home > archive > 2002 > this article
To a young socialist
By Glenn M. Frazier
I received an e-mail the other day from a self-proclaimed "young socialist", asking to exchange links between his blog and mine. Now, the list of links on my site is generally made up of people who have at least slightly similar views to my own. They don't have to be politically, religiously or culturally identical, but there has to be enough in common between their writings and mine that a regular reader of my site would also be likely to enjoy the sites I link to. There's little about this person's philosophy, though, that fits with the worldview of my typical readers, I'd imagine. However, the very fact that this young man has taken an active, intellectual interest in politics and political philosophy at so early an age itself deserves some attention. He seems truly earnest in his beliefs and comes to them not on a whim but as the result of serious thought and a desire to find the right solution to the question of government:
So I have a proposal. Allow me to respond here to your statement of faith, as it were. If you then counter my response intelligently, civilly, and honestly, then I'll be happy to exchange links. You don't have to agree with me, but you do have to openly consider my points and respond to them with intellectual honesty and courtesy. Deal?
You start off by saying that political people are mostly motivated by the desire to right the wrongs of the world. That is not the case. Some certainly are, but there are others who wish not so much to "fix" the world as to preserve the good that already exists in the world. This is part of the origin of the notion of "conservatism". Classical American conservatives believe that the foundations of our nation are basically good and that, despite the fact that life is hard and sometimes unfair, those foundations (political, economic, religious and personal freedom embodied in the rule of law and a cultural respect for individual dignity) are precious. Any solution that abandons them will result in worse circumstances, regardless of the solution's intent.
Now, of course, it's not that simple: socialists and liberals wanting to give more to the people and conservatives and libertarians wanting to protect what the people already have. No, each side is motivated by a combination of offensive and defensive goals. But to immediately throw out the defensive, conservative, preservative viewpoint is to miss the larger picture of political philosophy. As a conservative, I do not say that the world is fair or that there is no injustice in the world. Further, I do believe that those who have more have a moral responsibility to use their wealth and power to assist those who have less.
However, just because I think somebody should do something does not mean that I think they should be forced to do it. I am a Christian (or, rather, a New Christian). I believe that there is a God, and that He is One. From there I have a whole host of other beliefs about what is true and what is false, about what is good and what is evil, and thus about what people should and should not do. I do not insist that my government force everyone else's behavior to conform with what I believe is unquestionably the right behavior, despite my belief that were everyone to live by my creed the world would be a happier and safer place.
Why would I be wrong to insist the government force everyone to be good as I see it? Easy: what if I am wrong? Of course, I don't believe I am wrong, or I wouldn't be a New Christian; but Protestant and Catholic Christians, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, followers of Eastern religions, animists, agnostics, atheists and the merely apathetic all have their own opinions, too, and my government is also their government. It is that very notion, by the way, that it is our government -- not my government, not your government, and certainly not a government that serves only itself -- that I fight hardest to conserve.
We are the government, and such a government is essentially a collective agreement to enforce a set of rules. And I do mean enforce. At its ultimate, every law is a statement that, if you disobey me, I will kill you. As we are the government, we are saying that if you live within our sphere of control but disobey us, we will try to punish you, and if you resist punishment, things will get progressively worse until you either flee our country or are shot.
So government is very serious business. It's all well and good to say the government should force people to do this, or to not do that, but don't forget what it means to "force" someone. Is what you want worth killing over? Sometimes it is. Sometimes, though, it isn't. "But all I want is justice," you might say, "And the justice I seek is universal. Everyone can agree that things should be more fair, at least economically." I do agree with the abstract notion that things should be "fair", but would argue heavily about the details and the execution and interpretation. Just as you may reject my particular notion of what is right as derived from my own religious studies, I or anyone else may reject aspects of your notion of economic fairness.
In the end, socialism is a belief system, and should no more be forced on people by the government than any other belief system. But that's where socialism as a political movement first fails. Socialism is not just the belief that everyone should be more economically even, but the belief that everyone should be forced into behaviors that theoretically will make everyone more equal. The next point of failure is that it doesn't even work. At the extreme end, Marxist socialist experiments in places like Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, etc., have pointedly not resulted in an economically fair, "classless" society.
In order to truly force economic equality (which cannot occur naturally, on its own), government must be given extraordinary powers. Government, though, is made up of mere people. Given extraordinary powers, no group of people has ever decided to not use at least some of that power to give themselves more wealth and privilege than other people have, as you yourself have pointed out. It is reasonable to assume, given the evidence of thousands of years of history, that no such over-empowered group ever will. You have a Catch-22: to force equality requires a very powerful government, but a very powerful government guarantees that there will be inequality.
