Part 2: Why Modern Socialists are Wrong
Hypocrisy in Socialism
Let us now accept the basic notion that social freedoms are an ideal to be desired and that fundamentally governments should have no right to deny their people these freedoms.
Now, who are ‘21st Century Socialists’? They are, of course, the typical socialist of the modern day – the ones among us who favour the government’s intervention to force to some extent the redistribution of society’s yields while generally, in contrast to their communist cousins of the past, advocating the preservation of individual rights and freedoms (as well as markets, albeit regulated ones). They tend to advocate higher taxes, wider welfare systems and government intervention against vilified corporations and industries, while passionately arguing in favour of abortion-rights, secularity and cultural freedoms. They are exemplified by the likes of university students, who seem to like to make a visible point of their conformity to the above beliefs, while followed by a mass of voters from the general public. It is perhaps a relative condition – both the Democrats of the US and the Labour Party of the UK could fit the description, though in the UK the taxes are already higher and the benefit payments bigger. Nevertheless, they represent a common mind-set of the above objectives relative to their exiting positions and respective oppositions. Perhaps ‘liberals’ would be a more widely accepted term, however for the reasons which I will explore they do not really deserve such a name which implies support for freedom.
On the surface, this seems very reasonable – after all, I have already established that the violation of our individual social rights is unquestionably wrong, and indeed this is where common ground may be found between these people and libertarians. However, these beliefs fundamentally come down to the ideal of being ‘nice’, a highly simplistic perspective, however when examined more carefully can in fact be seen to constitute a violation of the very same individual rights which both ideologies view to be sacred – the rights which we believe entitle us to freedom, regardless of gender, race and social standing. The distinction lies in that the defiance of social rights is visibly destructive, whereas economic freedoms are more easily manipulated for reasons which can be more easily justified.
It has already been established that governments should have no right to intervene in the social affairs of individuals so long as they are not infringing upon the rights of others. It seems that this is a sentiment shared by many of the socialists of today, as alluded to above. However, to suggest that all people are entitled to social liberties but not economic freedom is fundamentally flawed.
It is not at this point a question of who needs material gain, as that can be addressed under practicalities. I certainly would not advocate the repeal of all welfare initiatives and public spending. However, the matter of who is actually entitled to these gains is another issue entirely, and one which can change our approach to considering policies and political preferences. Many of the aforementioned ‘socialists’ would argue that as members of society, all people are entitled to ‘their share’, especially those labouring in the shadow of the elite, with outcomes so disproportionate to their efforts. This, however, as I will now explain, is inconsistent with the already established ideals of individual freedom.
It is economic freedom which I am here intending to promote. Violations of this would include taxation, for example, as this directly affects the outcomes of an economic transaction for its participants. Also any kind of restrictions, such as on prices or types of product would work to similar effect. Once again, this is not to discredit these actions as unnecessary, but simply to alter our theoretical view of them in order to change our real-world views on their implementation.
So what is the fundamental difference between economics and social freedom, from an ethical perspective? Any private transaction is in essence an exchange of the labour, and where applicable physical factors, of a specific product. Money is the typical medium of this transaction – a ‘middle man’ in the exchange of this labour – which enables such transactions to be indirect and complex, affording its users choice and not forcing a primitive barter-style economy.
Basic economics dictates that any single private transaction would not take place, under conventional and legal circumstances, unless there is a surplus of value which results from the transaction to the parties directly involved. This must invariably be true – a seller would not participate in the transaction if they did not value the income from it as of greater value to them personally than the retention of the product. This is distinct from the face value, or even the potential value of the product to others, as it refers simply to the perceived benefits to the seller themselves of maintaining ownership of the given product – would they rather have the money, or keep the product? They may have motives which are not easily quantifiable, such as the desire to retain brand loyalty or even to sell the product later at a higher price; however their personal valuation of these things is a factor which is increasing the perceived value to them of retaining the product. Furthermore, this is equally applicable to services, however it may be that, for example, time is what the seller may or may not place adequate value upon for the transaction to occur.
