Alberto Mingardi  

Of iPads and socialism

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Can we have "socialism, with an iPad"? This is the picture the Labour Shadow Chancellor recently used, with the aim of providing a somewhat modernized, albeit only symbolically, face for Jeremy Corbyn's economic proposals. Labour-leaning columnist Zoe Williams argues that there is no contradiction between the iPad and socialism - and actually socialists should claim the iPad as the living proof their values work.

iPad.jpg

Ms Williams' piece is rhetorically fascinating, but ultimately misleading. She fears that one of "Thatcher and Reagan's visions" still influences much of the contemporary debate: "the notion that humanity progresses through innovation; innovation is a function of the brilliance of the individual; individuals can only fulfill their potential with personal freedom; and the state, in all its guises, whether regulatory or taxational, is the main barrier to that freedom."

She holds that the durability of this view is not based upon the fact that there might be a grain of truth there, but rather on the sad reality that the left is losing a battle of words.

When socialism allowed the iPad to be seen as the achievement of the right, it ceded more than the product - it ceded its natural territory. As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams describe in their book Inventing the Future: "From early communist visions of technological progress, to Soviet space utopias, to the social democratic rhetoric of the 'white heat of technology,' what set the left apart from the right was its unambiguous embrace of the future.

To be sure, the Left has been also home to many technological skeptics, beginning with the Luddites. Leaders of the workers movement organised resistance to technological innovations, that they understood as a likely cause of the degeneration of the wage-earners as a class. Time and again, the idea that machines compete with human labour has been a major source of support for socialism.

Clearly, there were times when socialism was forward-looking, rather than backward-looking as in the case of Mr Corbyn, who openly regrets the good old times of outright nationalisation. In the last few years, socialism has been increasingly tempted by nostalgia. But, in a way, wasn't it always? "Utopia" was many things, but not a technologically advanced island. There was only a genuine grasp of the fact that for everyone to have "her fair share" (however defined), a society should be somehow held in a stationary state. Yes, some theorists place socialism firmly in the future: a future of perfection, when you could do away with all those big and little "changes" that mark the daily life of a capitalist economy.

For Ms Williams, innovators are motivated by other things than the pursuit of profit and do build on the legacy of previous innovators, taking full advantage of the stock of knowledge that society assembled over time. I think she is absolutely right: but how is this supposed to be incompatible with a market economy, and indeed positively related with "socialism"?

She thinks "free-market fundamentalists" believe that everything is done just in the pursuit of profit. I'd like to assure her that most of free-marketers want a free market for real human beings: that is, for people that can act upon egoistic instincts as well as upon altruistic ones, as I think it happens to all of us. Assuming self-interest puts us on the safe side, so to say, far away from "nirvana fallacies" of different sorts. One indeed wonders where Ms. Williams got her understanding of the free-market from.

It is a bit of an irony that Ms Williams quotes Deirdre McCloskey (by the way, it is her third, not her fourth, book on "Bourgeois Virtues" which is coming out next year). McCloskey maintains that the industrial revolution was by and large the output of an increased social appreciation for mundane jobs: she believes that it was a change in social attitudes (culture) which made industrialisation possible. Not by chance, she openly talks of "virtues".

Iain Murray here has already pointed out that basically Ms Williams cannot see that markets are a form of human cooperation, and not its opposite.

It is also not by chance that her argument is a bit self-contradictory. On the one hand, she emphasises the extent to which innovation is a collective enterprise. On the other hand, she can't but focus on the case of Steve Jobs, who was "fascinated by sharing." This is because she thinks of innovation as a purposeful, top-down "act": and not as something that you can somehow stumble upon.

The key difference between "innovation socialists" and "innovation liberals" may well be that the former believe that innovation is something that should be pursued per se. Yes, the Soviet Union's space program: big, grand design, for the sake of the grandeur of the Socialist Homeland!

The latter, instead, believe that innovation is market-tested. A great project is not good per se: it is good insofar as it satisfies other people's needs. Innovation is good insofar as it makes people lives better, which you see if they're ready to buy into it.

This is why "socialism with an iPad" would be indeed a rather novel thing.


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CATEGORIES: Entrepreneurialism




COMMENTS (20 to date)
Kevin Erdmann writes:

Great post!

Don Boudreaux writes:

What Kevin Erdmann says!

There must be something in the air today as here is my "Quotation of the Day" at my and Russ Roberts's blog, Cafe Hayek. (I posted this Q.o.D. at Cafe Hayek hours before Alberto posted this post at EconLog.)

ThomasH writes:

I think Liberals are more interested in innovation and public investments in science and technology, asteroid protection and collective consumption projects like the Apollo program. Since there are almost no Socialists in the US, who knows what they think.

Now it is also the case that some kinds of regulation promoting public safety, which Liberals support, may slow down innovation. To some extent I think this is an unavoidable trade-off, but the worst effects would be regulations based cost benefits analysis of real risks not perceptions of risk like GMO, gamma irradiation, etc.

Anonymous writes:

@ThomasH

What is the distinction between 'public safety' and 'safety'? What exactly makes it public?

I have the same issue with the phrase 'public health'. It applies to contagious diseases, absolutely. But most healthcare is not about preventing contagious diseases. It seems to me that putting the word 'public' in front of a private good is little more than a cheap rhetorical trick.

LD Bottorff writes:

The left's claim to embrace the future is misleading. Socialism hasn't worked in the past, and it isn't working now, so they have to embrace a future in which socialism works.
They can get away with claiming the future because the traditionalists who make up a significant portion of the right are seen as mired in the past. Some of us are, but most of us expect the future to be different and better; we just expect that the social innovations should be consistent with the principles that caused traditions to develop.

