of the utopian thinker at all.
Which is profoundly irresponsible.
Now, to be sure, the problem of the state as proxy for an intellectual’s vision is not limited to socialists. It’s true for collectivists of the right too who might imagine a society organized around a nationalist vision, a racialist ideology, an agenda of universal patriotism and compliance. Or consider the theocrat: one religion for everyone. This too imagines the state as a proxy for one’s theological and spiritual position. You want eternal salvation for the world, so you presume that the state should desire the same.
What’s remarkable about this outlook, widely held and deeply presumed in our political culture, is that there’s not a shred of evidence that forcing the state to comply with one’s personal philosophical outlook, whether benign or malicious, can ever happen under any known reality, not from history and not from theory. And yet no presumption is more deeply baked into the everyday political debates of our time.
So I would say this to my new socialist friend. Your intentions are rooted in something generally well-meaning, an extension of your dear heart and intelligent mind. Of this I have no doubt.
But the right way safely to act on your values is on a small scale, through voluntary means, consistent with the wisdom of time and place, and caring compassion for the people affected by your ideology. Give it a go but be careful: humility requires that you recognize that state violence unleashes forces in the world that you cannot control. Are you ready to take responsibility for all results, whatever they may be? If not, find a more peaceful way to realize your aspirations.
Finally, I will just say this outright: here is the case for liberalism. Liberalism is a society, a world, of bottom-up experimentation that affirms the legitimacy of individual human volition. Only a template of freedom rooted in a sense of unending discovery is fully consistent with human rights. It also so happens to yield the greatest material prosperity ever known on the planet. We dare not depart from it, much less displace it with a manufactured vision for how society should be. We don’t know the answers for everyone; we barely know them for ourselves.
This is precisely why liberty matters.