Unsurprisingly the exact opposite process takes place for the buyers of products: should they believe that the value – through necessity, enjoyment or interest - of what they are buying to be greater to them than the value to them of retaining its cost (in all likelihood to use on other products later, speculating that these will be of greater utility to them), then they will be willing to partake in the transaction. If the opposite is true, the transaction will not occur, since the buyer will not believe that they are gaining from it.
Through this theoretical outlook on all legal economic transactions, the concept of entitlement emerges. In every such transaction a value surplus results because all parties have willingly participated in it, and would not have done so were this advantage not available to them. As a result, at its most fundamental level, this transaction is a free, willing and mutually advantageous exchange of the outcomes of the respective labours or ownership of the participating parties. And as long as this is the case, then how does this differ to any social freedom? People should be entitled to the gains of such transactions because they have been willingly vested in them by another individual. Impacts on third parties may exist and may be problematic, but are a matter of practicality, and so currently irrelevant to this theoretical perspective. As long as only the participating parties are affected, there can be no argument to say that they are any less entitled to engage in these free and beneficial transactions than they are to choose their own faith, to be homosexual or to walk down a street.
To briefly address the issue of third parties, it must be remembered for the time being that the vast majority of transactions do not directly harm others – for example the granting of a loan, the purchase of groceries or employment itself. Yes, maybe a case could be made that the granting of risky loans in 2007 contributed to widespread harm to a huge number of third parties from 2008 onwards. However, those affected were only affected because they too had themselves vested an interest in a system by their own free will and to their perceived benefit. This doesn’t excuse those responsible, however it does mean that nobody did not receive anything to which they had a fundamental entitlement (which would of course assume that there were no breaches of legality or contract on the part of the banks, which of course wasn’t necessarily the case, however for the purposes of this illustration please assume that there were no such breaches).
Ultimately our entire economy consists of a huge network of individual economic transactions – not just conventional buying and selling, but also occurrences such as employment, as I previously mentioned. In this instance, participants place a greater value on the money earned from the employment than on the time (without the income) which they would otherwise have, with a multitude of other potential considerations contributing to or against the perceived value of this time, such as enjoyment of work. So, the point to which I am arriving is why is it that the government should have the right to interfere in this network of transactions, as long as each such transaction is completed in the aforementioned conventional (and so free) manner? It is surely no different to the social rights which we all accept.
Arguments could arise over the specific nature of employment – much of the actual monetary gain from the selling of the fruits of an employee’s labour may be retained by a larger corporation, which some may claim to undermine the model of a network of individual economic transactions. However, the employee is still at liberty to choose whether or not to work for any particular company which will employ them (sometimes it may be that this work cannot be found, though ironically this is likely the result of government intervention, as I will touch on again later). An economic transaction occurs between employee and employer, as well as employer and final customers (or indeed additional ‘middle men’). Each transaction is free and mutually beneficial so long as all parties are willing participants, as before, and the employee is entitled to no more than they willingly accept from their employer. By all means, this employee could abandon their agreement and work independently, but in all likelihood they are incapable of operating independently of their firm, and thus the firm has every right to use the gains of those workers as they please as long as the workers cooperate willingly.
Looking at it from the other perspective, there are those who earn obscenely high incomes, many bankers for example, which so many people seem to dismiss as completely disproportionate to the labour which they contribute to the economy. Yet, we must consider now consider the nature of wealth – material wealth, in particular, is created by the material output of the stereotypical worker. Money may be the medium by which we exchange the labour, but without the confidence that this money can enrich us with material possessions (or immaterial products also) it is in itself useless. So much of the material wealth with which we associate high income individual’s consumption, originates with typical workers. And yet, it reaches the higher income people – it must therefore, with all that has so far been established, be vested in them by those who see that they can gain from the systems of economic transactions to which those on the highest incomes are linked and ultimately benefit. It may be that these people create high-value services or in some other way facilitate them, but what is key is that all of their wealth is vested in them by a system of willing participants engaging in beneficial transactions, and so whether you or I can comprehend the scale of their incomes, they are entitled to it nevertheless, and no one is worse off because of them (and they wouldn’t make money unless people were actually better off).
