Art Carden  

Intolerant Socialism

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Like Bryan, I really enjoyed Jason Brennan's discussion of "Why Utopia is Capitalist." Bryan is correct to note that one of the main problems with G.A. Cohen's camping trip example is that it assumes (albeit implicitly, if I remember correctly) that we have all decided to go on a camping trip together. It's basically a question of constitutional choice: what kinds of contract do we wish to adopt if we are all going camping together? It reminds be of Peter Leeson's work on contract and governance among pirates (he explains it in a 2007 Cato Unbound symposium).

As Brennan writes, capitalism is preferable to socialism because voluntary socialist experiments like utopian communes and socialist camping trips are possible in a world with private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism tolerates socialism. Socialism does not tolerate capitalism.

For the last few weeks, we've been getting together with friends from church for potluck lunches on Sunday afternoons. These are "socialist" ventures like Cohen's camping trip, and I think most of us would agree such gatherings are integral parts of a robust and thriving civil society.

What if we went around the neighborhood and instead of inviting people to lunch we tried to jawbone people into joining us out of moral obligation? What if we started trying to conscript people into our Sunday lunch gatherings? Most people would find such behavior boorish, intolerant, and once force is involved, evil.

Capitalism accommodates diversity in ways that socialism simply cannot. Naturally, one might respond that with the advent of the New Socialist Man, concerns about different preferences will be beside the point. I'm reminded, therefore, of a joke:

A revolutionary is giving a speech to a large audience, and he promises the assembled masses that once the revolution comes, the land will flow with milk and honey. He is interrupted by a gentleman a few rows back, who asks "what if I don't like milk and honey?" The revolutionary responds: "comrade, after the revolution, you will like milk and honey!"


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (21 to date)
Philo writes:

"Most people would find such behavior boorish, intolerant, and once force is involved, evil." Not to mention "futile." If we all loved each other, and wanted to socialize with each other, and had no overriding plans, it would be great to get together for lunch, or a camping trip. But clearly those conditions do not obtain if some people have to be browbeaten or even threatened to make them join in. And lunch or camping with conscripts is qualitatively very different from--greatly inferior to--lunch with enthusiastic volunteers. Bryan Caplan nailed it!

Jeff writes:

How many people would show up with just a bag of chips or even nothing at all and then proceed to chow down on the casseroles, pasta salads, etc., that you and your friends devoted substantial time and expense to making?

Pajser writes:
"As Brennan writes, capitalism is preferable to socialism because voluntary socialist experiments like utopian communes and socialist camping trips are possible in a world with private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism tolerates socialism. Socialism does not tolerate capitalism."

Following the same reasoning, feudalism is preferable to capitalism - because voluntary capitalist experiments are possible in feudal world.

Following the same reasoning, slavery system is preferable to feudal system and, of curse, capitalism - because voluntary feudal and capitalist experiments are possible in slavery system.

What is wrong with that reasoning? We do not say that better system is one which tolerates more than other systems. The better system is one which guarantees more. Worker in capitalism has more rights than serf who has more rights than slave. That's why capitalism is better than feudalism and slavery, and that is the reason capitalism does not tolerate feudal and slavery subsystems which break these guarantees.

Socialism guarantees more than capitalism. And because of that, it cannot tolerate not only feudal and slavery subsystems, but capitalist subsystems as well.

However, the socialist society can - and I think it should - guarantee the right on secession - with proportional part of the territory and total wealth of society. So, if one prefers capitalism, he can build the society he wants, just not inside, but outside of the socialist society. (I think capitalism can allow secession, but it cannot guarantee the right on secession for everyone.)

