The Opposition To Socialism In Modern America
By David Metcalfe
February 7, 2019
It may seem odd that, in a world with more than enough food, clean water, and shelter for every person on earth, billions of people are forced to go without them. It may be even more odd, to the point of quite troubling, to know that there are many people who think it is a good thing for some people to have vast mansions, private planes, even entire islands, while others have to live in squalor conditions and struggle to survive.
Socialism is an economic and social system that seeks to alleviate the unnecessary suffering of the poor by providing them with essential resources and services to meet their needs. It does this through establishing an economic system where money is allocated, not to individuals to be spent on lavish excess, but to a collective to be spent on meeting the needs of its people.
Socialism had a bad reputation for many years, since it was taken on by certain authoritarian regimes in the 20th century, all of which performed miserably. Its reputation in recent years has soared dramatically, as the Nordic countries, who adopted a form of market, socialist democracy, continually rank at the top for almost every measure of quality of life, from life expectancy to overall happiness to personal freedom to crime and so on. With America’s increasing disparity between rich and poor, and declining quality of life, many Americans are reconsidering capitalism and looking towards incorporating more socialism. This movement is gaining significant traction, especially among millennials and Gen Z.
With so much going in socialism’s favor, one may wonder how any modern person could be in opposition to it. The point of this article is to discuss those types of opposition, in the hopes of improving understanding among Americans figuring things out for themselves, and engaging with others on these issues.
The Types of Opposition
There are three types of opposition to socialism; the first two are to be rid of and only the third is to be promoted and engaged. These three are: stupidity, sociopathy, and educated rationality.
To be clear, I want to differentiate between ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance is simply a lack of knowledge of something. Even the most intelligent and wise people in the world lack knowledge of a great many things. But in ignorance alone, no assertion is made. Stupidity, however, makes huge, bold claims based on ignorance. If I didn’t know anything about medicine, for example, I would be ignorant but wise to take someone to the hospital when they have appendicitis. It would be stupidity if I attempted to do the surgery myself with no knowledge of what I’m doing. Stupidity, we might say, is ignorance in action.
If I was interested in teaching people why socialism cannot be used as a blanket statement to account for the problems of Stalinism and Maoism, I would become a 7th grade social studies teacher. Seeing as I am not interested in teaching 7th graders, I wonder why I end up having to teach grown adults things they could have learned from their 7th grade textbook (or even a 30 second skim of a Wikipedia article). Some common evidence of insufficiencies in basic education can be found in oft said statements such as:
“Socialism weakens the middle class”, “Socialism caused the deaths of millions of innocent people”, “Socialism is antagonistic to personal freedom”, and others.
If it was only a small, obscure group of people who made these statements, I wouldn’t concern myself with the issue (I don’t waste my time arguing “flat-earthers”, for example). But we have a President who says these things, and a massive number of politicians and lay people. Academics, of course, even those who support capitalism, do not make these sorts of statements.
There are so many problems with these statements, I can’t spend time addressing them all. What I will say is that complexity necessitates specificity and nuance. “Socialism” is an incredibly complex ideology, and takes an unlimited number of forms. It can broadly be defined as a more collective ownership or involvement in the means of production. But the kind of socialism discussed by Bernie Sanders is very different than the one by Stalin. The kind in Norway is very different than the one in Vietnam. The kind advocated by Marx is very different than the one advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. The list goes on…the point is, it takes a vast variety of forms, and thus, generalizations make for incorrect statements.
While those who fall in the “stupid” opposition to socialism often conflate Stalinism and Maoism with Marx and Sanders and MLK, etc., they also try to conflate Stalinism with the current Nordic model. This is quite hard to do with any semblance of logic, because Stalin’s Soviet Union committed mass atrocities and had poor quality of life for its citizens, but the Nordic countries boast the best quality of life in the world, by far. Trying to come up with an argument against the Nordic model is quite difficult, and requires a very creative kind of stupidity. The fact that Sweden has an unusually high prevalence of rape is often cited as a reason the Nordic model is wrong (how the hell that makes sense, I am not sure). Another is that the Nordic countries are on the brink of economic collapse, and are simply riding a false bubble of success for the time being. That belief requires no knowledge of economics whatsoever, since there is no data to support it.
The “stupid” opposition to socialism is one characterized similar to most opinions of insufficient education and intelligence: sweeping generalizations, simple assumptions on complex issues, and filled with bias.