So, as long as a modern socialist continues to hold in high regard the social rights of the individual to act as they please so long as they do not interfere with the rights or interests of others, their belief in the government’s right to intervene in free markets – through controls, taxation and the likes of welfare and the construction of goods for common consumption – may be considered an inconsistency in their beliefs. Indeed, it amounts to hypocrisy, assuming that they subscribe to the basic beliefs in freedoms and rights which few could rationally refute.
True believers in the redistribution of wealth in conjunction with social acceptance may simply regard all of the above as just another interpretation, which is no more credible than the supposed consistency of their common objective to be ‘nice’. However, as I alluded to in the introduction, such an objective is completely arbitrary. It fails to examine, as I have above, who is actually entitled to the gains which result from economic activity. Consequently, it invariably lacks regard for the freedom of any individual to merely be entitled to anything, even though their own hard labours.
Alternatively, one may contend that actually the objective of this modern socialism is to move towards an ultimate objective of equality of outcome, aiming to achieve the best results for all people, which they may claim supersedes the importance of entitlement. And this in itself raises the argument of which is correct – the equality of outcome, or the equality of opportunity. The case may be made that as members of society, we should all be entitled to its produce. However, equality of outcome can only deny those subjected to it the basic freedoms which have so far been established. It is impossible to implement without infringing upon the individual rights of individuals through their economic rights to earn and spend freely. This doesn’t make reducing inequality a bad thing, in particular under circumstances when it can be achieved without affecting any such rights as I will look at later, however it cannot be regarded as an absolute necessity to achieve to its fullest extent by anyone who believes that we are born with fundamental rights – that ‘all human beings are born free’. Conversely, equality of opportunity recognises that we all have these rights to the same extent throughout our lives that the same laws and possibilities apply to us regardless of gender, race or background. Yes, you may claim that such possibilities are inaccessible to some, but again that is a practicality that can later be addressed, and does not change which political stance is fundamentally correct.
Overall though the concept of freedom as a political ideal may seem no less naïve than that of ‘friendliness’, its simplicity doesn’t necessarily nullify its validity. Ultimately, one cannot justifiably defend the basic freedoms of themselves and others, or criticise the oppression enacted by tyrannical leaders, without also accepting that economic freedoms are also right for the same reasons as these social freedoms. They of course cannot be applied fully and directly to the modern world – the removal of all economic safeguards and interference would leave us without the basic public goods, such as roads and legal systems, which enable society to function effectively, and would result in the loss of the ‘safety nets’ without which people could even die, which is of course not acceptable within a civilised society. However, it cannot be denied that economic freedom is preferable, even if some are worse off because of it, because under it entitlement is fulfilled in direct accordance with our very basic entitlements of personal choice. Even the person who would otherwise die is not fundamentally entitled to assistance – it has not been willingly vested in him by others. With any compassion at all we will prevent the deaths of such people, but beyond that there is no obligation to him. In practice this will have to see compromise, but ideals tell us what is truly justified, and thus they are what we must strive towards always, and bear in mind when making any political judgement. To think otherwise may seem noble, but reflects simplistic thinking.
While often very intelligent, most young modern ‘socialists’ seem to adopt such views based on quite reasonable instincts in combination with a crude political education and lack of independent thought. This generation of thinking - one which could have seriously adverse implications for all of our futures as this movement grows, and more importantly gains access to the ballot papers which have the power to shape our democracies.
The very simplest political categorisations in common circulation are, of course, ‘right’ and ‘left’, with which virtually all people are familiar in large part thanks to their usage in the media and by extension large quantities of basic political discussion. This should require no statistical support – it is something which we all regularly experience, and perhaps too regularly fail to challenge.
While the notion that all political beliefs can be placed onto a single spectrum may seem absurd to the politically informed, it is nevertheless the model which has prevailed among the general public – the group which empowers our governments. Not only do we so often listen to others refer to our political parties as simply ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing’ but I have experienced it taught in school, poisoning the minds of young and malleable individuals with politics only in its most simplistic and misleading form.
