Democracy and Socialism

This goes out to my homie, Zack. I asked him "why you think I despise social democrats"?, and he replied:

You use socialism as a slur for any government program you don’t like regardless of whether that can be classified as socialist or not.

For another, witness your case for colonialism in India. You seem to believe that Indians would have had more liberty under British rule because there would have been less socialism. It sure sounds like you don’t consider the right to decide your own government to be part of liberty.

Let's define some terms, shall we? M-W has Socialism: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. Now, it is a given that essentially all real world socialism involves a state as the "government". Saying "government" is thus obfuscatory; all societies imaginable will "govern" at least some people (criminals, insane, incompetent). Saying "the state" makes it clear what is meant: that people will not be allowed to opt out of the communal ownership scheme. Thus, socialism is "the state ownership of the means of production".

I reserve the word "communism" for non-state collective ownership theories. Note that in the real world, another meaning of "communism" is: a form of socialism where only one political party is permitted (along with the ramifications of that, such as mass murder).

Also note that I class as "means of production" people. In pure socialism, everyone is owned by the state; if the state decides to sacrifice you for the greater good, so be it, you die. To the extent that the state can determine how you are used, they are asserting ownership of you. Thus, state invasions of personal liberty are a form of socialism.

Note that again I am talking about how *I* use the term, not necessarily how you do. I once got a conservative very mad going in these lines, since I lumped all sorts of his sacred cows (i.e., the draft) in with "socialism". He took very poorly to the idea that drafted soldiers are a species of slave. I offered to use "l-socialism" for the things we didn't agree on, but that didn't mollify him. He virtually stomped off in a rage.

Now, let's return to your statement:

You use socialism as a slur for any government program you don’t like regardless of whether that can be classified as socialist or not.
I don't like all state programs - I am an anarchist; the state should be abolished. And yes, they are all socialist, in the sense that they are being paid for by a defacto state ownership of my income. With no taxation, I would not object to many things the US government does. However, with no taxation, it would not be doing them.

We can imagine, though, a government that is completely voluntary. Not a state, then. It runs on money it is freely given, and provides various services using that money. For instance, it might give out money to poor people. This is just fine with me.

So, it is certainly possible to distinguish between various things a state does, in terms of are they necessarily rights-violating (hence, socialist), or are they 'only' rights-violating in the sense of paying for them? Clearly the latter things are "better" in some sense than the former. For example, rent controls are necessarily rights violating. They are, prima facie, an expropriation of the landlord. Doesn't matter how you pay for their enforcement. By contrast, welfare (handing out money that you happen to have) violates no right necessarily.

As for a being slur - yes, indeed. I view violating people's rights negatively. Therefore, a political theory that holds that people have no rights, I view as wrong, and put into practice, hurtful. Stalin's millions of victims cry out. Yes, it is definitely a slur to call something socialism. Socialism has earned it. Not only that, the rights violations continue to this day, and may yet destroy us all.

Now, regarding "the right to decide your own government"...

Sure, the right to determine your own government is a part of liberty. However I mean that "your" as individual, not collective. You, personally, have the right to determine how you, personally, are governed. So do I. So does every individual who has not aggressed against another.

But this is unrelated to elections. Collectives have no right to rule anyone who has not explicitly agreed to be ruled by them. Democracy and liberty are two entirely different things. What is "democracy"? again: "government by the people; especially: rule of the majority". Liberty? Well, it's not well defined at m-w for what we're talking about here (here's the link anyway). But I am taking liberty to mean, the state of being uncoerced by other people.

Now, what does it mean to be ruled "by the majority"? Well, the details of that vary with the voting system. What is clear, though, is that unless the majority never votes to violate any individual's rights, democracy will necessarily violate liberty. In fact, democracy in a state is a specific form of socialism wherein it is theorized that voters collectively own everything, via the state, and should vote on the uses of said property.

To the extent that democracy does effectively withhold people's rights from the voting mechanism, it is undemocratic. For example, the Bill of Rights is an undemocratic limitation on the Congress.

But as for despising social democrats... no, I just think they are wrong. But they are not obviously wrong (or else there would be few or none of them). Nazis and "communists" (both of them, species of socialists who believe only a single political party should be permitted) -- they are despicable. History, well attested and well accepted, shows they are wrong.

History has not spoken clearly on "social democracy", so it is unfair to despise its advocates. Yet.


Anonymous said...

Leonard, I don't know whether it's really possible to comment usefully on a post in which so many terms have been given private, nonstandard meanings. But I think that important errors are lurking somewhere in there.

Let''s take one example. You have redefined "socialism" to be disconnected from the historical use of the term. In Marxist theory, at least, socialism meant ownership of the "commanding heights" of productive capability, it never meant ownership of people. But you go on to explain (I think) that you consider actions within a capitalist country, such as rent controls, to be "necessarily rights-violating (hence, socialist)".

