Saturday, April 11, 2009
Socialism: Not So Bad, Say Americans.
While "Atlas Shrugged"'s rise in the bestseller lists has been duly hyped as a sign of the times, it also seems that surprisingly few Americans are opposed to socialism. In the latest Rasmussen poll, only 53% of Americans favoured capitalism over socialism. This seems to be the result of a mix of factors, the state of the economy for one, and the understandable distrust of the financial elites who have consistently portrayed themselves as the apogee of capitalism. However, just as the "Atlas Shrugged" hype seems to have been strongly driven by the media (with endless plugs by Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh to name a few) a good deal of this softening attitude may be simply be a media phenomenon too - an unintended consequence of Republican PR tactics that have, since the fall of the Berlin wall, started portraying Western Europe (eg France, Germany, Sweden, Britain etc) as "socialist", and recently Barack Obama too. Trouble is, Western Europe is hardly the former Soviet Union, and Obama is hardly Stalin. In fact, they're both actually kinda...popular, whether to visit or to vote for. We might speculate that "socialism" isn't now associated in American's minds with the total government ownership of the means of production - for example, in another poll only 15% of Americans think a wholly government-managed economy is best - but instead with a set of popular programmes also regularly denounced as "socialist" by Republicans such as Social Security, Medicare, and the regulation of big business which despite being interventionist, still leave the vast majority of the economy in private hands. In other words, in their enthusiasm Republicans may have accidentally made "socialism" more or less equivalent to a mixed economy controlled by a representative democracy. Not so bad at all.
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We might speculate that "socialism" isn't now associated in American's minds with the total government ownership of the means of production - for example, in another poll only 15% of Americans think a wholly government-managed economy is best - but instead with a set of popular programmes also regularly denounced as "socialist" by Republicans such as Social Security, Medicare, and the regulation of big business which despite being interventionist, still leave the vast majority of the economy in private hands. In other words, in their enthusiasm Republicans may have accidentally made "socialism" more or less equivalent to a mixed economy controlled by a representative democracy. Not so bad at all.
Great points, Daniel. It seems that welfare states are the equivalent of socialism in the mind of certain ideologists on the right wing. Hayek, despite the fact that he seemd to espouse a modest role for the state in the economy, is part of the source of this confusion, because his "Road to Serfdom" seemed to argue that socialist goals could only be imposed by totalitarian means (or something very close to that). I guess it depends on how you construe the goal of socialism - is it central planning or economic redistribution? They are not quite the same. But some people think that they are or that they become logically equivalent under most circumstances.
As I've had to think more about the sources of inequality in the world, I've made more and more room for some form of welfare. But I think that the forms of Welfare that both Bush and now Obama are supporting by expanding debt and increasing government spending without balancing the budget will have a dangerous effect on the economy as more and more resources get misallocated. Hopefully, things will get better because I don't want to be right.
I heard about this previously over at the Infidel Bloggers Alliance. Click here for their take on it. I also made a few comments over there. I really don't like this news. For the most part, I'm a big free market supporter. I don't want things like socialized medicine, mostly because it won't work that well, and its not free like some people believe.
I think there's a widespread (and at least partly accurate) perception that the current financial crisis came about because of inadequate or nonexistent regulation of the financial markets. So it's natural that people are now looking more favorably on the idea of government regulation in general.
What's missing from this public perception is that the other part of our current crisis - the subprime mortgage fiasco - was largely caused by government regulations and intervention.
Basically, both the capitalists and the regulators screwed up, but the capitalists seem to getting most of the blame.
>As I've had to think more about the sources of inequality in the world, I've made more and more room for some form of welfare.
Well, y'know I use a pet deductive argument for welfare that gets it out of the moral arena, and also happens to be a corollary of the exact same premise that leads to the argument for limited government.
That is, it is a derivation from what Popper called "the knowledge problem": that, great as our knowledge has become, it is exceeded, and always will be, by our ignorance.
This premise leads to the best argument for a limited government that I know of - one which is certainly superior to anything in Rand - and that is the idea that the greater power that government attains, the greater the concentration of ignorance. This also gives us the excellent corollary the Austrians use to explain the superiority of the market, namely that it distributes ignorance rather than concentrates it. If humans err, it is preferable that their errors are many and small rather than few and colossal (or even many and colossal...)
Anyway, you know all this. The point then is that another corollary of the "knowledge problem" premise is that obviously what happens to people is to a great degree a matter of luck rather than good judgement (tho we as humans naturally tend to explain it in narrative terms favourable to ourselves!) This is not to say that good judgement has nothing to do with success, but rather that it is, and must be if the basic premise is true, heavily overrated. Thus, if luck, good and bad, is a/the dominant force in human success or failure, then the moral case against the welfare state is greatly weakened. Instead welfare becomes a matter of risk pooling against forces outside of our control, and thus in the interests of all people in a given society. (Of course the same rules of ignorance paradoxically apply to welfare itself, so we must be careful in its application not to create perverse effects, but this in itself is simply a caution, not an objection).
So it turns out the best case for limited government, and the best case for a welfare state, are derivable from the same premise! Excellent.
While I'm rambling, I'll wander entirely OT and off the reservation for a moment. Currently I'm thinking about the creative/destructive effect of the digital revolution on industries such as music, film, TV, literature, etc. While it's liberating a lot of creativity, its destructive effects seems to be that it's increasingly impossible to have a viable business model in a world where all this information "wants to be free" as the digital libertarian utopians like to put it. (there just ain't that much advertising revenue to fund it all...)
What occurs to me is that digital technology has transformed all these things into basically public goods - that is, products that are non-excludable, as economists like to say. When this happens, and the services still need to be produced, traditionally the government steps in, with the classic non-excludable example being defense.
Perhaps if this is the inevitable trajectory, then the government should step in and make all these forms a public good; make all downloading free and legal, introduce a broad tax to cover it, and distribute the proceeds back to artists, writers etc on the basis of download popularity (individual file exchange would become minimal, as you could get it all free from official sites, which would be measurable). Sure, this scheme would have its inequities, but they might be far fewer than the current situation, which almost no-one is winning in.
Wouldn't it be ironic if a technology initially seen as the ultimate facilitator of a libertarian utopian ideal would instead lead to a massive government intervention as the only way to make these creative industries sustainable...;-)
I agree with the "technological" part of your response. The externalities brought upon us by new technology have been greater than many presumed when these things were being imagined.
I disagree on the "luck" part for empirical reasons - I think that defining "luck" goes a long way towards helping/hurting that argument. If the idea is that we do not choose our talents and circumstances and should look favorably on the less fortunate as a form of noblesse oblige, this is Rawls combined with common sense benevolence. I agree with this view. The problem is executing this view in balance with other human motives.
However, if the idea is that what we are, especially our genetic talent(s) which are the focus of what I am thinking and which are not easy to transfer (cultural talents are not easy to always easy to transfer either, but for now, that is besides the point) , plays no role on why we do better than others and that luck is what determines it all, I think this is clearly false, even though the socialists tried to implement ideas based on it.
I think that the distinction between the forms of luck I've made above is important and people blur that distinction for a variety of reasons.
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