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.