Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why Certain Arguments Against Socialism Do Not Succeed

Why democracy doesn’t logically necessitate sexual slavery.

I have frequently argued that socialism is good. But Mr. Oliver Waters, in a magazine called Areo, has recently suggested that I may be wrong. Socialism, he says, is actually bad. Ordinarily I try my best not to engage in tedious point-by-point replies to critical feedback. This is not because I fear debate (I am a lawyer. If I so much as glance at an online comment section, my friend Oren has to tie me to my desk chair to keep me from diving in with my teeth bared). Rather, it’s just that readers tend to find “Response To Response” articles very boring, and unlike many fellow magazine editors, I am trying to run a publication that doesn’t instantly put the entire reading public to sleep. I also believe it’s a fun exercise for the audience themselves to figure out the obvious reasons why all criticisms of Current Affairs articles are mistaken. It’s currently raining here in New Orleans, though, and I forgot my poncho again and am trying to delay having to go out into the wet to buy my lunch. So there’s time for some quibbling and pedantry.

Waters realizes that the version of socialism I subscribe to is deeply appealing and persuasive. (“Three cheers for socialism! What’s not to like?”) But he believes I am being deceptive and sneaky. For example, I believe in personal autonomy, by which I mean that people should be the authors of their own destinies and should participate in decisions that affect them. But, he says, does this mean that if I don’t like the ending of a new movie, I should be allowed to change it? After all, the ending “affected” me. Or even worse, does it mean we should force women to stay in unhappy marriages?

A divorce can be one of the most emotionally and economically damaging events of our lives. Robinson’s radically democratic approach seems to mandate that since the decision of a man’s wife to leave him affects him greatly, he ought to have an equal say in the decision. This presumably amounts to a right to veto it, since he controls 50% of the vote of directly interested parties. Indeed not too long ago, this used to be the norm. A husband had to give his consent for his wife to leave him. And why not? Not only his life, but the lives of his children, and others in his community, would stand to be profoundly affected by the break-up of the marriage. I’m assuming Robinson’s progressive instincts would make him cringe at the thought of regressing to such an oppressive, misogynistic state of affairs. But it’s unclear why it’s not a straightforward application of his conception of democracy.

Since it is unclear to Waters how one can believe in democracy without also believing in the abolition of divorce, I shall endeavor to explain. We have two married people, and the wife is deeply unhappy and wishes to leave. But this would make the husband unhappy! Surely democracy means he gets veto power over the decision. Ah, but it doesn’t. First, that would assume that in the case of a disagreement, a husband’s happiness automatically takes priority over his wife’s. I do not believe a husband’s preference takes priority over his wife’s. Perhaps Waters does; I’m not sure why he thought a mutual disagreement would automatically be resolved in favor of the man. I was also explicit, however, that participatory decision-making does not entitle people to have all of their desires satisfied:

It’s not that I am necessarily entitled to get my way. But democracy does entitle me to have a share in the decision-making proportional to my stake in the outcome. Free market capitalism ensures no such participation; the ones who decide what happens are the ones who own the most resources.

I am not entitled to hold people captive in order to make myself happy, and there is nothing “democratic” about my doing so, unless we assume that nobody else’s views matter, which is autocracy rather than democracy. Democracy cannot be one’s sole value, of course, because it doesn’t offer a guide to what you do when interests fundamentally conflict. It can tell us that we should listen to both Person A and Person B, but it can’t tell us how to resolve an intractable disagreement between them. That requires other values, and in this instance, I happen to believe that the freedom from being coerced into a relationship is a more compelling value than the freedom to coerce another person into one. (I realize, however, that this is a matter of moral instinct and that many on the right do believe that a man’s desire to be happy is more important than his wife’s desire to be free, just as 200 years ago many on the right thought a slave’s autonomy was negligible when compared with a planter’s love of large crop yields.)

Interestingly, though, the principle of democracy can be applied to a marriage, and marriage counseling is all about trying to help people apply it. Waters uses the phrase “ought to have an equal say” to imply that marital democracy would mean “men have formal veto rights under the law.” He correctly recognizes that that doesn’t seem very democratic at all. But the actual democratic principle of egalitarian decision-making actually does make for healthy marriages. When partners separate out of mutual agreement, after conversations in which each listens to the other and they try to reach the compromise that best serves them both, they are both better off. The happiest relationships are the most democratic ones, the ones characterized by understanding, respect, trust, and compromise, and “couples who report higher levels of joint decision-making also report significantly higher levels of marital satisfaction.” There is no such thing as perfect balance or perfect democracy, and some people always end up losing out, but what we are talking about here is a process of making sure—to the extent possible without being absurd—people have their preferences incorporated into a decision-making process about something that has serious implications for their lives and happiness. Sure, you can come up with silly hypotheticals: (“Well, a serial killer probably doesn’t want to go to jail, should they get to veto it?”) but this is willfully ignorant of the underlying principle, which is the attempt to find a way to balance interests as fairly as possible according to sound moral instincts rather than according to the arbitrary distribution of wealth and power. You will never be able to give people perfect control over the things that affect them (the butterfly effect, and the dead hand of history, make the very idea cosmically daunting) but you can use it as a rough principle (alongside several other principles that can be used to avoid ludicrous extremes like having people vote for their garbageman).

