Friday, May 20, 2005

Deconstructing Socialism

In a recent and delightfully respectful post, Dada Head endeavored to engage Eric, Brad and yours truly in civil dialogue. In it, he referenced two of my posts, this one and this one. Eric and Brad are more than capable of defending their views, so I’ll have go at contrasting mine with Dada’s brand of socialism.

The premise set forth by Dada is that ‘libertarians’ mischaracterize socialism, in that they/we assume that socialists wish to use state force to redistribute wealth more equally…from rich to poor.
But I think that the conception of socialism here--i.e., state-enforced equality--is fundamentally mistaken. It seems to be using the wrong 'picture' so to speak: in the libertarian's view, everyone rightly owns their property, and an external entity--the state--comes a-knockin' and demands that some of that property (money) be forked over, because the Smiths down the street are in a bad way, while you are doing pretty well for yourself. In other words: the government is forcing you to help out the Smiths.

This isn't necessarily the way to construe the socialist idea. Let's say that you and I, and a hundred or so other people find ourselves for whatever reason on an uninhabited island. We have no hope at all of being rescued, so we begin to make plans to simply live out the rest of our lives on the island.
He goes on to describe a Gilligan, or “Lost” style microcosm of society. Essentially, in his view, the point of divergence between he and ‘we’ is the concept of property rights. According to Dada’s world-view, no single individual ought to be able to claim ownership of land…e.g. no ‘inherent right’ to private property. Further, interpersonal conflicts over property and disproportionate occupation of land ought to be corrected via democratic consensus.
This, essentially, is socialism. Property rights are an artificial construct, so we are free to sculpt them as we wish. What could be wrong with sculpting them in as democratic a way possible? Libertarians can even have their markets; we simply reserve the right to step in when the effects of those markets become unacceptable. Since this is built into the very concept of ownership, how can they complain? It is only because the rest of us recognize their property rights that they have them at all.
From my perspective, I’ve viewed socialism just as Dada explains it. I’ll try to point out the major flaws, as I see them. Socialists are collectivists and therefore, view society as a family, if you will. All for one and one for all. In such a familial construct, the decision maker, or ‘head of household’, is the majority. The goal is ostensibly an equal allocation of resources, so as to ensure a ‘sustainable society’. The problem lay in base human nature. Certainly, there are many that rise above and take personal responsibility. In a collective, however, there is inevitably a race to the lowest common denominator. Trade unions typically base productivity standards on their least productive members. Likewise, socialists devote much of their time and energy to ending poverty, or at least helping those in need. There are unintended consequences that follow from this. A useful example is found in Ayn Rand’s epic novel: Atlas Shrugged (pg.848)
…men had achieved the ideal of the centuries, they were practicing it in unobstructed perfection, they were serving need as their standard of value, as the coin of their realm, as more sacred than right and life. Men had been pushed into a pit where, shouting that man is his brother’s keeper, each was devouring his neighbor and was being devoured by his neighbor’s brother, each was proclaiming the righteousness of the unearned and wondering who was stripping the skin off his back, each was devouring himself, while screaming in terror that some unknowable evil was destroying the earth.
The context of that quote is the collapse of the economy after ‘well intentioned’ socialists confiscated the means of production and private property, all in an attempt to eradicate inequality, the gap between the ‘haves and have-nots’. While that is fiction, the disintegration of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is cold hard fact. Moreover, on the carcass of the USSR, nations are being built on the principles of private property and the rule-of-law.

As demonstrated in Atlas Shrugged, in graphic detail, when the rule-of-law and private property rights are replaced by bureaucratic micro-management, in the name of democracy, equality and indeed socialism, the results are disastrous. The beauty of free market capitalism is wealth creation; healthy, vigorous competition…with wealth as the reward. Private property ownership is an integral part of economic growth and progress. Without ownership, there is no commerce. Without commerce, there is no incentive to produce surpluses. When the incentive is removed, economies decline precipitously. To avoid mass starvation, totalitarian governments arise to ‘provide for the people’s welfare’. Such is not hypothetical, but exists even now…North Korea, for example.

On the other hand, let’s assume the best about human nature. Suppose that all the members of the collective (be it large or small) agree to abide by pure democratic rule…one vote per adult. In such a scenario, the minority loses, without fail. Suppose further that a majority converts to, say…Orthodox Islam. The minority is now subject to Shariah Law, mandatory theocracy, in which case any semblance of democracy evaporates. How about an American example or three? Slavery and Jim Crowe laws were both the will of the majority, to the detriment of the minority. How about eliminating the filibuster in the Senate, in the interest of majority rule?

As the saying goes: facts are stubborn. Political realities being what they are, coupled with copious amounts of historical data pertaining to human interaction in general and attempts at democracy and socialism in particular, I conclude that a minimal state, one that incorporates property rights, individual liberty and the rule-of-law, is the only practical and workable solution. My ideal society…Libertopia…allows all individuals the widest possible berth to pursue happiness in the fashion of their choosing, while recognizing essential boundaries that protect individuals from force or fraud.

Update: via Catallarchy, this article puts a face on the brutality of the more narrow view of Islamic ‘society’.