Further, the inevitable economic inequality found in centralized, socialist-based systems of government isn't the worst part. Wherever this Marxist faith has taken firm hold, the result has been abuses of individual dignity, unjust punishment and death, and in the end gross atrocities and terrible suffering. Whether as communism in the Soviet Union, National Socialism in Germany, or Social Nationalism in Syria and Iraq, the Marxist idea when given full rein has historically resulted in pogroms, massacres, torture and slavery. One could argue -- on paper, in theory, ideally -- that it doesn't have to be that way.
However, I would counter that it always has been that way, and thus we're foolish to think trying it "one more time, with feeling" will produce anything better than what all past attempts have given us. "What about Sweden?" Not an uncommon question, but let's look at Sweden. First, the notion that Sweden represents a socialist system is itself a bit of a canard. 90% of the Swedish economy is privately controlled. Still, they are more socialist than we are, and perhaps that Third Way, or "socialism lite", is what you are really after. If that's the case, I have bad news for you: the main effect of Swedish socialism was to depress their economy to the extent that during the last twenty years, while the rest of the modern world experienced phenomenal economic growth, Sweden struggled and was left behind.
It is true that the big growth the rest of us experienced was shared unevenly; American society has many different groups that statistically enjoy many different degrees of wealth as a result of our economy's overall strength. However, even the least wealthy groups among us have a better standard of living than the average Swedish citizen. Which is better: (a) that everyone's life become better over time, albeit unevenly? or (b) that everyone's life is improved at the same rate, which is to say, not at all? So why is our current system better? Basically, governments derived from English Classical Liberal philosophy -- which embodies ideals celebrated in America by conservatives, libertarians and moderate liberals -- are established in order to prevent the powerful from forcefully taking away the property, liberty and dignity of those with less power.
Where a socialist system would force the wealthy to give to the poor, our current system uses force to prevent the wealthy and powerful from taking from the weak and poor. Under our current system, you may choose who you work for, how you live, what you believe, and where you spend your wealth because our system guarantees your right to make those choices. Socialism, to even try to work, must deprive everyone -- including yourself -- of some or all of those freedoms. Much of this comes down to a disagreement on the virtues of equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity. I believe that history, logic and common sense all show that equality of outcome is not possible.
Further, any real attempt to force such a natural impossibility has historically resulted in a net decrease in the freedom, security, wealth and happiness of that part of humanity touched by it. Total equality of opportunity is also not truly achievable, if you interpret it as every individual having equal opportunity to attain the same level of economic prosperity. But if your goal, rather, is to give everyone roughly equal opportunity for improvement -- to give every individual the chance to better themselves, then it is not so important that each such individual better themselves to the same level or by the same degree. In the end, one of my tests of a system is to have each participant ask over time, "Am I better off than I was before?" Who cares how those around you have prospered, so long as you yourself are doing well?
Of course, when I contrast "our current system" with socialism, I am simplifying things. We currently do take from the rich to give to the poor. We provide safety nets for the disadvantaged and those down on their luck. We provide tax incentives that are designed to encourage corporate charity and just social behavior. These are some of the domestic issues around which moderate liberals and conservatives do battle every day. So as time goes on, we drift toward and away from differing degrees of the socialist ideal. At our core, though, the United States of America is a democratic republic ruled by classical liberalism and a capitalistic belief in the balancing effect of Smith's "Invisible Hand".
True, full-blown, unrestrained socialism is incompatible with this philosophy, and thus I speak of it as an "other". Finally, when you make the comparison between government and parenting, you hit upon a major flaw common in political philosophy. Being only fifteen years old yourself, it is more understandable than when it is committed by fifty-year-old professors, to be certain, but it is still an error. Adults and children are not the same. A four-year-old is not capable nor equipped to make the right choices in all circumstances, and thus needs guidance, education and enforcement to a much greater degree than full adults do. A parent's job is to help put their child on a path that leads them to a socially responsible, morally fulfilled adult life.
The government, however, is not Mom. We are the government, and its laws are a collective agreement amongst ourselves to behave within certain minimal boundaries. Adult human beings are quite capable creatures. In a broader sense, it is generally a mistake to think about governments and other organizations in just the same way one thinks about individuals. A collection of people and a person are different in fundamental and important ways. Perhaps if we were all insects sharing in a single hive mind things would be different. However, we are not.
Hopefully I've given you a bit to think about, here. Obviously I could say more, but this is a good enough start. In summary: socialism does not live up to its promise. Truly socialist governments inevitably bring more misery into the world than liberal democracies do. Equality of opportunity is more valuable, useful and attainable than equality of outcome. It is better that we be unequal but with the least of us continually better off, than that we be equal but forever worse off as a whole and as individuals. We have to do what works, and the liberal ideals of liberty, property, the rule of law and self-determination are the best we've come up with so far. Being open to change is good, but we must be very careful about abandoning the foundational ideas that have given us the good we have today. For all these reasons, I reject socialism. I am a conservative.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2020, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.