A problem arises here due to the aversion caused to the so-called ‘extreme’ political ideologies, aided by the lessons of history. One of the most important examples of this is clearly Soviet Communism. Because a party which claimed itself to be communist sent millions to its ‘gulag’ prison camps, purged and executed benevolent individuals by the hundreds of thousands, censored the work and dictated the lives of its people and employed military force to crush dissent in its supposed allies of satellite states (notably East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968), the far left is often associated with tyrannical authoritarian harm far beyond the more innocent left of today’s politics.
Meanwhile, the ‘far-right’ is associated with racism, homophobia and nationalist ambitions, in large part thanks to Hitler and his abominable actions of the 1930s and 40s, most notably the holocaust – which transcends all existing words in its evil and active malevolence. Additionally, modern ‘far-right’ groups such as the BNP or NF contribute to the popular disgust at the groups which adopt this ‘far-right’ label, and perhaps even dissuade people from engaging with any party which can be described as ‘right-wing’ on account of their tenuous ideological links to political extremes.
People are, obviously, quite right to reject these radical regimes’ actions, given that they reject peoples’ most basic rights of a free life, orchestrating oppression and even death on an industrial scale against those who may in no way have acted to affect the rights of others, but may simply have made personal choices deemed arbitrarily by others to be inappropriate simply on account of their own differences (assuming that there was any basis at all for their persecution).
The issue is that when we regard these two atrocities of history as the two ends of a continuous spectrum, we must consider ourselves to be to some extent ‘centrists’, with no clear direction of ambition but rather just baseless judgements of what would be good or bad, a similar issue to that which we encounter when making political judgements with regard to only practicality, and not principle.
Yet, the problem which most will have with both of the aforementioned regimes is their extreme authoritarian nature, with their economic stances generally considered irrelevant to this aversion. The point is that it is in fact possible to have political ideals which are absolute and uncompromising, even if we do have to compromise in their practical application. The political spectrum in its conventional form does not allow for aspiration towards either end, and is consequently not only unfit for purpose but causes the general population to adopt uncommitted and non-idealistic beliefs.
Fortunately there are some well-established alternatives, which if made more mainstream could help to promote political progress. Most notably, the political ‘compass’ by which political stance can be placed on a two-axis chart. The x-axis typically reads left to right, as on the traditional spectrum, however it is typically referring to economic aspects only and not the stereotypical social elements with which they may be associated. A better way of labelling this axis may in fact be ‘economically controlling’ or even ‘economically oppressive’ (though this is not necessarily universally applicable, since there can be benevolent objectives to economic interventions) to economically free.
On the y axis, there are typically the labels ‘authoritarian’ at one end, and ‘libertarian’ at the other, which in a similar fashion is typically a reference to their social implications and not the economic extensions of these concepts, particularly in the case of libertarianism. In this way ‘socially controlling’ and ‘socially liberal’ may be the more suitable labels.
Nevertheless, in this alternate system it is clear that the likes of Hitler and Stalin gravitate towards the authoritarian, or socially oppressive, region regardless of their economic left-right position. Hence, using this system the general population may not misconceive their economic beliefs to be linked to their social ones, and can instead be freer to choose their ideals without concern of stereotyping. Moreover, these ideals needn’t be reserved from the edges of the compass, but in fact are likely to exist in its corners. Ideals, and in particular the libertarian ideal, which exists in the socially and economically liberal corner, can be regarded as targets of absolute moral correctness towards which we can then work in a practical manner – despite never being able to reach this target, we can use it as a guide for all of our decisions.
The widespread use of the political spectrum is not alone in diverting people’s beliefs away from ideals. There are of course party lines, to which some may conform near-religiously. Then there are perceptions with which one may identify – a particular problem with regard to modern socialism, since those who perceive it to be socially accepting and progressive, without considering the true ethical implications as I have attempted to do, may follow its proponents blindly.
If we must persist in using a simple spectrum, free to oppressive would be far more logical, since as has been established, there is no fundamental difference between social and economic rights, and so it is for the same reasons that they should be respected, and they can be grouped together. Such a spectrum may not be applicable to the political outlooks of all, however, since many fail to see the link between these supposedly different categories of rights. Nevertheless, any progress from the currently used system would constitute progress towards favourable political awareness.
