The resurgence of socialism is going well. So well, in fact, that the nation’s premier conservative magazine has just published a special “Against Socialism” issue, in a frantic attempt to stop the virus from spreading. The edition includes 13 different brief articles on why socialism is bad. In each, a different National Review contributor goes after socialism from a slightly different angle. (The phrase “throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks” comes to mind.)
As a socialist, I was grateful and flattered to see my fringe opinions dealt with so substantively. It is always helpful to see the counterargument to one’s position stated in the strongest possible terms. If the conservative intellectuals bring their heaviest hitters to produce the most thorough possible demolition of socialism, we will be able to evaluate once and for all whether the case holds up. If it does, it will be bad news indeed for the socialists.
Let us go through the issue, then, look at the arguments, and see if we’re convinced that socialism is bad and we should all take up National Review subscriptions.
1. Charles C.W. Cooke — Socialism Is Not Democratic (Nor Is It Compatible With The Constitution)
Cooke begins not by citing a socialist writer or academic, but a man he met at Occupy Wall Street who wore a cardboard box around his torso with the word “democracy” on it. The box-wearer called Cooke “man” and told Cooke that “it’s up to us.” Cooke scoffs at this man’s naive faith in democracy, explaining that democracy is not an absolute. After all, democracy does not mean we put everything up to a majority vote. Cook says that the free market should be a sphere that democracy cannot abridge, and we should think of “democratic socialism” the way we would think of “democratic speech restrictions” or “democratic warrantless searches.” The fact that something is sanctioned by popular plebiscite does not confer legitimacy on it. As he writes:
Just as the individual right to free speech is widely comprehended as part of what we mean by “democracy” rather than as an unacceptable abridgment of majority rule, so the individual rights protected in property and by markets are necessary to the maintenance of a democratic order—in this, deeper, sense of the word. In the West, choosing to trade with a person in another country is, itself, a democratic act. Electing to start a company in your garage, with no need for another’s imprimatur, is, itself, a democratic act. Banding together to establish a cooperative is, itself, a democratic act. Selecting the vendor from which you source your goods and services—and choosing what to buy from it—is, itself, a democratic act. Keeping the lion’s share of the fruits of your labor is, itself, a democratic act. When governments step in with their bayonets and say “No!” they are, in effect, keeping your choices off the ballot.
This sort of “sounds good until you think about it for more than a second” reasoning underpins most libertarian thinking. (Cooke calls himself a “conservatarian” actually, which he insists is different.) A shopping mall is a democracy: You are given the choice of a range of shops and products, and you may “vote” for the ones you desire. The free market economy is one big shopping mall where people get to make whatever contracts they please, with complete control over their lives. Restrictions on this free exchange, even if sanctioned by a majority vote, are undemocratic. Taxes on the fruits of labor, even if passed through a democratically-elected legislature, reduce an individual’s control over her life and therefore inhibit democracy.
I am not sure whether Cooke has ever heard the socialist critique of this idea before, because he certainly doesn’t deal with it. Socialists point out that, if the market is a democracy with money as its votes, it is a strange kind of “democracy” indeed—one in which some people get zero votes or negative votes and some people get 152,000,000,000 votes. Socialists point out that in a laissez-faire economy, people do not seem to get what they want, nor do they get the full fruits of their labor. After all, Amazon’s warehouse workers presumably do not want to have to skip their bathroom breaks to keep their jobs. They do it because they need their jobs to pay rent to their landlords so that they can have a place to live. The libertarian says “Ah, but you made the free choice to take this miserable job, therefore you wanted it!” The socialist replies “Come the fuck on. Clearly people do not want to work bad jobs, they work bad jobs because they need jobs.”
Socialists realize that while “freedom of contract” is very “democratic” for extremely wealthy people, for people without wealth, it doesn’t provide much choice at all. Take the guy who died when his insulin GoFundMe fell short. Under Cooke’s “market-as-democracy” idea, this was democracy at work. The market simply turned out not to value his life as much as he did. For socialists, this is horrifying. At a time when “wealthy people and corporations have so much money they literally don’t know what to do with it,” we think “the government with its bayonets” should have given the guy his insulin, and taxed some rich lawyer to pay for it. Perhaps “undemocratic” for the lawyer, who wants “the lion’s share of the fruits of his labor” (i.e., the millions he got defending corporate malfeasance and getting favorable settlements for wealthy rapists). We socialists beg to differ. (I recommend my friend Rob Larson’s book Capitalism vs. Freedom for an excellent primer on the difference between the socialist and libertarian conceptions of freedom.)
It is difficult to have arguments about what “democracy” is, because there is no definitive answer. Certainly it involves popular participation in governance, but to what degree and in what form? Cooke may think that a law requiring companies to give employees seats on corporate boards, even if it has been passed by a legislature, is “undemocratic” in that it restricts the absolute freedom of corporations and their owners. We socialists, on the other hand, think having a say in decisions at your workplace is a crucial part of democracy, and that since corporations are created by the state to begin with (they are legal constructions, not metaphysical entities) it’s perfectly fine to set some requirements that ensure workers’ interests are represented.
Cooke seems to believe he is breaking news to the socialists by pointing out that in any authentic democracy, minority rights have to be protected, and that simply majority rule is not a satisfactory definition of the term. That’s certainly true—it also explains why many leftists like variations on consensus decision-making processes that try to incorporate minority objections. Pointing out that it will never be easy to balance everybody’s rights and interests does not refute the socialists who say that the interests of workers are poorly represented when so much of what happens to them is determined by unaccountable people far, far wealthier than themselves.
