The shared meaning and precise definition of words are crucially important for intelligent and meaningful dialogue. Unhappily, those two conditions seldom exist in the contexts in which we conduct public debates and discussion today.
One of those debates is about socialism. We are informed that young people express greater support for socialism than for capitalism, and that socialism or communism are viewed by Millennials as a better alternative to the disasters capitalism has created.
What’s The Definition Of Socialism?
The official definition of socialism by economists is the ownership of the means of production by the state. This means the government owns steel mills (China), oil companies (Venzuela) and transportation systems (USA). But young people expressing support for socialism are usually not being so precise. They think about redistribution of income and wealth, free education and free healthcare. They fantasize about better and more equal outcomes for all, and what they see as the well-deserved punishment of the large corporations and institutions that provide us with those services.
Maybe they think of the word “social” embedded in the concept of socialism and see it as a good thing. After all, social networks embrace that word, and social networks are warm and fuzzy and all about sharing with your friends. What if the whole of society were just one big fuzzy social sharing mechanism? Wouldn’t that be better?
There Is No Such Thing As Society.
Here we find two dangerous errors. The first is the use of the word society. It is often used as if there were a real entity called society, that could think and calculate and express its will and come to a shared point of view. No such entity exists. It is a fantasy, and an insidious one. If we are to use the word society, it can only be to describe a grouping of individuals, each pursuing their own goals and choosing their own means to do so. They help each other by finding ways of economic exchange that are mutually beneficial, but they are not in any sense a collective, where individual goals are sacrificed for the good of the whole.
Independent Individual Thought Is What Matters.
In fact, the idea of socially shared goals is not only absent in the free market exchange of goods, services and ideas that characterizes our society. The idea is actually incompatible and irreconcilable with free markets. It is independent individual thought applied in the pursuit of individual goals that brings intellectual, technical and economic progress to our dynamic society. To make it a condition of membership of society that everyone should approve of and support the shared ends of the members would eliminate the chief factor that accounts for advancement of such a society. It would become stagnant and unproductive and, subsequently, internally hostile. It is economic growth that keeps social groups focused on the benefits of participation; in stagnant economies, the groups tend to fight more over their share of the pie.
Socialism Is Hierarchical.
And, as a consequence, there is a second characteristic of socialist societies that the Millennials would not love if they understood it. If individuals are to subordinate their unique personal goals to the shared goals of the collective, who is to decide on which shared goals are adopted and on the means of achieving them? Someone must lead. Ludwig von Mises identified this problem of the group versus the collective.
But who, one must ask, is to be the leader? For many want to lead, and, of course, in different directions and toward different goals. The collectivists, who never cease to pour scorn and derision on the liberal theory of the harmony of interests, pass over in silence the fact that there are various forms of collectivism and that their interests are in irreconcilable conflict.
In other words, if there are groups within the society who can’t quite agree on exactly which shared goals– or which ideology, or which set of beliefs, or which economic system – someone is going to step forward and make, and then impose, the decision to break the deadlock.
Collectivism, in fact, can be stated in no other way than as partisan dogma in which the commitment to a definite ideal and the condemnation of all others are equally necessary.
Social networks are, as the name implies, based on the network system. Each individual is a node, and tries to establish value to the other nodes by exchange of knowledge and services. The more value we create for others, the greater our value to the network, and vice versa. We earn value by creating value. The market decides.
Socialism is the opposite. It employs the hierarchy rather than the network, because someone at the top must decide on which goals to pursue and how to pursue them, and on the role of each participant in the collective endeavor.
So while Millennials may have a warm regard for the fuzzy idea of social sharing, and while they may casually link that idea with socialism in their minds, they are failing to think clearly because they are neglecting to define their terms with precision.
Also published on Medium.