Here is the next part of Waters’ argument, which I will quote at length for your pleasure:

Now of course the renters or auto-workers would like more power to direct the decision-making affecting them. But do they also want to share legal and financial liability if the property collapses or the company goes bankrupt? This gets to the crucial issue: “democratic fundamentalism” grants people rights to be involved in decision-making automatically, so long as they are merely affected by a decision. Advocates of the principle need to be careful of the age-old problem of getting exactly what they wish for. Rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin, and if you possess the right to decide, you are also responsible for the outcome of that decision. A key principle in liberal democracies is that our individual decision-making within all non-governmental organisations is proportional to the level of responsibility we have voluntarily adopted. Crucially, in order to have any decision-making power in an organisation, you must have voluntarily entered into an agreement with that organisation. This principle is precisely what protects you from obligations forced upon you without your consent. If you wish for a system where individuals are automatically granted rights to exercise decision-making within an organisation, you’re asking for a system in which people are automatically burdened with corresponding responsibilities. This is the antithesis of individual autonomy and freedom. It is a reversion to feudal times, where one found oneself born into a set of inescapable legal entanglements, defined by one’s arbitrary starting position in society. It is the meaning of Leszek Kołakowski’s phrase “fraternity under compulsion,” which Robinson cites in his article as an apt description of past socialist regimes. Either Robinson hasn’t thought through these consequences, or he thinks they are justified by worse outcomes under a liberal, largely capitalist system. He expresses the fear that without radically expanding democracy’s scope, individual voluntary transactions (i.e. a free market) necessarily lead to the wealthiest deciding what happens for everyone else. But here is he projecting onto the free market attributes that in fact characterize government.

I can’t help but find this all rather funny. I hope you can see that it’s sophistry. Let’s examine the reasoning. Note all the imprecisely-defined concepts:

  1. If people have the right to participate in an outcome, they also have a proportional level of responsibility for consequences.
  2. If people automatically have rights, they also have a proportional level of responsibility.
  3. Since they have not chosen that responsibility, it has been imposed upon them by force.
  4. Imposing “legal entanglements” on people from birth defined by their “arbitrary starting position” is feudalism.
  5. Robinson is an idiot who thinks that the “free market” results in small groups of powerful people controlling things when this is in fact a characteristic of government.

Frankly, I’ve always felt that “you can’t have rights without responsibilities” is a phrase often uttered because it makes people automatically nod in agreement rather than because it necessarily makes sense in any given context. All of these terms are a little vague and we need to figure out what we’re actually talking about. Let’s say you and I work for a quality left-wing print magazine. And let’s say the magazine’s owner and proprietor, S. Chapin Domino, runs the thing as a dictatorship. We do what he says or we’re out, and everyone on staff gets $7.25 per hour (unless they’re disabled, in which case he’s entitled to pay them less than the federal minimum wage). Domino monitors our bathroom breaks, he constantly tells us we’re slime and that we’re lucky he was generous enough to give us a job in the first place, he makes us work on Mardi Gras, he doesn’t give pregnant women any maternity leave. He’s a real piece of work. So the employees get together and we say “Listen old man, this has gone on long enough. Unless you give us a say in how things work around here, the magazines aren’t getting printed and the content machine will stop churning.” After much pressure, Domino agrees that henceforth, new company policies will be put to a vote of the employees, along with a series of other concessions. “Hooray,” we say to one another, “now we finally have a say in decisions that affect us.”

Our workplace has, on my principle, been made more democratic. The workers can reject a new policy that limits bathroom breaks to 25 seconds, or that requires everyone to get the company name tattooed on a forearm. But what about Waters’ argument? Well, I’m not sure what it would even mean here. I suppose the employees are now more responsible for outcomes, e.g., if the company goes bust because the new bathroom policy would have meant the difference between survival and bankruptcy, it’s the workers’ fault. But I’m not really sure how giving people rights within an organization must necessarily involuntarily impose a set of “responsibilities” that are forced from birth and thus feudalistic. That actually sounds like utter nonsense to me. Even if we altered an organization so that the rights did come with obligations (e.g., if a decision made by workers harms the company that harm comes out of their salary), I am not sure how this makes one “born into a set of inescapable legal entanglements,” unless we require that and require that people automatically join the organization at birth. Since Waters gives no examples of what he’s talking about, it’s hard for me to figure this out.

He does say of renters and factory workers “But do they also want to share legal and financial liability if the property collapses or the company goes bankrupt?” This is funny, though, because company owners don’t have legal and financial liability if a company goes bankrupt. This is why we have “limited liability corporations” and bankruptcy proceedings. It’s also always possible to offer people a choice: Do you want (A) decision-making power but liability or (B) no decision-making power and no liability. Perfect choice: No feudalistic entanglements! The way to answer Waters’ question about workers and renters is to ask them and then give them what they want. Or at least, that’s the democratic way. Furthermore, if “responsibility” means risk, sometimes a lack of democracy means that people have responsibilities without rights. (See, e.g., the Grenfell Tower fire: If it had been up to the residents, they would have voted to improve fire safety. But that decision rested with the landlord, who decided to let them burn to death. Renters carried the risk of death without having the right to influence the decision that would have prevented it.) 