Cooke then gives us the three objections to socialism that he believes are absolutely inescapable and irrefutable:
History has shown us that socialism exhibits three core defects from which it cannot escape and which its champions cannot avoid. The first is what Hayek termed “the knowledge problem.” This holds that all economic actors make errors based on imperfect knowledge but that a decentralized economy will suffer less from this, partly because the decision-makers are closer to the information they need, and partly because each actor does not wield total control over everything but is only one part of a larger puzzle. The second problem is that, because socialism eliminates both private property and supply and demand, it eliminates rational incentives and, thereby, rational calculation. The third problem is that socialism, following Marx’s dialectical theory of history, lends itself to a theory of inevitability or preordination that leaves no room for dissent, and that leads in consequence to the elevation of a political class that responds to failure by searching for wreckers and dissenters to punish. Worse still, because socialists view all questions, including moral questions, through a class lens, these searches tend to be deemed morally positive—bound, one day, to be regarded by History as Necessary. Together, these defects lead to misery, poverty, corruption, ignorance, authoritarianism, desperation, exodus, and death.
First, we can immediately dismiss point three as a critique of socialism. It may be a critique of Marx’s theory of history, albeit a lazy one.* But to those socialists who already know that it’s important not to believe in “inevitability,” and who value dissent and debate, this is not news. Conservatives always have to ignore the existence of the libertarian socialist tradition, and stick to attacking orthodox Marxism-Leninism. But there are plenty of socialists who do not hold the opinions that Cooke says we hold. Perhaps if he had picked up a book instead of talking to a lone man wearing a cardboard box, he would know that.
Points one and two are variations on the same theme: The total elimination of markets and private property creates economic havoc. Note that this objection would only apply to those socialists who are advocating the elimination of markets and private property. How about those who are advocating the equitable distribution of that property, say through the establishment of a social wealth fund? Seth Ackerman has written a long and fascinating discussion of the “knowledge” and “calculation” problems in Jacobin, explaining how one can socialize a firm without eliminating important incentives. (By the way, even libertarian economist Bryan Caplan has admitted that “economic history as well as pure economic theory fails to establish that the economic calculation problem was a severe challenge for socialism,” but Cooke still states the problem as insurmountable without further explanation.) Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski, in The People’s Republic of Walmart argue that these objections have been answered by corporations themselves. Does Cooke engage with any of the counterarguments made by Jacobin and the People’s Policy Project? He does not.
Already we see a tendency that recurs throughout the “Against Socialism” issue. The National Review does not just wish to disagree with socialists, but to portray them as childish idiots incapable of grasping even the basic dilemmas of political theory and economics. Since this picture of socialists is false, it requires the writers to avoid the ideas and proposals of today’s real-world U.S. socialists and instead talk about Lenin.
*He doesn’t show, for example, that defenders of the theory are wrong, but says that it “lends itself” to a thing that “leads to” another thing. The same could be said about the concept of “reason,” which lends itself to people taking their instincts for rational deductions and leads to them thinking other people should just shut up and listen. But the concept of reason is still valuable.
2. Joshua Muravchik — Socialism As Epic Tragedy
Muravchik presents the history of socialism as a tragic cautionary tale about idealism: Millions of people came to believe in the possibility of a world where people were equal, only to have the whole thing end in a bloody catastrophe. He claims there are two kinds of socialists: those who never learned the lesson, and those who learned it, and therefore stopped being socialists. He cites the example of German leftist Eduard Bernstein, who questioned Marxist orthodoxy:
Bernstein drew the logical conclusion. He abandoned socialism. He determined to continue struggling to wrest better conditions for the workers, but he said, “The ‘final goal of socialism’ is nothing to me.” Others, however, were not ready to abandon the “final goal.” […] Not all socialists followed the bloody trail Lenin blazed. Some, usually under the banner of parties calling themselves “labor” or “social democratic,” insisted on pursuing only democratic and peaceful paths to the promised land of collective ownership and equal distribution. Over many decades they discovered, as Bernstein had foreseen, that these routes led no farther than the welfare state undergirded by a capitalist economy. The “socialism” that so many thought they could see over the horizon, that millions killed and died for, turned out to be a mirage. Its pursuit spelled one of history’s saddest chapters.
So, be like Eduard Bernstein: Give up on the goals of socialism and accept that a capitalist economy is inevitable. Except… Bernstein didn’t give up on socialism. In a truly stunning act of intellectual dishonesty, Muravchik deliberately leaves off the second half of Bernstein’s quote, which is actually: “The final goal of socialism is nothing, the movement is everything.” Bernstein did not abandon socialism, and as explained in an introduction to Bernstein’s The Principles of Socialism, he was frustrated when people misinterpreted his statement:
Dismayed by the outcry which his declaration provoked, Bernstein made several attempts to explain himself… [H]e said that he saw the final goal of socialism not as a future state of affairs but as the set of principles that governed the day-to-day political activity of the party. What he had really meant, he said, was therefore that “the movement is everything to me because it bears its goal within itself.”
Bernstein himself said that his statement meant:
What is normally called the final goal of socialism was nothing; and in this spirit I still endorse it today… [I]t was quite obvious that it could not express indifference towards the ultimate implementation of socialist principles, but only indifference—or more correctly, lack of anxiety—to “how” things would ultimately take shape. At no time has my interest in the future gone beyond general principles, and detailed depictions of the future were never something I could read through to the end.