So you are really elaborating on a tautology here. You are an anarchist; of course you don't like any state regulation whether socialist or capitalist or democratic or whatever. If you wish to call all of these "I-socialist", you may, but that is exactly equivalent to the original claim that "You use socialism as a slur for any government program you don’t like regardless of whether that can be classified as socialist or not."

I don't think that your "I-socialism" really works as a tool of analysis. For instance, the consistent reason you give for preferring social democracy to single-party rule is that they permit multiple parties within the state. That makes social democrats, according to what I understand of your theory of "I-socialism", basically indistinguishable from liberals, conservatives, or any other political grouping that supports multiparty democracy along with taxation and a strong state of one type or another. I've observed that socialists do the same thing; they class liberals, libertarians, conservatives, social democrats, etc all as "neoliberals". That doesn't really help, unless you are looking for a convenient way to stigmatize everyone outside your group (of course, libertarian use of "statist" works the same way).

Lastly, your refusal to use the dictionary definition of "liberty" is telling. Liberty is not the state of being uncoerced by other people. It is impossible to live in a society without being coerced by other people. Liberty is the power to do as one pleases.

-- Rich Puchalsky

Charles Hueter said...

You have redefined "socialism" to be disconnected from the historical use of the term. In Marxist theory, at least, socialism meant ownership of the "commanding heights" of productive capability, it never meant ownership of people.

Who operates those commanding heights? Who repairs their facilities? Who builds the supporting infrastructure? Who is affected by employment policies? Who decides the quantity and quality of the output or that output's price? In order for productive capacity to be used, it must have the hands of humans on it. People can and will disagree on an infinite number of things and this includes seemingly silly things like, how many paper clips to produce over the next fiscal quarter. So the Planners faced the immediate problem: how do we get the refuseniks in society from the Bad Capitalist Here to the Good Socialist There? The honest among them admitted they'd have to use force and make individuals employ that productive capacity as the Planners/Community saw fit. The dishonest talked about enslaving a disembodied "capital," when capital is flatly worthless without individual people behind it.

Leonard said...

Rich, I tend to agree with Charles here. Also, be aware that I was laying out a blog post, not a fully argued thesis. Steps were skipped. Those responsible will be sacked.

To make a few more points explicit, first, I do not know all of "marxist theory" beyond an understanding that is was, on key points, very wrong. For example that the state would wither away under socialism, or that proletarians would awaken to their class-interest and not fight in wars of nationalism. I am not very interested in incorrect ideas of the ramifications of theory. What I want to know is, what is it really? If socialism necessarily entails initiation of state aggression against individuals, as I think it does, then it necessarily violates rights.

That is, contained in the rather innocuous sounding "state control of the means of production" is "state control of everything including people". My usage may well be disconnected from the "historical use of the term", especially by people who lived before the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and von Mises. However my definition is connected to the historical reality of the what the term entails. Therefore I claim it is a conceptually clear definition.

I also claim that the "commanding heights" idea of socialism is an unclear definition, since socialism when it grabs the "commanding heights" will tend to also grab everything else. This is not a necessicity, I don't think, but the socialist state has both the incentive and the power. The only limits on its predation will be self-imposed.

As for liberty, well, that one I will cop to a semi-private meaning for. I am well aware that all words that mean "leave me alone" have been coopted and redefined away from that, as a routine aspect of democratic politics. In this case, I *want* a word that means "the state of being uncoerced by other people"; some people use "freedom" but I think it has been even more coopted than "liberty". I am not completely happy with "liberty", but as it is the best word we've got, I am trying to take it back. Please use "power" if you mean power, and "liberty" when you mean "leave me alone".

I think that it is quite possible to live without being coerced by other people, unless you are talking as a practical matter of what the real world is, and not a philosophical matter of what the world must necessarily be.

Finally, on lumping people together: yes, certainly which terms you focus on will strongly influence how you see other political groups. I focus on "coercion" and "the state". Therefore I naturally "see" jumping out at me all of those who support coercion and the state. Nothing exciting there. And yes, they are in those terms indistinguishable from other political groups. Dirty statists!

Do this help? Well, I think so. It helps to point out certain political truths, for example, that politics is about coercion, no matter how good-willed the politician is. It suggests the truth that democracy is a form of socialism, which was largely the point of the original post, but which is not talked about much.

It also obscures real and dramatic differences. For example, "socialists" historically have been on the left, meaning, trying to tear down illegitimate power; whereas "conservatives" have been on the right, trying to sustain the status quo. I instinctively go with the socialists on this one. But part of the point with trying to see things fully as they are is to cut off this sort of instinctive reaction, so that your politics truly reflects your underlying desires and does not just respond to appearances.

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James said...

There are many forms of rental regulations which all get labelled as rent controls so one needs to get specific about what law they are talking about when they discuss so-called rent control laws.