Patterico's Pontifications


The Hidden Bad Assumptions in Socialist Thought

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 7:44 am

Yesterday’s episode of Russ Roberts’s Econ Talk podcast — the topic was the failure of socialist thought — was a perfect example of the type of discussion I love to listen to. The discussion was intelligent and non-polemical, and gave a fair hearing to the arguments of those who argue for collectivism. However, it ultimately refuted those arguments with an intelligent probing of the poor assumptions underlying the argument.

I thought I would give a brief summary of one exchange that I found revealing, and provide a link to the discussion for those interested in listening to the whole thing. (Or reading it, as there is a transcript at the link.)

The guest, James Otteson, was promoting a book called The End of Socialism. Otteson says that, while few today boast of being actual socialists, there is a significant strain of thought out there that is socialist-inclined. By that he means that many favor centralized solutions to decentralized ones. Otteson notes the philosophy of Adam Smith, who believed that people are primarily self-centered, but engage in transactions that benefit others — for the purpose of benefitting themselves. Otteson contrasts that with the philosophy of G.A. Cohen, a Marxist, who believes that people should act on behalf of others simply because others need it, and it’s the right thing to do.

Russ Roberts played Devil’s Advocate: why not socialism? More specifically, he asked, what is wrong with Cohen’s philosophy of doing things for other people simply because they need those things done? Otteson replies that when this principle hardens into a rule, it actually places the needy person in a superior position — because now they can demand the property or services of the person who possesses what is needed. For example, say I am a plumber and you have a leak. Under Cohen’s theory, I should be required to fix your leak, because you need it, and I can do it. But that places you in a superior position, because now you can demand that I fix the leak. I have a limited amount of time, and you are now placed in a position in which you can require me to give you some of that time. That takes away my moral agency.

But why not assign such functions to, say, a federal government? Well, Otteson says, for one thing, there is a hidden assumption in assigning the federal government to improve people’s lives: the assumption that it can. Improving people’s lives depends upon knowledge of what they need to live fuller lives, and that knowledge is typically available on a local level — which is a major reason that he prefers decentralization to centralization.

Coincidentally, I am in the middle of Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, which bears directly on this discussion. Sowell divides political (and other) philosophies into “constrained” and “unconstrained” branches. The argument is beyond the scope of this post — and also, not having read the whole book, I am reluctant to summarize its conclusions — but suffice it to say that (from what I have read so far) Smith is “constrained” and G.A. Cohen is “unconstrained.”

There’s other great stuff in the podcast, like Otteson’s debunking of Cohen’s seemingly persuasive (on its face) parable of the communal spirit of a camping trip, and the lessons we should learn from that. But now, I think, I will let Otteson speak for himself. Here is the link to Roberts’s podcast. Read through the transcript, at least, and think about the excellent points that are made. It’s better than getting spun up about the latest outrage of the day.

21 Responses to “The Hidden Bad Assumptions in Socialist Thought”

  1. And now, I should write a short post about the latest outrage of the day. What is that, anyway?

    Patterico (9c670f)

  2. When My Liberal Relatives “accuse” me of being a Republican, because I criticize the failed programs of this regime, I always say that it’s not Obama that’s the problem–the GOP could not do a better job of organizing each one of our schools, our health care, our energy use. For heaven’s sakes, the feds cannot even win wars any more; why would we think they could make us healthy and happy?

    The socialist dream…it’s a fatal conceit that any party or any president could take over our lives and make them better. I’m a Hayekian, not a Republican.

    Patricia (5fc097)

  3. By coincidence, I was reading this:

    Idealism! Throughout history, some men had sought the ideal, and most had called it freedom. Only fools expected absolute freedom, but wise men dreamed up many systems of relative freedom, including democracy. They had tried that in America, as the last fling of the dream. It had been a good attempt, too.

    The men who drew the Constitution had been pretty practical dreamers. They came to their task after a bitter war and a worse period of wild chaos, and they had learned where idealism stopped and idiocy began. They set up a republic with all the elements of democracy that they considered safe. It had worked well enough to make America the number one power of the world. But the men who followed the framers of the new plan were a different sort, without the knowledge of practical limits.