I don’t mean to dwell on a minor historical fabrication, but I think it’s actually quite important, because it’s necessary for the National Review’s project. They can’t admit that there were reasonable socialists who retained their belief in the principles of socialism while questioning Marxist orthodoxy. That would open up the possibility that one could be both sensible and a socialist, which of course one could not. So it has to be either-or: Either you subscribe to Marxist orthodoxy, or you are not a socialist and believe in “capitalism with a welfare state.” Bernstein’s thoughtful reformist socialism does not fit into the framework, thus his quotes must be trimmed and his actual beliefs ignored.
Bernstein’s formulation of socialism as “principles” rather than a hypothetical future end state is one I’ve endorsed myself. I think it’s something that many socialists subscribe to today. They don’t see socialism as a particular clearly-defined economic blueprint, but as a set of criteria by which institutions and policies are to be evaluated. Because today’s capitalist economies fall radically short of satisfying those criteria, a socialist believes that large-scale changes are necessary. But we have internal debates as to what changes would work best. This “pragmatic utopianism” is discomforting to National Review types, because it is insufficiently ridiculous to dismiss. If we do not in fact believe in a rigid totalizing ideology that would break any number of eggs to get its omelet, then Muravchik is providing a useful historical cautionary tale, but not a critique of contemporary socialist politics.
3. Jeffrey Tucker – If You Want To Want (How Socialism Causes Shortages)
4. Kevin D. Williamson – The Ignorance That Kills
Both Tucker and Williamson put the “calculation debate” at the center of their critique of socialism. This is a little bit strange, because the calculation debate is about whether one can have a functional economy in the absence of money and prices, and I searched the text of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party manifesto in vain to find the part where it proposes the abolition of money. I see proposals for a more progressive tax system, a national investment bank, public ownership of major utilities, free school meals for children, funding the NHS sufficiently. I don’t even find the abolition of money advocated for in the pages of Jacobin, where, as I say, you can find Ackerman’s sophisticated discussion of market socialism.
Elsewhere, Williamson has implied that all public provision of goods and services should be called “socialism.” (In fact, anything the government does is socialism.) He says ObamaCare is “an obvious exercise in socialistic central planning” because, while it may simply regulate a market of private insurers, the product they are selling is “designed in Washington, D.C.” Public schools, too, are socialism. In his Politically Incorrect Guide To Socialism, Williamson says that “primary-secondary education is conducted under an almost exclusively socialist model” and is indeed “more deeply socialized than Soviet agriculture was under Stalin,” since “about 90 percent of U.S. students attend government schools.”
Williamson’s use of the word socialism is idiosyncratic and extreme. But it also means the case against socialism collapses utterly. Williamson’s proof that “socialism” is a disaster is that U.S. public schools aren’t doing a very good job, which he blames on their being government schools rather than private schools. But if socialism gets the blame for the poor performance of U.S. students, why doesn’t socialism get the credit for the superior performance of students in other countries’ public schools? Why aren’t the Chinese public school system and the Finnish public school system and the Canadian public school system taken as evidence of socialism’s potential? Even accepting that all public institutions are socialism, the U.S. public school system cannot possibly demonstrate an “inherent” defect of socialism, because we know that there are public school systems that do very well around the world. The argumentation here is just pitiful: take a U.S. government program that has failed and use it to draw absolute conclusions about government itself, without looking at other governments where the program has succeeded.
I don’t want to get too much into the technical stuff about the calculation debate. If you would like to dive further into that, there are interesting left thinkers who are posing challenges to the central assumptions. See, for example, Evgeny Morozov’s detailed new article “Digital Socialism? The Calculation Debate in the Age of Big Data” in the latest New Left Review.
(I have previously critiqued Tucker for his defense of child labor and insistence that Taco Bell is a place of beauty and splendor.)
5. John O’Sullivan — Of Socialism and Human Nature
John O’Sullivan believe socialists are in denial about the facts of human nature, beginning his article with Margaret Thatcher’s quote that the “facts of life are conservative.” He also wishes to explore the aspects of human nature that lead people to embrace socialist thinking:
[M]any different sides of human nature conspired to support the socialist transformation of society. Some were transparently objectionable vices— for instance, envy. If greed is supposedly the characteristic capitalist vice, envy is the typical socialist one. Envy, indeed, has most of the unpleasant consequences of capitalism—it is socially divisive, productive of conflict, encouraging of hostility towards those envied, and discouraging of everyone else’s improving their lives and status— without the saving grace of greed, which leads to work, saving, and investment. Compare the relative damage to society caused by the crimes of socialism and capitalism. Both impoverish their victims, but crimes of envy can kill them too and spread a disabling fear throughout society. As Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute in London once asked: “When was the last time you were afraid to go out at night in case you were embezzled?”
This, as you will see, makes no sense. The distinction between socialist “envy” and capitalist “greed” doesn’t hold up well. Embezzlement is theft, robbery is theft, both can be said to be the product of greed or envy. If we take greed to simply mean “maximizing what one has” and envy to mean “specifically desiring a thing that another presently has” both can kill, and it’s not clear to me that greed automatically “leads to” work rather than, say, fraud.
