The Larger Case Against Socialism


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Readers of JPGB who have followed our occasional coverage of the resurgence of socialism in America may be interested in this column of mine that just went up on The Public Discourse. It addresses Charles Murray’s lecture last month that makes what might be called the “larger” case against socialism – beyond its economic and demographic unsustainability, socialism also undermines all the social structures that provide higher meaning in human life, and would thus be undesirable even if it were sustainable. The lecture got a lot of attention among conservatives. I argue that Murray’s analysis is correct and very valuable as far as it goes, but that it’s missing a crucial element that’s needed to make the case complete.

8 Responses to The Larger Case Against Socialism

  1. Brian says:

    I looked but I found no case. Some unfounded and unprovable assumptions are all I saw. For example:

    “Policing the streets makes our civilization more conducive to deep satisfaction because it is right. Coercive redistribution of wealth makes our civilization less conducive to deep satisfaction because it is wrong.”

    This reads like a “this amp goes to eleven”

    To be clear, I’m not arguing for socialism, but I don’t think you or Murray are going down the right path here. Your remedies still sound like ways in which big government should prescribe the way people ought to live. I don’t think you would disagree, it’s something you have decided you are ok with. I’m not ok with it. We can agree to disagree.

    In fairness, it’s true that we all develop a rubric for seeing the world with some sort of “this amp goes to eleven” argument. Mine is simple: “People have a right to be free.” I recognize it is an assumption I have made and I recognize that it is unprovable. I don’t refer to it as “analysis,” rather it is my chosen assumption. I defend it in various ways, most of which focus on utility. I think there is something gained, both for my own internal justification and justifactions made to the rest of the world, by keeping it simple. I don’t need to argue that the value of something is known by some ludicrous “old age with pride” test or deem what is “important” and what is “trivial.” These assumptions just make the house of cards higher. And they likely turn people away. Faced with a choice between your and Murray’s version of social-engineering and the alternatives, I am not sure which I would choose.

    Long live hedonism.

  2. Brian says:

    I’m not sure if you are really asking or trying to make a point. Possibly you are making a point, in which case I am supposed to fall into the trap of further defining what follows from my assumption and by doing so I will develop a big set of unfounded assumptions and I will sound like you and Murray. If that is your aim, then yes, you can score some points that way.

    Or, maybe you really mean to ask. I didn’t put a lot of thought into my wording. Quite simply, I think people should have a right (the freedom to) pursue whatever they wish to the greatest extent possible. If by exercising this freedom they cross the line and rob others of their own freedom then they have gone too far.

    You argued that only a “moral perspective” can distinguish between good and bad state functions. That sounds pretty dangerous to me. I would say that only a perspective that gives great deference to the rights of an individual can distinguish between good and bad state functions.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Believe me, I was really asking. People use the word “right” in a lot of different ways and I had to know which you were using before I could respond.

    As it happens, your definition makes my response simple. You’re worried about my observation that only a moral perspective can oppose socialism, but you yourself rely on a thoroughly moral perspective by building your whole case on rights that “should” be respected. If you use the word “should” you’re invoking a moral perspective. That’s all I meant.

  4. Geoff says:

    “I would say that only a perspective that gives great deference to the rights of an individual can distinguish between good and bad state functions.”

    This is a moral perspective. Even the pure libertarian cannot escape moral judgements about the appropriate role of government.

    Once we can all agree we are making moral claims, then we can debate which claims are more valid.

  5. Brian says:

    I don’t disagree. Yes, my deference to liberty can be categorized as a moral perspective.

    I think the difference comes down to the simplicity of my moral perspective versus the complexity of what Greg and Murray are building on. To borrow from Locke and Jefferson, my simple principle is “self-evident.” I know I can’t prove it, but it is as close to a natural instinctual principle as the physical world can provide. It doesn’t get much simpler. It doesn’t prescribe behavior except to the extent that it prevents us from having too much power over the behavior of others.

    Of course this argument is unwinnable on both sides, but that’s my feeble attempt.

  6. Greg Forster says:

    I’m humbled by Murray’s comments in the post Stuart links to. If I’ve helped get people with different frames of reference for these questions take each other more seriously . . . well, I’ll take “deep satisfaction” from that.

    And as a concession to my hedonist interlocutors, I’ll also admit that it gives me a lot of pleasure!

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