More words:

In political processes, those who have the most power do indeed often end up exclusively deciding how vast amounts of resources are allocated. But in a market, it is consumers who ultimately decide what companies produce, and how much. Their small daily decisions may seem powerless in isolation, but are definitive in aggregate. Businesses seek to satisfy consumer needs and desires, which means the less wealthy still end up being serviced because businesses stand to make a huge amount of money selling cheaper but effective products to larger numbers of people. [Robinson] seems ignorant of the historical fact that the most robust modern democracies arose in predominantly capitalist societies. The relatively strong protections of private property rights for ordinary workers in countries like the UK, US, Canada and Australia helped to enable a relatively wide dispersal of property ownership. With ordinary citizens having genuine control over their parcel of resources, they were able to command greater political representation, and put up strong resistance to would-be dictators appropriating all their hard-earned wealth. Indeed, this general historical trajectory from capitalist economies to universal political enfranchisement undermines the central socialist claim that capitalism is fundamentally in tension with democracy.

Sigh, how accustomed I am to hearing the phrase “Robinson seems ignorant…” which has followed me all the way from grade-school report cards to doctoral research feedback. Robinson’s always bloody ignorant, for which Robinson can only apologize and beg forgiveness. However, in Robinson’s humble defense, I will say: First, the idea that workers and capitalists have equal power, making the free market democratic, is false. Waters praises a situation in which “ordinary citizens have genuine control over their parcel of resources.” We do, indeed, live in such a situation: You can do whatever you want with the things you have! I feel obliged to point out, however, that some people have quite large parcels of resources and other people do not have parcels at all. Over ⅓ of African Americans, for example, have zero or negative net worth. Waters is correct that they are fully entitled to do as they please with those negative assets. But since Jeff Bezos makes more than the median annual Amazon salary every ten seconds, I hope Waters can see why “you are totally free to control your big pile of nothing” rings at bit hollow to some people. And as my colleagues Sparky Abraham and Oren Nimni have pointed out, when there are vast differences in economic power, and “freedom of contract” shields employers from civil law accountability, large corporations have almost no incentive not to outright steal from their employees. If you believe consumers and workers are sovereign and have power, try overturning a company policy as a Subway Sandwich Artist®, or tell me why fraudulent for-profit diploma mills seem to do such good business selling people objectively worthless products.

As for the point that “capitalism and democracy always coincide” (or, in other words, “correlation is causation”), it only works if you define capitalism as democracy. But capitalist systems are wholly undemocratic because of all the various ways in which “decisions over what to purchase” are inadequate as a means of shaping institutional policy. I am willing to accept that capitalist countries are democratic in the sense Waters defines “democratic,” but my whole point is that this is a poor way of defining the word, because in these supposedly “democratic” countries ordinary people are unable to meaningfully participate in policy-making and their policy preferences aren’t actually implemented. If this country were a participatory democracy, he might have a point, but since over 80% of Americans believe in laws that require paid medical and family leave, yet we don’t have paid medical and family leave, “democracy” in the Waters sense is simply a word used to mislead people into thinking their government represents their views.

Waters finishes off with a dose of the old “everyone on the left will ultimately become Stalin” stuff:

His clarification of what he means by “experimenting” with socialist economic models doesn’t exactly reassure: “Experimentation doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be bold. It just means constantly checking to make sure you’re upholding the principles.” Note that Robinson doesn’t say “constantly check to make sure your predictions are coming true,” or that “the empirical evidence supports your principles.” He advocates pursuing socialist principles. Period. Regardless of their consequences. The problem is that his principles are mistaken. It’s just a question of how many more “broken eggs” will convince him to abandon that ever-elusive omelette.

This is very easily responded to: Because I am a consequentialist, my principles involve examining consequences. (This is why I write articles with titles like “You Are Responsible For The Things That Happen Because Of You.”) If you’re producing horrible consequences, you’re not upholding any principle worth adhering to. I’ve written before about the importance of checking whether your egalitarian principles are leading to the advocacy of humane policies (e.g., giving poor people health care) or horrific ones (e.g., putting everyone you deem a counterrevolutionary in a reeducation camp). Waters picked the wrong socialist to try the “eggs and omelettes” cliche on; check out our Jan./Feb. issue which specifically makes fun of Vladimir Lenin for gratuitous egg-smashing in the service of nonexistent omelettes.

I am always interested in reading counterarguments to my extreme left-wing views, for if there is something wrong with my positions I want to make sure I correct them. But having carefully read and dealt with Waters’ critique, I feel ever more sound in my conviction that socialism is, in fact, a good idea. And now the rain has stopped, and I’m off to lunch.

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