I always get annoyed at the charge that socialists “envy” the rich. It’s hurled at us without any regard for whether it’s actually true. Personally, the socialists I know do not want to be rich. (As for myself, I don’t really want much more money than my tiny magazine-editor salary, though I rather wish I didn’t have $140,000 in student debt.) Many socialists do dislike the rich, but if they do it’s because they find it grotesque to hoard wealth when people are suffering terribly and that suffering could easily be alleviated with a small fraction of that wealth. You can define that position as “envy,” but it’s more properly called “elementary moral reasoning.”
Here is another passage in which O’Sullivan diagnoses the psychological problems of socialists:
When [the existence of corruption and atrocities in “socialist” states] becomes undeniable, most comfortably-off foreign admirers of socialist regimes condemn them only formally and then carry on as before. Their admiration for leftist despotisms is really a roundabout neurotic rejection of their own societies and as such not to be taken seriously. It’s the political equivalent of a society hostess’s dressing like a dominatrix: It’s intended to show contempt for dull middle-class virtues. Hard-core progressives are a different matter. They are serious revolutionaries and either invent contorted justifications for socialist scandals—virtues are transformed by theory into vices and vices into virtues— or simply deny the plain evidence of their own senses: As each socialist paradise is shown to be a kleptocratic hellhole, the caravan of Sandalistas simply moves on to the next one without apology. They make a trivial and contemptible contrast to those who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries sensed and predicted the paths of genocide, tyranny, and impoverishment down which their societies were trending. Before a single socialist regime had established itself, writers including Dostoevsky, W. H. Mallock, and, of course, Kipling glimpsed the horrors that lay concealed within socialism’s humanitarian promise. Surely their glimpses into its future in country after country refute the fraying excuse that socialism has never been tried. For if indeed socialism has never been tried, how could they predict its consequences with such eerie accuracy?
The first part of this is speculative and difficult to even discuss. I am not sure who They are, because they are not named. Are They the members of the DSA? I’m interviewing members of the DSA right now for a series of articles, and the thing I’m consistently struck by is how totally unlike the stereotypes about socialists they are. They do not dogmatically defend authoritarian regimes. If you shout “Venezuela” at them, they might point out to you—as economist Jeffrey Sachs would—that U.S. actions are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. But they do not justify bad actions by nominally socialist governments. They are not partisan toward particular governments, but toward egalitarian principles, and if governments violate those principles, then the socialists will condemn them. (Honestly, I strongly recommend that all of these authors get to know a few young socialists, and go to some meetings, before they write another word on this subject. As we will see in article #10, the one National Review writer who did give socialists a fair hearing ended up agreeing with them on major points.)
I have pointed out before that predictions about authoritarian “socialist” governments were not just made by people like Rudyard Kipling. They were also made by socialists like Mikhail Bakunin. The argument they made, and it is persuasive to me, is that the problem with authoritarian “socialist” governments is the authoritarianism rather than the socialism. Authoritarianism leads to horrible results when it is instituted in the name of any ideology. And while you may argue that socialism is “inherently” authoritarian, you’ll be arguing against those socialists who have always stood up for free speech and respect for civil liberties. It is peculiar, if the socialism of Emma Goldman was inherently authoritarian, that she spent so much time denouncing the Soviet government for its restrictions on liberty. The only way to argue that all socialists are authoritarians is to ignore all the ones who aren’t.
6. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry – All The Benefits You’ll Never See: French statism has been anything but progressive
Gobry, a Frenchman, begins with a story about Charles de Gaulle:
One of Charles de Gaulle’s most notorious moments of public wit came when he was asked at a press conference whether “Europe” wasn’t the solution to France’s problems. After a long defense of his policies, he exclaimed “Of course, people can jump up and down on their chairs like mountain goats and shout ‘Europe! Europe! Europe!’ but it means nothing and leads nowhere.” It seems that when it comes to health-care reform in the U.S., progressives often think it’s enough to jump up and down like mountain goats and shout “France! France! France!” But it is not.
Is this what we do? I did not realize this was what we did. (To the extent that we actually shout countries’ names we also shout: Sweden! Canada! The U.K.! Spain! Italy! Iceland! Every other country that has universal healthcare!) Gobry then makes his case against the imaginary person whose entire political argument boils down to shouting the word “France” over and over.
Gobry tries to show us that the French healthcare system is overpraised. He begins with quite an admission: “Yes, the French health-care system is, at the moment, almost amazing as they say.” He recounts a recent experience:
Taking my frighteningly sick daughter to Necker, the main children’s hospital in Paris, made me proud to be a French taxpayer. Not only was the building gleaming and everything in it high-tech, but the staff was first-class, efficient, and, above all, kind, a world away from bureaucratic cliché. When, on my way out, after my daughter had recovered, I asked whether I had to pay for anything, the staff looked at me as if I’d just flown in from Mars.
Ah, but there are problems! For example:
While progressives are rightly enthralled with the idea of “evidence-based medicine” (while failing to realize that mandating it is sure to bring dysfunction), the French government has found a, let’s say, ingenious way to get French people to ingest fewer drugs: It promotes the notorious fraud of homeopathy and, in some cases, even pays for it. The French are also inexplicably obsessed with psychoanalysis, to the point that French mental-health care is essentially stuck in the 1930s.