A different but related problem is the relative obviousness of the violations of social rights compared to economic rights; when people are murdered by their governments or persecuted for their beliefs, sexuality or natural condition the problems are very obvious to those hearing of it. The violation of economic rights might not be so overt; it doesn’t completely destroy the lives of its victims in the same way as many social violations. With implications often so much less severe, it can be easily overlooked, and this is a major factor behind peoples’ attraction to modern socialist parties. However, this difference in nature, as explored already, shouldn’t mean that economic oppression is not considered wrong for the same reasons as more severe counterparts.
Normal People Voting
The truth is that most people aren’t going to critically analyse the policies or ideologies for which they vote, and nor is there necessarily any real reason why they should. However, in our democracies we have these people voting without having considered factors which may influence their decisions, in all likelihood resulting in inferior long-term outcomes for all people, particularly economically.
I will later discuss some specific issues in which it is easier to take a short-sighted approach, such as the saving of the steel industry which has obvious populist appeal but really fails to account for long-term economic considerations. So it is important to bear in mind for these points that the actual decisions will be made by elected politicians, and the electors in a democracy are largely those without a fundamental understanding of the issues which they should want to address. As a consequence of this electoral process it is likely that the truly intelligent politicians will be supressed and confined to non-authoritative advisory roles while populist measures will ultimately be undertaken, in part due to seeking votes but perhaps also due to ‘natural selection’ by democracy, whereby those who fail to believe that such measures are necessary are removed from the realm of political power and advocacy.
We all know that people ‘voting with their wallets’ is a common phenomenon, yet this not only results in the prospect of modern socialist systems as I have now asserted to be ethically flawed, but also economic long term harm as people focus on their present prosperity rather than what will result in maximum welfare for all people including themselves in the future and, crucially, could have resulted in superior welfare for themselves at present if enacted in the past. For example people can vote against austerity, an example where the long term effects are most obvious since these expenses can only grow and must be met in the future – people are promoting their immediate welfare because the option exists for them to do so, and they bear no personal responsibility to sort out the issues which follow. The actions of the Greek voters last year, though their choice for anti-austerity could not be executed fully, constituted arrogance and disrespect towards their financers, as well as short-sighted greed.
While I will develop some of these points in later sections, appreciation of the long run is not something which can easily be achieved in people while respecting their individual freedom, and especially when governed by those who they themselves put in power because of their own short-sightedness. The only solution can be through education as I will examine shortly, though there is certainly no easy or likely way to fix the problem, which leaves us stuck in a cycle of ill-considered voting and inadequate politicians.
Democracy is Overrated
Democracy is the best form of government, and yet even in its most representative form it will always remain deeply flawed. It must not be considered synonymous with freedom; only libertarianism can truly respect freedom. Various implementations of it arouse quite clear arguments – first past the post is well established and yet may clearly result in misrepresentation, while in Iran’s theocracy, in which all democratic decisions and participants are vetted by a council of religious and conservative agenda, democratic expression is clearly inhibited (CIA, 2016). Some may point to its inability to enable stability in some countries where its implementation is attempted, such as Iraq. However the real problem with democracy is more fundamental and this problem lends itself to libertarianism very nicely.
This is, of course, in addition to the problem described in the previous section, whereby the voting population lacks, quite reasonably, the judgement and awareness to create long-term and sustainable benefits for themselves.
The problem exists due to this paradox: the freedom of a population to elect its government is a highly regarded freedom of the western world, yet as long as democracy exists there will be parties – like the previously examined ‘modern socialist’ parties – which act to deny people freedoms to which they cannot justifiably be denied. Thus by enabling one freedom, there is the possibility to destroy others by means of electing such a party (which currently is almost any party, though it is likely that there is one which supports freedom to a greater extent than their opponents, even if this is without in-depth ideological consideration).