While it is quite difficult to cure willful stupidity, a sufficient dose of humility and proper education can remedy it. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is a moral, humane problem, and its cure is a matter of the individual’s heart in relation to the people around them. It is a lack of empathy, and extends to a broad lack of understanding and kindness towards others. What is often said, among these people, are statements like,
“Survival of the fittest; who cares if the weak people die?”, “If you can’t contribute to the economy, you don’t deserve to be alive”, “Poor people are immoral and worthless”, and others.
Sociopathy, in many ways, overlaps with stupidity in such statements as, “Rich people work harder than poor people” or “It doesn’t matter where you come from, everyone has an equal shot at success”.
What these display is a lack of caring for the well being of others, as well as a type of ignorance about the struggles that disadvantaged people go through. If a CEO makes 10 million dollars per year, and a single mom makes 10 thousand dollars per year, is the CEO working one thousand times harder? If someone is born to parents who are drug addicted and abusive, do they have an equal chance at success as someone born in a wealthy, stable home?
The list goes on of questionable assertions on an intellectual level, but what is quite difficult to fathom is the disdain or “earned” superiority some people have towards those viewed as “lesser”. They see poor people not being able to have food and healthcare as a righteous state of existence. The kind of contempt I have for these sociopathic people is beyond what I care to engage with in any length; it is just terrible.
The only reasonable opposition to socialism is found in educated rationality. These are actual economists or educated lay people who have legitimate criticisms and concerns for the economic and social effects that socialism might have. They may say, for example, that the free market results in increased economic growth, and taxes create “dead weight” that slows growth. Or they may say that decreasing taxes for corporations allows them to hire more people and thus prove more beneficial to lower class people than welfare from tax dollars would be. These people are worth engaging with.
To qualify as an “educated rational”, one has to avoid both pitfalls of “stupidity” and “sociopathy”. In order to do this, it makes pure free market impossible. This is because a pure free market would allow people of any age to work at any rate of pay under any working conditions. To avoid sociopathy, they would have to allow the government (or at least some form of collective) to limit child labor, create minimum standards for working conditions, and guarantee a reasonable rate of pay for any work done. To avoid stupidity, they would have to recognize the fact that some incorporation of socialism has benefited society, both economically and socially (such as the obvious case of the Nordic model, but also things like post-Depression Keneysian economic regulation).
The “educated rational” would also avoid making sweeping generalizations and instead be very specific and nuanced on the aspect they are criticizing. They may say, for example, that the problem with adopting universal healthcare in America is that insurance companies would go out of business, and the amount of new government workers would be significantly less, thus leaving many people unemployed. This kind of criticism, if backed by proper research, said reasonably, and with humane intent, is a valid opinion, and one worth considering.
Many people who support capitalism and criticize socialism think they are “educated rationalists”, when they are clearly not. And there are many who have a kind of hybrid. They may have a certain set of data showing unemployment rates lowering as a result of lower government regulation. However, they then say that any government regulation in businesses decreases employment rate. That is beyond the data, shows evidence of bias, and begins to expand into an unfounded generalization.
Economic systems, in and of themselves, are not necessarily good or bad. They are judged on whether they serve their purpose. The purpose of economics is to provide people with the resources they need to live and thrive in the world, so that they can be free, happy, and fulfilled.
While authoritarian socialist command economy seems to have not served that purpose at all, capitalism has also not quite met the ideal. The “invisible hand” tends to give a lot to a very select few people and not much to the general masses. For this reason, the government has guided that hand to help create increased equality, both of opportunity, and to a lesser extent, outcome. Every developed nation has introduced some form of “welfare state”, where the government provides certain essential services and regulations for the benefit of its people. Where to draw the line on the amount of government involvement is a contentious issue among economists, politicians, and the people as a whole.
But a certain economic theory is not the enemy; stupidity and sociopathy is. Just as many capitalists today commit those fallacies, so too did the Soviet Union in their form of socialism. What Stalin said was ultimate truth, regardless of reason or evidence. Subsequent Soviet leaders reduced the extent, perhaps, but continued the unfortunate tradition. Americans today support socialism more than ever, but that doesn’t mean everyone who supports socialism goes about it as an “educated rationalist”.
While market, socialist democracy in the pursuit of a better quality of life for all people seems to be the most effective economic system that we currently have, it is not exact in its implementation, and there is still much to be figured out. Like heart surgery, we know it is a good and necessary thing, but its practice still needs to improve for optimal results. Economics is not a static ideal to be attained, but rather a dynamic theory to be constantly adapted with new information and application. Whether America can embrace this process with reason, evidence, and good will remains to be seen, but the young generations give me reason to be optimistic.