Arthur_500 writes:

Oddly it was determined that the Democratic Process would not work for large groups. But let's get even more basic. How many marriages work? These people are supposed to be on the same page or they would not have got married in the first place.
Capitalism allows the vegetarian restaurant that sells terrible tasting food to go out of business while the Indian Restaurant that sells vegetarian food that tastes good to thrive. We sort things out and make our choices.
However, if I can get the gubment to force my idea on people then I won't have to make it good because everyone will have to buy my product. Therefore, I need to expend my time and resources on getting in good with the public officials rather than serving the consumer. This is the state we are in now and so many so-called economists claim that capitalism doesn't work because our current system is so obfuscated from capitalism it is unrecognizable in anything but the term.

James writes:

"Following the same reasoning, feudalism is preferable to capitalism - because voluntary capitalist experiments are possible in feudal world.

Following the same reasoning, slavery system is preferable to feudal system and, of curse, capitalism - because voluntary feudal and capitalist experiments are possible in slavery system.

What is wrong with that reasoning?"

The problem is reasoning from the false premises that slavery and feudalism allow for capitalism. Neither slaves nor serfs can own the means of production. Why would you even think otherwise?

Pajser writes:
James: "The problem is reasoning from the false premises that slavery and feudalism allow for capitalism. Neither slaves nor serfs can own the means of production. Why would you even think otherwise?"
Slavery system doesn't guarantee that every slave can become serf. But, it allows such transition. If slave-owner changed the status of his slaves into serfs (because it is more efficient for medieval agriculture, or serfs rebelled less than slaves) king didn't came after him. It seems it happened frequently in early medieval Europe.

Similarly, the capitalist system doesn't guarantee proportional or even sufficient resources needed for the formation of the socialist subsystem to those who want it. However, if some group collects sufficient resources, and succeed on the market - it is allowed.

Greg Heslop writes:

@ Pajser,

"Following the same reasoning, feudalism is preferable to capitalism - because voluntary capitalist experiments are possible in feudal world.

Following the same reasoning, slavery system is preferable to feudal system and, of curse, capitalism - because voluntary feudal and capitalist experiments are possible in slavery system."

Actually, since feudalist and slave-based societies may be arranged under capitalism, why do you not say capitalism and feudalism (and slavery) are equally good? By your reasoning, your vision of socialism in which individuals may opt out would also be equally good, I suppose?

Note that your reasoning is a one-way one. If I am the slave or serf, I cannot opt into capitalism unless I obtain the consent of one individual (the slave-holder); under capitalism, I can become a slave if I find one out of very many individuals willing to take me on.

"Similarly, the capitalist system doesn't guarantee proportional or even sufficient resources needed for the formation of the socialist subsystem to those who want it. However, if some group collects sufficient resources, and succeed on the market - it is allowed."

What does "sufficient" mean here? I'm ignorant, but my impression is that collectivist societies have sprung up with fairly great ease for a long, long time, no? Professor Caplan linked to the Twin Oaks Community recently. Wealthy industrialists sponsored other places of a similar kind in the US and in the UK such as New Lanark and New Harmony. As I say, I'm ignorant, but given what little I do know, it seems these things are legion.

Hazel Meade writes:

My father used to tell me a variation on that joke involving strawberries and ice cream:

Him: "Come the Revolution, everyone will eat strawberries and ice cream!"

Me: "But... I don't like strawberries and ice cream..."

Him: "Come the Revolution, EVERYONE will eat strawberries and ice cream!"

Pajser writes:
Greg: Actually, since feudalist and slave-based societies may be arranged under capitalism, why do you not say capitalism and feudalism (and slavery) are equally good? By your reasoning, your vision of socialism in which individuals may opt out would also be equally good, I suppose?
I think one cannot become serf or slave in capitalist society. In socialist society, if one demands secession (or only exit), he has all guarantees until he leaves. After that, he is outside of the socialist system. He is in foreign country. Laws do not apply on him. But capitalism allows socialist subsystem inside itself. Twin Oaks do not need secession, exit or even change of the laws only to organize their way of living.
What does "sufficient" mean here? I'm ignorant, but my impression is that collectivist societies have sprung up with fairly great ease for a long, long time, no?
In capitalism, not every worker can organize his own capitalist enterprise and live from that. Even with self-selection - most of those who try work few years for lower salary then they have as workers, fail within 4-5 years, and spend resources they collected before. Starting socialist enterprise is similar; maybe even harder. Sure, some can do that, but not everyone. I think I have enough for claim that capitalism allows, but doesn't guarantee that one can start or join to successful socialist project.
Hazel Meade writes:

@Pajser "Following the same reasoning, feudalism is preferable to capitalism - because voluntary capitalist experiments are possible in feudal world.