Okay, well, there are absolutely good reasons not to promote homeopathy and 1930s Freudianism, but I don’t see a reason why a universal healthcare system has to promote homeopathy and 1930s Freudianism. I don’t think anyone who proposes borrowing from the French model thinks it’s an “all or nothing” deal. (There’s a weird related tendency in conservative arguments where the arguer will pick one arbitrary difference between country X and country Y to show that the system in country Y could never work in country X. For instance: Ah yes, Sweden has paid family leave, but it is ethnically homogeneous.)
I am unfairly singing out one of Gobry’s worse points. He also points out a series of real defects in French healthcare, from budget troubles to dissatisfaction among practitioners. A hospital in Toulouse was found to be seriously dysfunctional. But as I will emphasize in #9, the fair way to judge global health care systems is not by stringing together worst-case anecdotes and pointing out shortfalls, but by holistically and systematically assessing them using data. This Gobry does not do.
He does point out other ways in which France is imperfect. For instance, there are not enough spots in French public daycares, and many staff are not as qualified as they ought to be. It sounds like a problem France ought to work on! The French school system is unequal and elitist. You will find no argument here, for we socialists do not argue that France is a workers’ utopia in which divisions of class and race have disappeared. Gobry says that while France does have free public universities, they are not always particularly good:
My top-ranked law school’s library, for instance, on top of being crumbling and having Wi-Fi that didn’t work most days and only a handful of computer terminals, had a glass wall oriented so that sunlight hit it directly. That wall, combined with a lack of air conditioning and ventilation, turned the library into a locker-room-scented sauna—especially in the spring, which is exam season…
I do not envy Gobry his law school experience. My own top-ranked law school in the United States had a very attractive library, and the sunlight caused no trouble. There was good air conditioning and the Wi-Fi worked. Unfortunately, as I say, the place also left me with $140,000 in debt. I think I might have taken the free law school with the bad ventilation!
7. Andrew Stuttaford — Before There Was Thatcher
Stuttaford’s attack on socialism is, well, not really an attack on socialism so much as a brief discussion of the British economy in the 1970s. Much of the Western world entered a recession in the mid-70s. Under the British Conservative government of 1970-1974, the economy was weak and labor relations deteriorated. The Labour Party came to power, and things further deteriorated, with giant public-sector strikes in 1978 that the Labour government proved unable to deal with. Before Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, the economy had recovered somewhat, but the Labour government had lost popular support.
Drawing timeless lessons from the experience of one country during a period of global economic turmoil is something that should be done very carefully. Stuttaford implies that particular Keynesian economic policies pushed by Labour to try to boost the economy can be blamed for the party’s failure. The reality is more complicated. A summary of the consensus among historians:
[The Labour Party] was unable to control inflation, unable to control the unions, unable to solve the Irish problem, unable to solve the Rhodesian question, unable to secure its proposals for Welsh and Scottish devolution, unable to reach a popular modus vivendi with the Common Market… It was little wonder, therefore, that Mrs. Thatcher resoundingly defeated it in 1979.
Much of this seems particular to a time and place, rather than able to be blamed on “socialism.” The Labour government may well have stayed in power were it not for the fallout from the public sector strikes. I am not sure what Stuttaford believes he has proven about socialism.
8. Shawn Regan — Price Not, Conserve Not: Why Markets Are Better For The Environment
Regan argues that capitalism is better for the environment than socialism. He returns to the “calculation debate,” arguing that if resources do not have prices, they will be squandered, and a non-market economy will have no incentive to protect the environment. He shows that the Soviet Union had a dismal environmental record and recites a series of disturbing facts about the way the natural world was despoiled by Soviet industry. He also points to pollution problems in Cuba and Venezuela, and concludes:
As socialist ideas capture the American imagination—and are often portrayed, as with the Green New Deal, as necessary to avoid environmental catastrophe—it’s important to remember socialism’s dismal environmental legacy. Capitalism may be a dirty word these days, but when it comes to producing the prosperity and creativity necessary to sustain a clean environment, it’s still the best system we’ve got.
But what on earth does Soviet pollution have to say about whether the Green New Deal is a good idea? Notably, while Regan says that “a capitalist firm has ample incentive to act on such information to economize on the use of natural resources,” he does not respond to the argument made by today’s socialists, which is that capitalist firms have inadequate incentive to avoid actions that cause climate change, and in fact profit from actions that contribute to climate change. Fossil fuel companies misled the public for years about climate change in order to protect their business. “We pollute less than Soviet industry” is not an argument for how we can reverse the damage caused by our own actions. The United States has emitted more CO2 than any other country, and the U.S. and Europe are together responsible for the majority of cumulative emissions. Climate change is a problem that has been dumped on the Global South by the actions of multinational corporations. (This may be why Regan focuses on air pollution rather than climate change, though even then, U.S. environmental regulation doesn’t figure into his story of how the U.S. managed to reduce certain kinds of pollution.)
These days, the democratic socialists are making an argument. The argument is that, looking at the data from both the U.S. government and the IPCC, it is clear that laissez-faire capitalism is not going to prevent catastrophic climate change. They have argued that a drastic national mobilization is necessary. The people making this argument are not economic illiterates. Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has said that a Green New Deal is affordable and necessary. Instead of debating Stiglitz, however, Regan prefers to point out that Soviet factories were wasteful and dirty.