Pajser writes:

It seems to me that, when you wrote:

    The latter, instead, believe that innovation is market-tested. A great project is not good per se: it is good insofar as it satisfies other people's needs. Innovation is good insofar as it makes people lives better, which you see if they're ready to buy into it.

you unintentionally made an argument for planned economy, because planners can recognize and maximize human needs and well being - something objective - better than market can. For instance, look at food market; it is largely failure, because consumers consume too much and unhealthy food. They do not satisfy their needs or maximize well being. I see nothing market can do about it. It cannot make innovation that will make life of people better. Planners can - almost every planner can define diet that satisfy one's needs and improve his well being better than market can. And yes, satisfying one's preference - even if it is unhealthy food - can be human need as well, but it is never only need that has to be satisfied.

nickik writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Anonymous writes:

@Pajser

That is true only if you assume that the objective in the food market is to maximize for healthiness above all other concerns, which I think is a pretty baseless assumption. What is the point in being healthy, and presumably living a longer life that you can do more in, if doing pleasurable stuff is wrong whenever it comes at the cost of your health - which is pretty much always?

Jay writes:

@ Pajser

So the bread lines, underground market for jeans, and atrocious vehicle "design" in the USSR and TP in Venezuela are just Western myths, good to know.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Pajser

For instance, look at food market; it is largely failure, because consumers consume too much

So...food markets are a failure because they provide people with too much food?

That certainly is a new take on things...

Pajser writes:

Anonymous - Mingardi was explicitly interested in innovative projects that satisfy human needs. Health and fitness are important needs. I believe that some pleasure in eating is also human need, and as much as it is need, it can be satisfied through central plan without sacrifice of health and fitness need.

Jon Murphy writes:
I believe that some pleasure in eating is also human need, and as much as it is need, it can be satisfied through central plan without sacrifice of health and fitness need.

Yes, just like it was satisfied in the USSR, Venezuela, Red China, Soviet Ukraine, and all the other places where there have been massive starvation.

Seth writes:

@Pajser -- There's a a recent story of how a network of food banks switched from a centrally planned model to more of a market model.

Also, your belief that health and fitness from food is a good example of how value is subjective. What you value isn't necessarily what others value.

But, even if it were true that you could achieve those goals with a central plan, in theory, it hasn't been supported in practice -- unless you consider mass starvation as a good outcome.

Jon Murphy writes:
unless you consider mass starvation as a good outcome.

Well, it is one way to lose weight. Can't die of obesity if you're dying from starvation.

Pajser writes:

Seth - in fact, dietary energy supply in planned economies in 1986-88 was slightly better than in market economies, according to FAO data. Here it is exactly:

Developed market economies: 3389
Developing market economies: 2352
European planned economies: 3418
Asian planned economies: 2620
World average: 2671

Important comparison is also between USSR and Latin America, because they started at the same GDP/capita (PPP)

USSR: 3380
Latin America: 2732

If you think about USSR, don't rely on impressions given by popular media. It is misleading. Search for actual statistics - you will be surprised, more often than not. In one sentence: USSR didn't progressed great, but by most of criteria, its progress was better than average capitalist country in period 1917-90.

Jon Murphy writes:

Question: why just use two years?

Also, this: during the 20th Century, there were approx 59 million deaths due to nutritional deficits (WHO). Of those deaths, 52.5 million (88.9%) occurred in planned economies (mainly the USSR, China, and North Korea).

Are these the statistics you were talking about?

Pajser writes:

Jon Murphy - because the question Mingardi and I discuss is "how good planned economy can be." It seems you claimed that it cannot work well for food distribution - and I gave data that shows that planned economies actually already developed satisfactory food distribution systems in its final years. It is nice accomplishment, knowing that USSR started much poorer than USA or Western Europe.

Data about historically worst performances of planned economy are not relevant for that. It is relevant if someone claims that even the worst plans, applied by worst dictators work well. Then data about large famines are refutation of such claim. (I never made that claim.)

JK Brown writes:

This is very confusing. For one thing, Zoe Williams seems to not know the utility of having a lot of money.

In fact, money in large amounts is pretty crude, good for nothing but consumption, which itself is base and unenlightening.

Money in large amounts, such as individuals like Jobs, Elon Musk, etc. accumulate is not very good for consumption as it is beyond even very ostentatious consumption. What it is good for is deviating in the manner Mises attributed to all of mankind's progress

All mankind’s progress has been achieved as a result of the initiative of a small minority that began to deviate from the ideas and customs of the majority until their example finally moved the others to accept the innovation themselves. To give the majority the right to dictate to the minority what it is to think, to read, and to do is to put a stop to progress once and for all.

Not only does one need a lot of money to spend on speculative ideas of innovation that may not pan out, even when on the mark, that money can keep you going until the others are finally moved.

She is also making the classic error of socialists. Williams envisions an enlightened central planner who doesn't pursue their own course either through hubris or error.

Example: Would we have the iPod, much less the iPad if Bill Gates had risen to either lead the central planning in personal electronics in the 1990s or to have been the mentor to the central planner? I fear, even if the innovation was sparked by Jobs applying for license to develop the iPod, we would have ended up with the Zune by state planners. And having been thwarted, much less denied the learning involved in the iPod development, would the iPad design have ever been put to paper?

TMC writes:

"because planners can recognize and maximize human needs and well being "

You need to ignore a lot of history to say that.

Pajser writes:

TMC - argument for the exact claim you cited doesn't require all or almost all historical data.

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