The Morality of Socialism

For some reason in the news recently there has been a great deal of discussion about socialism, most often with respect to the Obama health care plan. Before I start ripping into socialism as an idea, I think it’s important for me to point out that I see virtually nothing in any Obama policy that smacks of socialism.

Socialism as a theoretical framework is quite simple to disprove on moral grounds- by any classical argument in favor of the inalienable right of property. However, the people who advocate for welfare programs tend to disagree on the grounds that property is not an inalienable right. Moreover, they will argue that there are people who need help, who are unable to help themselves, and that the agency to help them may as well be the government. Especially since the government is in the business of taking responsibility for its citizens. So the issue is not as clear-cut as many conservatives will claim it is. In fact, I would say pretty much everything is more complex and nuanced than any conservative in the media has the neurons to understand. On the other hand, conservatives do tend to be conservative because deductions from moral frameworks make sense to them, where a liberal instead prefers arguments from emotion, relativism, and pragmatism in chaos. This is not to say that the political strategies they use reflects these paradigms, in fact it tends to be the opposite, where conservatives use smear campaigns, evocative language, and outright lies, and liberals use deliberate logical arguments from effect, which are principally arguments from pragmatism. It is somewhat sad that nobody seems able to reconcile theory with pragmatism- it’s not terribly difficult as long as the theory is sufficiently complete and the points where it is flexible are known.

Anyway, modern “socialism” is really a question of whether liberal democratic welfare programs are morally justified. The conservatives throw hissy fits and cry socialism, and the liberals claim it will address the issues. The conservatives claim the government is going to increase taxes to finance wasteful programs, the liberals claim big business is screwing everyone over and Big Daddy government must step in to save us.

First of all, I would like to point out that both sides of the argument are intrinsically linked, like two sides of a coin. Capitalism allows for owners and shareholders to profit from their businesses and holdings, which can through some wrangling be framed as waste. Conversely, the government can take some of the money in circulation through commerce and salary in sales and income tax, and that can be framed as a waste. There is a finite amount of money in circulation, and claiming that it is a waste when party :X acquires it is erroneous. My reason for this is that it is the nature of money to be spent. Government taxes, in large part, recirculate back into the economy because the government pays for services, in very large part to parties in their own country. Similarly, big business takes its money and either reinvests into itself, pays off its suppliers, or ends up in its employees and executives’ bank accounts. It could be said that overseas commerce and outsourcing “leaks” money, but that is absurd. In the act of paying for labor, a service or act of production is purchased in return, which presumably is worth more than the cost of the labor or it wouldn’t be worth making. If this product is then sold, a profit is made, and also the worker now has a little cash to spend which will recirculate. This process in economics is called the multiplier effect, where one dollar actually does a great deal more than one dollar’s work in the course of a year because it changes hands many times. So this issue of “it’s a waste if X acquires money” is really a question over who has control of that money. The one who controls that money has just that measure of extra power. So, which entity would you vest that power in? This is the fundamental question of welfare programs.

Now, as much as it pains the anarcho-capitalist in me to say this, you don’t necessarily want a company as they exist today to handle some concerns. Development of civilization proceeds in many dimensions, not just technological. The invention of the check caused a revolution of the “web of trust” between people and financial institutions. Before that network existed, credit as we know it was inconceivable. It was a recipe for being ripped off, and the economy was locked into a coin-or-barter mode, except between friends. In truth, it’s not as clean as the development of a technology, for example laws against usury and distrust of Jews and all this nonsense. Anyway, my point is that social development of society allows things which could not have happened before in a similar way that technological development does, it’s just as absolute as “the invention of the airplane- 1904- now we can fly!” It is my belief that government is one of those features that has been evolved over time, and whose evolution is not yet finished. At some time in the future we will not need it anymore, but given our current level of societal development and technological capability, it is most likely a necessary evil. This is not to say we should not try to develop past it as quickly as possible.

Karl Marx was unquestionably a brilliant man, although his theories are not exactly the font of human social development. Nevertheless I think he may have contributed at least one very important idea to the body of human knowledge. When the power of production drastically outstrips the wants and needs of an entire society, then we will have a utopia, materially at least, where everyone has everything they want. The social side is a separate issue, and is in my opinion infinitely more important to creating the sort of utopia that all theoretical political science is predicated upon producing. Now the question is, what is the best method of reaching a stage when we have that sort of productive power at our fingertips? Is it welfare programs, or by technological innovation? My favorite new and upcoming technology is rapid prototyping- check out RepRap. This one technology has the power to obviate material products at a stroke, by having a ubiquitous machine that can produce nearly anything. More advanced later versions will follow quickly, using that very device, and we may well have a true make-anything-machine very soon after that. Now, Marx believed that this world would be Communist in nature. I would react that communism is essentially capitalism where money is no longer relevant in day-to-day life. The best explanation for this is that goods and services change hands so easily that the monetary system is not worth its upkeep.

Those who argue that there are people who are poor and destitute need to be helped by the government providing welfare programs are reacting instinctively, their conscience is grating against the injustice. To some extent that’s fine, although it gets a little out of hand when you see this righteous indignation that some people are fabulously wealthy while others are poor. In any reasonable world there will be a set of choices which anyone can choose from, some of which will result in poverty. I don’t mean to say that all poverty is controllable- there are many, many unfortunates who had no opportunity to do anything else. The mentally ill, the handicapped, the people saddled with medical bills unexpectedly, there are all kinds of possibilities for being poor beyond all control. One stance is that the problem then becomes to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving. My issue with this position is that any judgment on who is deserving and who is not is made by an agent who will lack a clear and objective metric. So whoever chooses to help one or more of these people is excluding others for subjective reasons. The only way this could possibly work is if it is entirely acceptable for those subjective reasons to be valid, and subjectivity is not something a government should EVER mix itself up in, because then corruption and misuse of public resources will run rampant. So private organizations should pick up the slack, offering resources where they can or choose to, and if they exclude someone for subjective or arbitrary or even completely bone-deep-corrupt reasons, it’s not morally nice but it is entirely within their purview. The government, on the other hand, by reserving the use of force restricts itself to a much higher moral standard that is virtually impossible to meet for beings with human-level intelligence, much less a conglomerate of them. A corruption of the use of force is a terrible, terrible moral crime, while a refusal to give alms to a beggar, however deserving, is not a big deal. Any policy the government might use to help the poor is subject to a host of issues stemming from this problem. But then, so does everything the government does, so it’s not like this will deter them.

My central point is that pragmatism at the expense of ethics is a bad idea in the long run, no matter how good your intentions. The poor and the underprivileged are much better served by advancing technology and social progress than by any attempt to simply hand them their daily bread. Now, I would be open to an argument that instituting government health care is itself a push towards social progress, but that is a very different type of argument than nearly all arguments being put forth in its defense, which tend to run something along the lines of “evil insurance companies! government good! Simple solution!” With the other side pretty much barking the reverse, and decrying that the solution is just as simple. It is not simple, and I hope to hear some real arguments for a change, instead of catering to the reptilian brain of people too stupid to think their way out of a wet cardboard box.