9. Avik Roy — Socialized Medicine Is Bad For Your Health
Avik Roy, to his credit, has a clear definition of what socialism is, at least in the sphere he is talking about. He says that universal health coverage schemes in which people are required to buy private health insurance, a la Switzerland, are not socialism. (Roy presumably disagrees with Kevin Williamson, who has argued that ObamaCare is socialism, raising the question: Wouldn’t it be helpful if the National Review’s writers had a consistent definition of the thing they’re dedicating an entire issue to arguing against?) Roy says that “single-payer” healthcare, like Canada’s system or Medicare For All, is socialized insurance, while medical services directly provided by the government, like the British NHS, are full socialized medicine.
Roy first attacks the NHS. He says that while one might be impressed by the fact that Britain has far lower healthcare spending (with better results, though he doesn’t mention this), if you “open a random edition of a British daily newspaper and you will likely encounter an article about some egregious problem the NHS has failed to solve.” He gives examples: doctors not telling patients about innovative new therapies that the NHS doesn’t pay for, terminally ill patients being classified as “close to death” when they are not in order to avoid paying for expensive life support, failure to revise guidelines on the management of cholesterol, and more. Plus, of course, the infamous wait times.
All of these are very bad. But Roy does not mention that one can open a U.S. newspaper and find plenty of healthcare horror stories—badly injured people begging people not to call an ambulance because of the expense, teenagers being denied cancer treatment by their insurance companies, drug treatments that cost $375,000 a year, hospitals recommending people crowdfund their heart transplants, an $18,000 bill to treat a baby with a nap and a bottle of formula, a woman being sent to jail over an unpaid ambulance bill, a person going blind in one eye because Medicaid didn’t cover reattaching their retina, and people dying because they can’t afford insulin.
Now, look, we can swap horror stories all day. There are plenty you can tell about the NHS, but you are not having an honest discussion if you list a series of anecdotes found in the newspaper, but decline to examine the system’s overall performance or look at the downsides found in both the British and American systems. The U.K. system outperforms the U.S. on a number of metrics including overall efficiency. There are, of course, tradeoffs to a socialized healthcare system: When you treat everybody, people have to wait longer. (Though American critics of the British system usually fail to note that there are private hospitals in the U.K., and just as in this country rich people can skip the line. This goes unmentioned because it destroys Roy’s argument that the British system “tramples on individuals’ rights to seek the care and coverage they want.”)
Roy does not mention the performance of public health services around the world. We have lots of different models for providing care, with greater and lesser roles for private sector providers. A sensible approach, one guided by facts rather than fanaticism, would look at how different countries achieve success in their health system and advocate a model that had been tried and tested. Instead, Roy simply mentions U.K. and Canadian wait times.
Roy concludes with an obnoxious passage on the way in which health care is a “right”:
Health care is indeed a right, in the same way that any use of liberty is a right. And that liberty—to freely seek the care we need, to pay for it in a way that is mutually convenient for us and our doctors, in a system that is sustainable for the generations to come—is one that we must not merely defend, but expand.
Answer me this, Roy: When you talk about “paying for care in a way that is mutually convenient,” are you including the people who crowdfund their cancer treatment? How about this woman in Georgia, urgently trying to get $50,000 to treat her sister for pancreatic cancer? How about this man in Alabama, who has spent a year trying to get $1,000 toward his insulin? The case socialists have always made is that being “free to die” is a bad definition of “liberty,” and that freedom should instead be defined as your meaningful capacity to act. What have you to offer these people? Is this really a system we must “not merely defend, but expand”? Expand toward what more dystopian end?
10. Timothy P. Carney — Community of All, Community of None
Carney’s article is the most interesting in the issue. He argues that socialism has experienced a resurgence because there is “something missing in people’s lives,” citing spikes in opioid deaths and suicides. “The root cause” of millennial socialism, he says, “is something like loneliness. To borrow a term from Marx himself, you could blame alienation.” Carney says we are suffering from a lack of community, and because of that, people seek the community-spiritedness they find in socialist movements and ideas. Carney visited Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and noticed that what its participants seemed to care about the most were the feelings of participation, solidarity, and direct democracy. He concludes:
The root cause of both Occupy Wall Street and Bernie 2016 was a prevailing sense of political alienation. Young people felt that they had lost the ability to make a difference in the world… People need other people. The American Right sometimes neglects this basic fact and ends up deifying the individual or the nuclear family. When Hillary Clinton said “it takes a village to raise a child,” conservatives replied, “It takes a family.” Being pro- family is one thing. Denying that child- rearing is in part a community undertaking is another.
By this point Carney has come on board with large parts of what the left is saying. He has agreed with Marx about alienation, he sees that people have been shut out of the political system and feel powerless, he sees that venerating the individual and saying things like “there is no such thing as society” produces loneliness and isolation. But up until this point, he has implied that while the sources of socialist sentiment are understandable, the political reaction is not.
Yet when Carney, being the most thoughtful participant in the National Review’s symposium, comes to actually assess a part of the socialist agenda, he finds it very difficult to disagree. Carney takes the time to actually read Matt Bruenig’s set of policy proposals designed to help make raising children affordable:
The People’s Policy Project, a socialist think tank, recently released its “Family Fun Pack,” a proposal for a raft of federal programs designed to help poor and working-class people raise families. The policy paper explains that the capitalist system is not oriented to helping families. “Because income is paid out to the factors of production without any regard for its final family-level distribution,” it states, “families with children wind up in dramatically worse financial circumstances than families without children.” The paper then calls for 36 weeks of federally funded paid parental leave, federally funded child care, a federal benefit for stay-at-home mothers, federally funded (and even federally operated) pre-K, and plenty more expansions of the state into the lives of parents and kids. Two of the ideas undergirding these efforts are correct: The market itself doesn’t account for the costs and difficulties of being a parent; and raising a child without help is very difficult, even for married parents with income. If you read “Family Fun Pack,” you come away asking, “How does anyone manage to raise a family without already being rich?” Then you remember: community. Extended family, neighbors, parishes, shuls, civic associations, dinner clubs, swim clubs, and so on. These institutions help families keep their stuff together, help mothers and fathers stay sane, help new parents navigate the daunting path of parenthood.