    The privileges their ancestors had earned in blood and care became automatic rights. Practical men tried to explain that there were no such rights—that each generation had to pay for its rights with responsibility. That kind of talk didn’t get far. People wanted to hear about rights, not about duties.

    They took the phrase that all men were created equal and left out the implied kicker that equality was in the sight of God and before the law. They wanted an equality with the greatest men without giving up their drive toward mediocrity, and they meant to have it. In a way, they got it.

    They got the vote extended to everyone. The man on subsidy or public dole could vote to demand more. The man who read of nothing beyond sex crimes could vote on the great political issues of the world. No ability was needed for his vote. In fact, he was assured that voting alone was enough to make him a fine and noble citizen. He loved that, if he bothered to vote at all that year. He became a great man by listing his unthought, hungry desire for someone to take care of him without responsibility. So he went out and voted for the man who promised him most, or who looked most like what his limited dreams felt to be a father image or son image or hero image. He never bothered later to see how the men he’d elected had handled the jobs he had given them.

    nk (dbc370)

  4. Speaking of people not identifying as socialists, there’s a sizable amount of people out there that believe Obama is a centrist…notably because they define what they want as “left” and what they don’t want as “right”. Thus, because they only like half the things Obama does, he is determined to be a centrist.

    Also, speaking of the “left” vs “right” political scale, it seems to me that the political scales I’ve seen tend to be based on European models of government, which practically take nothing about the size and scope of government into account.

    Dejectedhead (ec3741)

  5. Camping trips – if there are bears, bring a slow friend.

    SarahW (267b14)

  6. Thank you for the diversion. We have real problems that the news could cover if the LHMFM wanted to. But they seem intent on exploring the alternate reality of progressive class warfare bulwarked by incessant fantasies about America’s dark side. The hour spent listening to Roberts and Otteson was well spent and uplifting.

    I heard an interesting comment on talk radio about all the fraudulent rape allegations. The idea was that all the little children we send to our elite colleges have had no real experience with the real world. They are forced to submit to the dark visions of their Marxist instructors who have replaced the old Western Civilization core with pure propaganda, and it doesn’t make sense to them. But being unaware of the real world, they have no means of rejecting the balooney. They basically fall in a state of paranoia and then their imagination takes over creating situations that validate the crap they’ve been force-fed. These delusions are probably with them the rest of their lives. Good Democrats and Gruber-stupid all.

    bobathome (348c8a)

  7. Sorry this is long, but it has struck a cord.

    I find that the essence of socialist thought is cargo-cult mentality. During WWII Pacific islanders were struck by the vast amount of stuff: food, medicine, equipment, that was brought in by airplane and boats. They assumed, incorrectly, that the source of these goods was the rituals practiced by the soldiers – building and air field or dock, talking on the radio. So they would attempt to constuct these things for themselves, and ponder the fact that they did not work. No magic cargo appeared.

    Or to put in in physics terms, correlation is causation.

    In the same way liberals notice that middle class people often are home owners, and that home ownership amoung the poor is low. Ergo, the way to make more poor people middle class is to increase the levels of home ownership by forcing banks to loan money to people who can’t pay it back. They notice that middle class people are often college educated. Ergo there must be more student loans to allow poor people to go to college, smothering them in debt. They notice that middle class people have access to health care, ergo, we make a system of free health care for the poor will make them middle class. They notice that poor people get paid less than middle class people, ergo we must mandate an increase in their wages to middle class levels.

    What they don’t ever seem to realize is the middle class is middle class because they aquired certain behaviors and skills that allow them to be middle class. Like saving for the future. Being eager to work. Creating value. Studying. Investing. The big secret of many of the poor is that they are poor for very good reasons – they have few marketable skills, make bad life decisions, have broken homes, drug use, and other questionable habits. Liberals assume these side problems are because of poverty, when in fact those things cause poverty. They mix up cause and effect.

    Back to the Pacific Islanders – they can (and sometimes now do) have all the things western culture can provide, however, it required them to make substantial changes in how they think, and how their culture is organized. Unfortunately liberals are commited to diversity, to the salad bowl not the melting pot, to all cultures being equal. Because of this nothing is ever going to change – and they are going to be sitting by the empty airfield waiting for the plane to land in perpetuity.

