Socialism has been topical in the modern era with interest in it waxing and waning from year to year, decade to decade throughout the last two hundred years or so. Throughout the period, its meaning and understanding have been as fleeting among its proponents as among its detractors. The hope with this is to momentarily escape this problem and shed some light on it. These kinds of misunderstandings are to be expected for terms that are so technical and abstract. In the case of socialism, it can be understood why someone might want to avoid confusion by skipping the word altogether. Nevertheless, the word is in our popular lexicon and for that reason, attempting some clarity about the term may be worthwhile if not interesting. Saying something about what the word means will serve as a starting point for a broader discussion of some of the stronger objections to socialism.
Here’s the primary definition according to the Oxford English Dictionary:
[A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.]
This is a way of saying that socialism is a form of political argument in favor of sovereign citizens having a right to negotiate the nature and scope of the economy. Even though there are a wide variety of socialists, every socialist would argue the position that the economy should be the dominion of the citizenry and should, therefore, be subject to whichever forms of government the given population otherwise adheres to. In theory, this can lead to some unorthodox political combinations. So for example, if the society conforms to a monarchy then the monarch will control the economy on behalf of the people. Now every contemporary socialist would tell you that they would never approve of a monarchy, but that has more to do with the fact that almost all people living in advanced technological, industrial societies take for granted that citizens are capable of being more involved in political decision-making than a traditional monarchy would make use of. In a very different example of a political combination, the society might conform to direct democracy. In that case, people would vote on how various aspects of the economy would be organized. In most of the modern political models (essentially parliamentary democracies) the economy is governed on behalf of the citizens by elected officials, representatives, and a constitution.
Having a concept to contrast socialism with is useful for understanding it, the traditional concept that plays that role is capitalism. Here’s the primary definition, again from the Oxford English Dictionary:
[An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.]
Here, capitalism is also a kind of political argument in favor of creating legal property out of things that are necessary to produce goods and services, but otherwise exempting those things from the scope of political decision-making of the citizenry. A capitalist would argue that an individual has a right to exchange with others so as to benefit themselves in any way they see fit. They may also find the spontaneity and self-interest of market forces to be the best form of economy, but depending on who you talk to, it may be unclear which goals any economy should seek to attain.
Socialism is the underdog out of the two, but there are serious objections to it. The goal is to give some brief consideration to some of these objections, at risk of being not quite comprehensive or detailed enough. Perhaps the stronger objections should be discussed first.
1. Socialist countries have been tyrannical.
The most common examples pointed to are the Soviet Union and China, but occasionally people point to Nazi Germany as well. It’s actually fair to point to those countries as examples of tyranny as they have all behaved in tyrannical ways. It is, however, unexpectedly this distinction of tyranny which disqualifies the countries from being truly socialist in nature. If we take the definition of socialism seriously, then it implies that the economy is controlled by the public. However, if we are acknowledging the fact that the government is tyrannical, it implies that the public is not in control, hence the country isn’t really socialist, even if they have adopted the name or carry out a planned economy.
2. Socialism implies coercion.
This is the objection that if an individual disagrees with the economic policy, in a socialist society they are still forced under an implicit threat of violence to adhere to the policy. Pretty much all societies have laws that people disagree with, but there isn’t anything that explicitly prevents public discourse or voting under socialism.
3. Socialism makes people who work hard have to pay to support people who are too lazy to get jobs.
Everything about a socialist economy is negotiable. It’s the fact that the economy can be a part of politics that makes it socialist. There isn’t anything that prevents rewarding hard workers in a socialist society—or deciding to undertake policies aimed at deterring free-loaders for that matter.
4. Socialism produces worse outcomes (i.e. waiting longer for doctors, food shortages, inferior products).
Socialism has produced better health outcomes overall. People tend to live longer and there are lower infant mortality rates, to name a couple of key points. Anyone who’s curious about this point can look at the data and studies conducted by the World Health Organization and others. As for food shortages, they can happen in any kind of economy, but the interesting point is that there aren’t any advanced economies that don’t heavily regulate and control the food and agricultural industries. So, there really isn’t a decent non-socialist comparison to make there. Unlike the whims of self-interest and the impulsive use of resources that can occur in capitalist economies, socialism tends to have a pressure towards efficiency. The result is that there is pressure to produce products that are more durable, longer-lasting, and less wasteful. That’s why most of the best machine manufacturing today comes from places like Spain, Germany, and Scandinavia.
5. Socialism will lead to widespread poverty.
Some people believe that resources and wealth are so scarce that if there were a much more equitable distribution of those things it would draw many more people into poverty. Other people have argued that poverty or at least extreme poverty could be completely eliminated if wealth were more equal. This is a technical argument when considered on a global scale and it’s beyond the scope of this article to treat the issue in detail. However, trying to make sense of the scale of inequality is something that crunching numbers can help to get a handle on when the imagination tends to fail to grasp the comparisons of wealth among people.
6. Socialism encourages talent and innovation to relocate to more profitable places.
This is the idea that people are only motivated to live where they can maximize how rich they are comparatively. That’s questionable, but it also assumes that socialism cannot provide creative and technological flourishing. Smart and talented people will often seek to work where they find the most opportunity to control what they work on. Socialism tends to emphasize worker autonomy, whereas capitalism emphasizes worker profitability. Many of the technological innovations of the 20th and 21st century were made under government directed research and funding. The internet, airplanes, phones and many other things wouldn’t have happened without economic planning.
7. Socialism has never worked.
If we accept the dictionary definition that was stated at the outset, it should be fairly obvious that this simply isn’t true. Most economies are mixed economies, where “mixed” means mixed with socialism. It matters what kind of government structure is in place, much more so than the fact that the economy is subject to political disagreement and policy.
There will remain strong arguments against socialism as long as there is disagreement about it. There are some very worthwhile rebuttals as well. While this hasn’t been a comprehensive review of all of the potential arguments against socialism, it has served to demonstrate that much of the disagreement is rooted in misunderstanding. While socialism seeks to include the economy in political decision-making, capitalism seeks to limit the political power of the citizenry in this domain.
There is no harm in trying to reconstruct arguments in good faith and giving them some honest consideration. The benefit of trying to do that will be limited by the exposure that a person has to unfamiliar points. Nevertheless, being open to arguments that may not seem naturally attractive, is as crucial an aspect of attempting to make sense of what other people think about the world as it is for making sense of what you think about it.