Carney finishes up by lamenting that “more and more of us live in an alienated landscape” and “when the choice appears to be between getting screwed over and getting socialism, it’s not a hard call… The less we’re connected to one another via community institutions, and the more isolated we are, the more we grasp for something big to protect us. For young Americans, that’s often the state.”
It would seem then, that in the absence of strong supportive communities that can make it possible to raise children if you’re not rich, the proposals of the Family Fun Pack are necessary. And since Carney says that many young people don’t have these communities, it’s perfectly rational for them to become socialists. He doesn’t offer an alternative, just laments that things have come to this.
Carney’s essay shouldn’t really have been included in the issue, because it’s not really a case against socialism. I like it, because it’s quite honest in admitting the shortcomings of individualist free-market ideology, acknowledging that Marxist concepts are useful, and declining to argue against Matt Bruenig’s sound and rational proposals for improving the social safety net. Socialism is a fair response to existing conditions, and a decent attempt to fill the void left by individualism. I’m sold.
11. Deirdre McCloskey — Socialism For The Young At Heart
McCloskey’s is the most patronizing essay in the bunch, beginning with the old cliche about how if you’re not a socialist when you’re young you’re heartless and if you’re not a conservative when you’re old you’re brainless. McCloskey cites the well-known stories of those who have abandoned youthful socialism. George Orwell inconveniently never renounced it, so McCloskey concludes that “had he survived tuberculosis and seen more of the animal farm of the USSR” he probably would have stopped being a socialist. Personally, I don’t think Orwell needed any more education on the realities of Soviet life. He didn’t shed his socialist faith because he was intelligent enough to understand that you can criticize both capitalism and authoritarian communism simultaneously, that we do not face a binary choice between the miseries of our system and the horrors of theirs, because we can hold out hope for a world that does not have preventable misery and horror in it at all.
McCloskey repeats the same fallacious argument that others do:
The parts of a “mixed” economy that work are the free parts, the Chinese shops and factories as against the state enterprises and the glorious vanity projects of the same state. In the U.S., the private clinics for cosmetic procedures work pretty well. The VA hospitals, one of many socialized parts of U.S. medicine, do not.
Again, you cannot reach this kind of conclusion on the basis of this kind of evidence. If you’re going to argue that public hospitals are worse than private hospitals, you need data. If you’re going to argue that public universities, and state enterprises, and social wealth funds, cannot succeed, then you need to actually look at whether that’s true, not just cite “a thing that works in the private sector” and “a thing that doesn’t work in the public sector” and treat the case as closed. “Look at Amtrak!” they’ll say. “Public rail is slow and creaky. That’s what bureaucracy gets you.” But hang on, what about France’s state-owned TGV? What about China’s high-speed rail network? “Oh, well, [insert anecdote about a problem that one of these systems has, use it to conclude that the public sector is unsalvageable.]”
Like O’Sullivan, McCloskey spends less time arguing against socialists’ policy proposals than declaiming on the cause of their ideological illness. She offers two reasons why socialism is “so very often [a young person’s] first love.” Number one:
When an adolescent in a free society discovers that there are poor people, her generous impulse is to bring everyone into a family of 330 million members. She would not have this impulse if raised in an unfree society, whether aristocratic or totalitarian, in which hierarchy has been naturalized. Aristotle, the tutor of aristocrats, said that some people are slaves by nature. And Napoleon the commissar/pig said, All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. The literary critic Tzvetan Todorov reports that Margarete Buber-Neumann (Martin Buber’s daughter-in-law), “a sharp-eyed observer of Soviet realities in the 1930s, was astonished to discover that the holiday resorts for ministry employees were divided into no less than five different levels of ‘luxury’ for the different ranks of the [Communist] bureaucratic hierarchy. A few years later she found such social stratification reproduced in her prison camp.”
And Number Two:
[A]s the economist Laurence Iannaccone argues, the more complex an economy becomes, and the further people are, down astonishingly long supply chains, from working with direct fruits, the less obvious are the rewards of their labor. To a person embedded in a large company, and still more to someone in a government office, nothing seems really to matter. Consult the comic strip Dilbert. By contrast, a person, even an 18-year-old person, who works on a subsistence farm has no trouble seeing the connection between effort and reward. Saint Paul of Tarsus had no trouble seeing it in the little economy of Thessalonian Christians: “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” Such rules are the only way in anything but a highly disciplined or greatly loving small group to get a large pizza made.
Not sure I understand any of this, but I’m an unsophisticated thinker. I prefer explanations like “because they look around at the world and see how so many people work hard all their lives and end up with nothing, while other people inherit fortunes.” But maybe it’s to do with supply chains.
12. Theodore Dalrymple — Preserved In Their Poverty: Socialism Destroys The Human Character
Dalrymple, to his credit, has read a thing by a socialist: Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” He quotes some of Wilde’s more ridiculous passages about how well a human being will flourish in a socialist society, such as:
It will be a marvellous thing—the true personality of man—when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flower-like, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything.