Following the same reasoning, slavery system is preferable to feudal system and, of curse, capitalism - because voluntary feudal and capitalist experiments are possible in slavery system."

No, they aren't.
The fact that feudalism succeeded slavery and that capitalism succeeded feudalism doesn't mean that voluntary capitalist experiments were possible in a feudal world. The feudal system had to be overthrown, often with violence, in order to create the modern capitalist system we know today.
The American Revolution was the overthrowing of a monarchist, feudal system, and the establishment of a capitalist system. That doesn't mean that capitalism is intolerant of feudalism as long as it is voluntary. If a bunch of people want to go off and form a private association and select a hereditary king, nobody in a capitalist system is going to stop them as long as it's voluntary.

But, maybe we should use the term libertarian system instead of capitalist, here, since libertarianism entails a whole bunch of political propositions about individual rights and equal justice that aren't intrinsic to capitalism per se, which is purely an economic system, not a political one.

A libertarian system is tolerant of any number of sub-systems, so long as they remain voluntary. Feudalism, slavery, and socialism are all intolerant of libertarianism because they are all, by definition involuntary.

marris writes:

I didn't see anyone else point this out, but Cohen's example is a camping *trip*. All the participants know that the current situation is temporary and eventually, any hardships they must endure will end. I think that knowledge will permit many campers to "stick around" for the duration of the trip, even though they may not be eager to sign up for the next one.

Daublin writes:

The more I think about it, the more I like Bryan's examination of the camping metaphor.

Really, is anything more capitalist than a group of people voluntarily forming some sort of entity with its own arbirtary rules? Everything from corporations to social clubs are a perfect fit for capitalism.

I think if you examine common-sense scenarios like this, it becomes harder to see when and why it makes sense for an outside agency to stick their noses in. To return to the camping scenario, a true socialist would require that government representatives inspect your camp trip to make sure it complies with the relevant regulations. Is it really so radical be suspicious about such an inspector? It's hard to see what good they will do, and it's very easy to see all kinds of harms.

marris writes:

@Pajser No social system makes guarantees like the ones you are describing. It is true that a socialist commune started in a capitalist system may disband due to lack of resources. But that is not the worst outcome. A worse outcome is North Korea, which is socialist and purportedly makes *guarantees* to its citizens, but fails in a far worse way. In practice, that society does not make guarantees either.

Further, "secession" is usually not as important as "secession with property". The nice thing about a capitalist system is that a group of people can take their property, pool it together, and form a commune. [I hope. These days, there might be some sleazy politician who tries to score votes by harrassing them for not paying exit taxes or something.] If someone exits from your socialist society, do they get to take resources with them? Many socialist societies would say no. The resources are considered owned by the "community", and these people have left the community.

Pajser writes:
Hazel Mead: "The fact that feudalism succeeded slavery and that capitalism succeeded feudalism doesn't mean that voluntary capitalist experiments were possible in a feudal world. The feudal system had to be overthrown, often with violence, in order to create the modern capitalist system we know today."
Hazel, note the difference between "allowed" and "guaranteed."

In feudal system, the capitalist subsystem were possible. Free citizens (and lords, if they wished) had the right to organize private businesses and to work for others, and it was not uncommon in the cities. It was allowed. But it was not guaranteed that everyone can do that. The serfs couldn't. Overthrow of the feudal system didn't only allowed capitalist economic relations, it made serfdom illegal and guaranteed some capitalist economic relations to everyone.