    Want to help the poor? Forget about college, home ownership, minimum wage, Obamacare, and all that crap. Gear all the schools in poor neighborhoods to one goal – building a generation of people that knows how to work, how to create value. Teach them auto repair, plumbing, carpentry. Teach them entreprenureal skills, banking, accouting, time management, money mangement. Teach them how to save and invest. Teach them consumer survival skills. Teach them how to cook and eat on a budget. Teach them health skills, excecise and good nutrition. Teach them the culture and habits of middle class people, and they will over time become middle class people.

    Look at our current hot topic, Eric Garner. Fat, out of shape, selling loose cigarettes to make a buck to get by. Any suprise he died at an early age? If he in fact had died of a heart failure, or got shot in a drive by, overdosed, or was mudered by a family member, would we have been at all surprised? I would say his death was in fact planned and carried out years ago – it was a direct consequence of his culture, his own decisions and the behaviors he was taught. He was fit for nothing else in life but to die like a dog in the street. Reforming the police won’t save the next Eric Garner. More welfare programs won’t save the next Eric Garner. Less racism won’t save the enxt Eric Garner. Speeches and marches won’t save the next Eric Garner. All the solutions that liberals propose won’t make a bit of difference – they have all been tried a thousand times before and failed. I say this a person who has worked with the poor in the past – it is astonishing how much of their financial ruin is do to the lack of basic marketable skills and bad behavior. We talk about college and home ownership, when what they need are basic classes on child rearing, car repair, banking, etc.

    The good news is all of this stuff is relatively cheap to implement – much cheaper than what we have been doing. The bad news is it requires a lot of hard work on everyone’s part. You need to implement Outward Bound for whole neighborhoods and cities. Changing cultures is difficult and painful to accomplish. Unfortunately liberals are far to invested in their failed ideas to ever try something different.

    Tennhauser (8c487b)

  8. many favor centralized solutions to decentralized ones

    but not me no sir

    I’m an american

    happyfeet (831175)

  9. They did once have vocational schools so the poor could acquire the skills that could move them forward. The activists came along and decided everyone needed to go to college. Now, of course, a good mechanic or plumber, is hard to find and often make more than the college educated barristers who are handing them their morning coffee.

    Mike Giles (b8b724)

  10. Exactly right. People decided that vocational training was somehow bad or racist. Again, many middle class people have college degrees, so making poor people middle class meant they must be forced into colleges to get degrees. Correlation is always causation to a liberal. It never occurred to them that the middle class have degrees because they started with middle class behaviors and attitudes.

    Griggs vs Duke Power was the worst decision for the poor imaginable. It basically set all sorts of limits on how and why a prospective employee could be tested to qualify for a position. Many companies simply said screw it, and required a college degree as a condition of employment. Since colleges can test all they want, that meant they would get vetted employees. Of course since a college degree costs money and time, that immediately excluded the poor from many jobs they used to fill. jobs that resulted in upward mobility.

    Tennhauser (3baff2)

  11. Let it suffice..

    DNF (7b206c)

  12. 7. A sound argument. Delayed gratification does not appear incultcated by nurture.

    DNF (7b206c)

  13. Tennhauser, I agree with most of what you say. However, the libs have a bizarre obsession with Equality, and this is, IMO, the basis for their efforts to give to the poor all that the middle class possesses. They do not believe that college, housing, etc will turn the poor into the middle class. Well, maybe some do. But that’s not the point. The point is that things must be made equal. If that cannot be done by enriching the poor, then it must be done be impoverishing the rich. Both, preferably. It is why they care a lot more about equality of outcome than equality of opportunity. Unequal outcomes are always interpreted as evidence of discrimination, never as evidence that the poor dears might be contributing to their own poverty.

    Cornfed (03f1d2)

  14. My latest debate point: When called to explain the excesses of Socialism within the last century, the socialist will always insist that the argument is unfair and dishonest… but ask the same socialist if they support nuclear energy. “Why no! Fukushima! Three Mile Island! Chernobyl!”They will accede, grudgingly, that the technology SHOULD work… but human nature and error demand that we abandon the concept, because, something BAD “could happen”. So, disaster and loss of life in three working reactors justifies a total dismissal of nuclear energy… but repeated mass homicide and failure by socialist governments merits a “do-over”.

    sixgunsam (2ee618)

  15. 13. …However, the libs have a bizarre obsession with Equality…

    Cornfed (03f1d2) — 12/10/2014 @ 8:55 pm

    It’s not really bizarre when you understand that libs have an obsession with empowering and enriching themselves.