A country is, in its most fundamental form, a union of the people contained within its geographical borders to share in the advantages (of which there are undeniably some) of a common government. To give people no choice over who leads this union is to deny them the control over their own lives (Control which forms the basis of all the personal freedoms looked at so far).
Simultaneously, the election of a party which unnecessarily denies some people their personal rights seems unacceptable. Though a majority may have elected this government (though this does depend on the electoral system of the county, which may exacerbate this issue if it fails to properly represent its people), all people under its jurisdiction, likely due to merely the incidental location of their birth, are invariably subjected to its authority. Should this authority censor their work, deny them their rightful choice of religion or sexuality, or, as is more relevant to the West, interfere with their economic entitlements, then their basic freedoms have been violated with nothing they could have done to prevent it with their single vote.
Conformation to the choice of the majority may seem like the best we can hope for – and actually it probably is, promoting peace and maximising domestic satisfaction, while fulfilling to the greatest possible extent this right to choose one’s own governance which must also be considered important. However this does not make its outcomes just. After all, was there not a pro-slavery majority in the south of the United States, prior to the Civil War? Of course there was, because pro-slavery individuals continued to be elected to the state governments which asserted so strongly their right, as a state, to implement this slavery at the will of their people. This majority consensus did not make slavery right, even if the slave population formed only a minority of the total, for the very reason that it denied its victims the basic personal freedoms as expressed in the statement that ‘all human beings are born free’. If these freedoms do indeed equate to our economic freedoms, then surely our forced conformation to economic interference is wrong for the exact same reasons, albeit in a much less severe manner, that slavery is also wrong.
Very often I have heard it said that communism was a ‘nice idea’, but one which can just never truly be properly implemented without the formation of an authoritarian regime, as we have seen in all past national attempts to enact its ideals. Yet, as long as there are those who object, no matter how small a minority, for them to have to comply against their will is simply wrong. I have also heard it suggested that the Vietnam War had no justification because the majority desired a communist government, and yet for the same reasons this cannot be the case (on grounds of principle, although the human cost can easily be considered to outweigh this since the effort of course yielded very little in the end) given the active resistance – an explicit demonstration of will to avoid a communist government – of many of the South Vietnamese, and subsequent mass migration from the country.
Then again, there is nothing to prevent people from forming their own communes, if this is what they chose to do – indeed, it would be a violation of their own rights to act freely to prevent it, so long as they allow their members to leave freely. Yet, this seems unlikely – the well-off of society would have little reason to join, given that it serves their interests to maintain their wealth for themselves, and they have the personal right to do so. It is our human nature, and indeed right, to aspire to be better-off than we are at any given time. Some may, in accordance with this, aspire to do better for themselves by reaping the successes of others (I understand that many vote on the basis of what they believe, but it is also clearly true that many, in particular the less politically aware, vote on the basis of immediate economic interests) and act upon this through their vote. Because of this, the hypothetical free-commune is distant from reality, since as long as all people are granted allowed their freedom, the incentive for those who would make the largest contribution is lost, and their absence removes much of the incentive for the all others.
So there is no clear solution to the problems of democracy, at least on a constitutional basis. Many point to a benevolent dictator as the most effective governor of a country, yet all know this to be imaginary and uncontrollable, and while it could be a fairly efficient form of control, it still denies people their right to choose their government, and would by necessity lead to the denial of some personal freedoms, as would literally any government, but in this case there would have been no popular consent beforehand.
The best option, therefore, is to retain democracy, but for people to recognise that only by voting for their most libertarian-like option can they both exercise their electoral rights and allow all people to live feely. We could then, perhaps, one day have a freedom-promoting government elected with a popular mandate, and then even the minority who didn’t vote for them would not face the unjustified subjection to oppression to which they did not consent, since they would be allowed to retain their rightful freedoms under such a government. Maybe then, we could get to a point where all parties believe in the libertarian ideal, but with different interpretations of necessity, a concept which I will later develop. Then all could see their freedoms respected, and from an ideological and ethical point of view the world would be better off.
Ultimately government arises out of collective needs, and as long as it governs a collective (that is, barring anarchism) it can never fully satisfy the freedoms of each member of it.
Read Part III here.