People are once again yammering about “socialism,” and the talking heads have taken it up as a pointed stick to try to poke politicians with. I thought it might be worth clarifying a few things.

Let’s talk about three things.

  • The Rules
  • The Power
  • The Money

The Rules

There are two extremes of rules. At one end is totalitarianism, and at the other is liberalism.

Totalitarianism can be pithily described as “Whatever is not mandatory, is forbidden.” Under totalitarian rule, every human act is implicitly either compulsory or disallowed. We think of totalitarian rule as being something like the former Soviet Union, or Communist China. But the communal religious life in some of the Catholic Orders is even more totalitarian, specifying exactly when the monks rise and when they sleep, what they eat and drink, what they wear, how they may and may not pray during a given religious season, whether they can speak and under what conditions, every aspect of their sexual activity, and in some cases, even tight governance of their stray private thoughts (though this is admittedly hard to enforce).

Liberalism (in the extreme) can be pithily described as “Whatever.” It is the ultimate in personal choice in all things from Coke or Pepsi, to whether to kill your neighbor and eat him. When people talk about their “right to personal choice,” they are espousing liberalism.

The Power

There are two extremes of power, meaning (in this context) power-to-coerce. At one end is autocracy. At the other is anarchy.

In an autocracy, there is one leader who rules, who cannot be coerced by anyone; in turn, he can coerce anyone. We commonly call this an absolute dictatorship.

A representative democracy periodically elects a cadre of representatives who codify coercive laws.

A popular democracy would allow citizens to codify coercive laws by direct referendum.

In anarchy, no one can coerce anyone.

The Money

“Money” implies a certain kind of economy, known as a “monetary exchange economy.” There are other kinds of economy, such as (for example) a “gift” economy, in which there is no money; instead, there are less quantifiable but equally binding exchanges of trust and obligation — one can think of the exchange of “favors” with a Mafia Don.

In a monetary exchange economy, there are two extremes. At one end is Capitalism. At the other is Socialism.

Capitalism is marked by the private accumulation of money, which is a proxy for “capital,” meaning something of exchange value. It can be pithily described as “The rich get richer.”

Socialism is marked by redistribution of money, and can be pithily described as “From each according to ability, to each according to need.”

Putting Them Together

You can’t talk about the “form of government” a nation has without talking about (at least) all three of these, and there is nothing that prevents us from mixing them in any combinations we like. We can have a totalitarian anarchic capitalism*. We can have a liberal autocratic socialism**. These three independent axes form a three-dimensional cube, and a particular society can be anywhere inside that cube.

When someone declares “Socialism is bad, Capitalism is good,” it betrays a serious (and probably unteachable) ignorance.

Socialism is the natural way of managing wealth in a healthy family. The adults work to procure food, and the infants and small children get fed for filling diapers: from each, according to ability (adults), to each according to need (small children). Parents understand this more-or-less instinctively. In an efficient Capitalist family system, the infants would have to find some way of contributing to the quarterly wealth-growth of the family (e.g. Golden Poo), or they will be fired (abandoned) or processed for raw material value (eaten). In an enlightened Capitalist family system, the unproductiveness of infants would be written off as “speculative investment,” with an expected payout in the future. If the progress toward productiveness falls substantially behind the expectation, the investment will need to be recaptured (the now-much-larger child will be eaten).

Do I really need to point out that a family run on the Capitalist system would not only be abominable, but would quickly lead to the extinction of the human race?

Socialism is also the natural way that small groups function. Margaret Mead was once asked what she saw as the earliest sign of civilization, and she said it was evidence of a healed broken leg bone. Someone carried that person to safety, set the bone, and cared for him until the bone was strong enough to stand on. Or think of a group of friends, where one of them can’t pay for their dinner out because they forgot their wallet. Someone in the group will pay for their dinner. In an efficient Capitalist group of friends, the wallet-less loser would go hungry. In an enlightened Capitalist group of friends, the wallet-less loser would eat, but would pay interest on the short-term loan.

We certainly have examples of Socialist systems that were horrific to live under, such as Lenin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, and now, Maduro’s Venezuela. But these were all totalitarian, or autocratic, or both. We can look to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, or The Netherlands for Socialist systems that are much better to live under, and what distinguishes them from the failed Socialist states is that they are all liberal democracies.

So the problem has little or nothing to do with “Socialism.”

In the larger view, no large grouping of people with any location within The Cube does well for long. I’ve read that the ancient Pharoaic Egyptian empire did the best, roughly 3000 years. The Eastern Roman Empire got about 1500 years. Western Rome got 500 years as a republic, then transitioned to a pretty awful imperial model and got another 500. The Awful Soviet Union lasted a mere 70 years. Hitler’s Awful Third Reich lasted 12 years.

The United States has been a fascinating experiment in a society split by a racial caste system, each caste located in an entirely different location in The Cube. But it’s now showing all the symptoms of an incipient heart-attack, so I don’t think we’ve quite nailed the sweet spot just yet.

It’s a lot more complicated than, “Socialism is bad, Capitalism is good.”

*A “totalitarian anarchy” would be a society bound by extreme standards of black-and-white honor, where anyone who shamed himself (or his family) by doing something disallowed, or failing to do something compulsory, could be expected to enact sentence on himself: there would be no need for coercion.

**A “liberal autocracy” would be a society in which, when Fearless Leader speaks, you must comply. But if Fearless Leader didn’t say, you’re free to do whatever you want.

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