In feudalism, the serfs are bound to 'their' land. They cannot leave. It is essential. If they are not bound, they are not serfs, and it is not feudalism any more. So, capitalism (including libertarian version) really doesn't allow feudal subsystem. If people form private association, 'king' and 'lords' cannot prevent 'serfs' from leaving. Capitalism guarantees some rights that rule out feudalism. But capitalism really allows socialist subsystem, like Twin Oaks.

Greg Heslop writes:

@ Pajser,

"I think one cannot become serf or slave in capitalist society."

Sure one can. I may sell myself to willing buyers if I so choose. The contract can specify that I am bound to some specific area and that I have certain duties, etc. In a free market, I may sell myself to willing buyers precisely because I own myself. Ownership means freedom to sell on mutually acceptable terms.

I am not sure why terming socialist secession as getting "outside" socialism while collectivist communities under capitalism operate "inside" the capitalist system is a useful distinction. Seems to me that there is really no difference between the two?

Also, given the poor record of socialism with respect to production, I still think the capitalst guarantee that one is free to try one's best at a collectivist community is a great deal more meaningful than the socialist "guarantee" (under your preferred kind of socialism) that one is entitled to leave with a proportionate share of the socialist spoils.

By the way, what would you say if, under your vision of socialism with a right to secede, everyone eventually opted out and transacted with one another in a free market? Would your answer change as new generations are born?

I ask because your preferred system reminds me of certain "deals", occasionally proposed in debates, that wealth be equalized once and then there would be only a minimal or no state forever (unless individuals freely chose to organize according to state-like principles). In my experience, leftist typically would say no to a once-only equalization, but your support of a right to secede makes your view seem to me like a dissenting one.

Pajser writes:

Marris:

Some states guarantee limited right for secession. USSR guaranteed the right of the nations to secession; it was only theory until 1990's, but eventually, the rights were guaranteed and "consumed" by Ukrainians and other nations. The right of the nations on secession is guaranteed by UN General Assembly resolution 1514. The right on secession as I advocate it, requires only one extension - that nation is defined by will of its members (the nation of one included as edge case.)

Division of the common property should be similar to one at divorce. The secessionists should have the right on the proportional part of the value the group acquired while they were members. If they are born and raised in society, they should have the right on proportional part of the inherited property as well. Etc.

The idea that resources stay with community has practical advantages, but it is not fair that those who leave are worse off than those who stay. Also, it is in long-term interest of the socialist society that those who dislike the idea have fair chance to leave it. Not to stay only because it is in their self-interest.


Hazel Meade writes:

In feudal system, the capitalist subsystem were possible. Free citizens (and lords, if they wished) had the right to organize private businesses and to work for others, and it was not uncommon in the cities. It was allowed. But it was not guaranteed that everyone can do that. The serfs couldn't. Overthrow of the feudal system didn't only allowed capitalist economic relations, it made serfdom illegal and guaranteed some capitalist economic relations to everyone.

This is why I am attempting to distinguish between capitalist and libertarian systems. Depending on how you define "capitalism" that may include (for example) universal protection for the right to own private property. You are apparently defining it differently. Therefore, let's use the term "libertarian" instead. "Libertarian" systems by definition mean universal enforcements of equal property rights.

The American Revolution was founded upon this idea of all men being created equally, and having inalienable rights. it was, thus a libertarian revolution that replaced the feudal system.

So whatever term you want to call it, libertarian systems tolerate feudalism, but feudalism doesn't tolerate libertarianism, because of the, by definition, lack of universal individual rights.