    Since they have nothing to offer anyone in a free market, the only way they can empower themselves is to put themselves in charge of the equitable distribution of outcomes. And since no one is likely to put them in power of the equitable distribution of outcomes based upon an honest understanding of what’s really driving the liberal train, libs have to pretend to care about other people. The “oppressed.”

    Which is why today we have bureaucrats in DC living in million dollar homes making six figure salaries while the rest of America is bled dry. And also why party apparatchiks would cruise down the Zhil lanes of Moscow in their chauffeured cars on the way to their dachas, past average Russians waiting in bread lines. And why NORK party bosses have Mercedes Benzes and cell phones while NORK peasants have grass and bark soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

    You get the point.

    The title of one of Obama’s autobiographies, The Audacity of Hope, was taken from Rev. Wright’s sermon denouncing the “white man’s greed driving a world in need.” He denounced those rich white people seeing the Caribbean on cruises ships, eating and drinking to excess and throwing away tons of food, as poor black children starved in Haiti. It apparently made an impression. Barack Obama denounces the greed of the “one percent” who won’t pay “their fair share” and proposes “spreading the wealth” which is good for all of us.

    Those evil rich don’t need those homes in the Hamptons and those private jets and those exotic vacations. At some point, observed Obama, you’ve made enough money. And he knows what that point is.

    Which is why, unlike the evil one percent, Barack Obama deserves his private jets and his motorcades and his family’s expensive vacations to Martha’s Vineyard and to the Costa del Sol of Spain. Because he cares!

    Steve57 (1985cb)

  16. That was going the long way around the barn.

    The simple fact is that when liberals can lie and intimidate and bribe and cheat their way into the position of dispensing outcomes in the name of egalitarianism, then they will also be in the position to ensure that the well-compensated management and staff of the Ministry of Equitable Outcomes will be way, way more equal than all the rest of the pigs.

    When you realize that, their obsession with equality of outcomes isn’t so bizarre.

    Steve57 (1985cb)

  17. This is the meaning of the assertion that socialism is slavery. This observation is old, as old as socialism. The only way for socialists (and the left, including the Democratic party, is socialist) is to avoid following the implications of need and the socialist conception of “rights” as claims based on need and provisioned by the state. So they do so–they avoid reason, and remain at the stratospheric level of expressions of love of mankind, never allowing themselves to see, and denying it when others point out, the slavery that must result.

    David (20ff90)

  18. “….and remain at the stratospheric level of expressions of love of mankind, “

    That’s putting it mildly, David. They are completely incapable of seeing the slavery, corruption, misery, deprivation, incarceration, torture and murder their political and economic philosophy demands in order to survive. Then again, without their willful ignorance they couldn’t be leftists.

    Hoagie (4dfb34)

  19. Excellent article and responses. I’m listening to the podcast now. I especially like Tennhauser’s reply and Cornfed’s addendum. In fairness, all of the responses were very good.

    Rob (65f300)

  20. Elie Halevy had some interesting thoughts on the origins of “the right to assistance” in his Origins of Philosophical Radicalism. My gist of it is that it grew both out of the history of poor assistance in England in concert with the interventionist side of utilitarianism.

    teapartydoc (fa1ff2)

  21. I was at a high school concert the other day, and the principal announced that the High School was the most diverse in the state. A subtantial portion of the crowd applauded that line. Now, I’m not opposed to diversity, I just don’t understand why it is considered to be always “good”. Diversity, like many things, can have both good and bad elements. It certinyl createslots of tangible challenges, while the benefits seem to be pretty vague.

    Also, the incoherence of the left says that Diversity and Equality are both desirable outcomes, but fails to notice they in fact are opposites. More equality = less diversity.

    This same is true for most of their beliefs – they cannot parse out correlation with causation, cause and effect, things that are in fact opposites. Actions and consequences.

    Tennhauser (ee4be9)

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