Dalrymple scoffs: “It seems to me astonishing that anyone could believe such drivel, let alone a man as intellectually gifted as Wilde.”Alright, yes, it’s silly. But Oscar Wilde wrote literature, not economics, and his essay is best thought of as a challenge to think about what it would really mean for people to reach their full potential, and the conditions it would require for that to happen. “The Soul of Man” contains a lot that is zany and I doubt anyone will find themselves agreeing with all points, but it’s the sort of brilliantly wrong essay that is worth reading and arguing about. Orwell himself said as much, arguing that while some of the more outlandish passages “make for painful reading” “sometimes seem ‘dated’ and ridiculous,” utopian dreamers like Wilde can “remind the Socialist movement of its original, half-forgotten objective of human brotherhood.”
Dalrymple argues that when he worked as a doctor among London’s poor, he saw a kind of unrestrained libertinism that Wilde would have endorsed, and it was socially corrosive. The welfare state and an erosion of traditional morals produced a population trapped in a cycle of poverty. I am not going to attempt to refute this part, because there is nothing to refute. Dalrymple says he saw jealousy, violence, and dependency among the underclass, and environment in which “man was not so much a wolf as a sexual predator to man.” I do not doubt that Dalrymple saw what he saw, but causal claims in social science require some evidence. While Dalrymple speculates on a link between socialist values and what he sees as behavioral dysfunction among the poor, he backs it up with nothing except assertion plus sneers.
There is one more passage in his article worth quoting, though:
Socialism is not only, or even principally, an economic doctrine: It is a revolt against human nature. It refuses to believe that man is a fallen creature and seeks to improve him by making all equal one to another. It is not surprising that the development of the New Man was the ultimate goal of Communist tyrannies, the older version of man being so imperfect and even despicable. But such futile and reprehensible dreams, notwithstanding the disastrous results when they were taken seriously by ruthless men in power, are far from alien to current generations of intellectuals. Man, knowing himself to be imperfect, will continue to dream of, and believe in, schemes not merely of improvement here and there but of perfection, of a life so perfectly organized that everyone will be happy, kind, decent, and selfless without any effort at all. Illusion springs eternal, especially among intellectuals.
Now, this part has a bit of truth to it. Socialism is not principally an economic doctrine, and I’ve suggested that the best way to understand it is as the set of principles that arise from feelings of solidarity. But it is not a “revolt against human nature.” We simply have a difference of opinion on what “human nature” means and what it allows to be possible. We believe human beings can be a cooperative species and do not see our fellow creatures as helplessly “fallen” (or rather, if they’ve fallen, it’s our job to extend a hand and get them back up.) It’s true, we like to daydream about everyone being happy, kind, and decent, perhaps because we know so many people who fit the description and we find it easy to imagine the ethos spreading further. But we’re also realistic: We are not focused on mashing our fellow people into a vision of the New Human Being, but on achieving concrete goals that will materially improve people’s lives. I’m a utopian by twilight, but during the day I’m a practical sort, and so are the other lefties I know. Their goals are actually so modest that it’s remarkable they’re so controversial: a good standard of living for all, freedom from exploitation and abuse, democracy in the workplace, a culture of mutual aid and compassion. Can we not manage these things? We can’t really be that fallen.
13. Kyle Smith — The First Socialist
Smith’s brief article is a broadside against “the first socialist,” who turns out to be Plato. Plato believed in rule by a “class of the professionally wise” and “wanted a communal feeling to be society’s permanent mode of thinking.” Smith points out that the ideal society depicted in Plato’s Republic would be undesirable in many ways. I cannot disagree, though I always rather liked the part about exiling poets.
Smith also peppers his writing with jokes and cheekiness. For example:
Try imagining everything [Bernie] Sanders says in Grandpa Simpson’s voice, especially when he’s railing against the variety of deodorants or shouting that there were banks in post offices half a century ago. It works.
How to respond? Fine, Bernie Sanders is old, and Platonist literalism is a poor political philosophy. I see nothing more to say in response to Smith.
We have reached the end of the “Against Socialism” issue. Has there been close engagement with the writings of the contemporary socialists it is supposedly criticizing? There has not. Have we seen why the manifesto of Corbyn’s Labour and domestic proposals for single-payer healthcare, free college, and a Green New Deal are bad ideas? We have not. In fact, while the National Review has not defined what it means by “socialism,” most of its writers seem to mean “the abolition of money” and proceed to argue that abolishing money would be unwise. Charles Cooke told us that democracy does not mean putting everything up to a vote, and then asserted that the free market is democracy, and closed his case. Shawn Regan showed us that the Soviet Union polluted, while Andrew Stuttaford showed us that the British economy of the ’70s was doing somewhat worse than other economies, many of which were not doing well. We learned that Oscar Wilde and Plato should not be formulating U.S. macroeconomic policy. We were told that we are envious and childish.
But we were not proved wrong. In fact, the sole writer who spent time engaging with 21st century socialists found them downright reasonable, and couldn’t really come up with a good alternative except to hope for more “community,” which we do too. I hope that when the other writers stop slinging pejoratives and shouting “Venezuela,” they too will shed their youthful free market naïveté and join the international proletarian movement. I am not optimistic. More open-minded individuals, however, will surely read the “Against Socialism” issue and be convinced once and for all that the left is right.
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