Pajser writes:
Hazel: "libertarian systems tolerate feudalism, but feudalism doesn't tolerate libertarianism, because of the, by definition, lack of universal individual rights."
I think our misunderstanding is in the meaning of the phrase "one doesn't tolerate the system". You say that if one break the laws of the system, he doesn't tolerate the system. It is not common use of that word. Common use of the phrase "he doesn't tolerate the system" would be "try to destroy the system wherever he finds it." Look what Caplan wrote:
"... capitalism is preferable to socialism because voluntary socialist experiments ... are possible in a world with private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism tolerates socialism."
Now, voluntary capitalist experiments are possible in a feudal world. So, following Caplan's reasoning, feudalism tolerates capitalism. I understand what you try to say, but I think you could use some other word. Maybe you can say that feudalism is not "loyal" or "compatible" to / with libertarian system instead of "feudalism doesn't tolerate libertarian system."
Hazel Meade writes:

I'm not sure if modern libertarians would agree that what you call "capitalist experiments" in a feudal world actually represent *true* capitalism.

Feudal system, by definition, mean that some market particants have legal rights that others do not. In order for a capitalist experiment to take place in a feudal system you would have to have that subsystem have it's own distinct internal legal system with equally enforced property rights - different from the feudal court system. It would have to be a complete opt out of the entire structure. Otherwise the capitalist experiment would be subject to the unequal feudal laws which would guarentee the property rights of the aristocracy over that of members of the capitalist subsystem.

Yes, you could have free exchange and accumulation of capital and enterprise, but those rae only PART of what modern libertarians consider essential features of a libertarian system. The other part, which is incompatible with feudalism, is the equal protection of the law for all market participants.

Pajser writes:
Greg: Sure one can [become serf or slave in capitalist society]. I may sell myself to willing buyers if I so choose.
I see. But, you do not talk about capitalism as it is widely known, but one particular and very different, version. I simply didn't talk about that. For that version, which we can name "Blockist capitalism" you're at least partially right. (If you allow sub-society such that children born by voluntary slaves or serfs are automatically in the status of slaves or serfs, you are completely right.)
"I am not sure why terming socialist secession as getting "outside" socialism while collectivist communities under capitalism operate "inside" the capitalist system is a useful distinction. Seems to me that there is really no difference between the two?"
There are similarities but there are many differences. All societies tolerate almost everything what happens outside of their borders and guarantee almost nothing. Switzerland tolerates North Korea and vice versa. If we do not talk about global order, it is more meaningful to compare societies on the base of what they guarantee and tolerate within their borders than what they tolerate and guarantee outside of the borders.

One difference between secession and formation of sub-societies is that change of the law in society affects sub-societies as well. If society as whole decides to guarantee more to individuals - it destroys some sub-societes. On the other side, it is not clear why society as whole should give up from pursuit of some common goals. Why it should be limited only to sub-societies? One might think that society as whole, at least if organized in state - is involuntary association, while sub-societies are voluntary association. It is doubtful, because of right on exit, and in case of right on secession even economic pressure on people to stay against their preference is removed.

By the way, what would you say if, under your vision of socialism with a right to secede, everyone eventually opted out and transacted with one another in a free market?
I'd say that at given level of human cultural and technological development socialism is impossible.
Pajser writes:
Hazel: I'm not sure if modern libertarians would agree that what you call "capitalist experiments" in a feudal world actually represent *true* capitalism. Feudal system, by definition, mean that some market particants have legal rights that others do not. ...
I completely agree with you here. But note that socialist communes are in similar situation. The socialists try to replace profit motive with rationally planned economic activity. But how can socialist commune survive? They can organize production, sell and buy on free market. Then, they work for profit, what they try to avoid. Alternatively, they try to be self-sufficient. The price is economically unjustified primitivism: small scale agriculture, primitive construction ... high price, particularly from Marxist position (means of the production determine economic system). Twin Oaks does little of both (50%+ of their total work is for their own purposes). But I think it is "mostly," "largely," socialism.

I think it was similar for capitalism developed inside feudalism - it was not "pure" - but good enough to slowly grow to the point the kings cannot stop it.

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