Mises Wire

For Socialists, It Doesn’t Matter if Socialism “Works.” What Matters Is Power.

A recent rash of libertarian-leaning right-wing podcasters’ rehashing of a shopworn takedown of socialism has bothered me to the point of launching into this essay. It goes something like “Why is this still a thing? When are they going to realize that IT DOESN’T WORK, and drop it?”

This criticism deserves a closer look. Maybe socialism does too. By the way, I define the term as any economic paradigm that turns over the means of production to “society,” “the workers,” or some other fictitious entity that effectively means the state; and limits or prohibits private property.

Here’s my best stab at fleshing this out. Socialism is defective, because everywhere it’s instituted (which is nowhere near Scandinavia, but that’s a different topic), the assured universal plenty fails to materialize. Instead they get extreme poverty, hunger, and deficits of every variety. The evidence is littered throughout history, all over the world. So, any idiot still promoting this mess is ignorant to the facts of reality.

Quite a counterargument; factually correct, hard-hitting, down-to-earth, and practical. No abstract political theory here, just the bottom-line question: does it work? Period. Look to the historical statistics. Any other consideration doesn’t correspond to the real world, so it’s useless. Thus, we’ve effectively relegated socialism to the historical scrap heap, right?

Not in the least.

I’m not calling this refutation ineffective. It’s much worse than that.

First there’s the obvious question; what does it mean for an economic system to “work”? That nobody’s poor? What’s the standard of “poor”? A certain universal margin of disposable income? A level of GDP? Maybe in a survey of 1,000 random people, 672 of them rated their economic status at least “satisfactory”? What are the criteria? What’s the barometer? How can we know if it “works”?

Couldn’t someone just cherry-pick an arbitrary standard of “working” in hindsight and proudly tout socialism’s great success? It’s happened before! And here’s the real question: Who could this someone be? By what right could he decide this measure on behalf of an entire population?

Well, those might be tough questions to answer, but surely we can know what it means to not work. Socialism has repeatedly yielded famine, rationing, production shortages, and the seeming disappearance of natural resources. An economic record like this has to be sufficient to dismiss it.

Think so? Let me ask you…

  • Are you against slavery because it doesn’t engender a thriving agrarian industry?
  • Are you against restricting speech because it does a bad job protecting people’s feelings?
  • Are you against random home searches because they don’t uncover enough contraband to bolster public safety?

If not, why not? These are exactly the grounds on which you’re rejecting socialism; because it appears not to satisfy its stated societal goals. Therefore…

What if it did, indeed, work? If it produced a society of loyal proletarians, happily subsisting on their allotted resources, working limited hours at their communal farms and factories, with plenty of days off, and enjoying their state-approved hobbies with all that spare time? Then I guess you’d be all for it?

Is this really your angle of opposition, or is there something else at work here?

“Of course, there’s more to it!” you say. “Beyond economics, socialism has repeatedly led to mass surveillance, arbitrary incarceration, torture, death camps, and the greatest human atrocities every known! That’s the real counterargument!”

You’re just digging yourself deeper into the rhetorical pit.

You know the responses to this. Say them with me. “That wasn’t real communism.” “That was all just one bad guy in charge, not an indictment on the system itself.” “It was the leftover greed and sadism from the market economy.” “Marxism is scientifically sound. It just requires a maturation period for people to learn the right values, then it all turns to paradise.”

Are these platitudes frustrating? Well, anyone arguing that “it doesn’t work” has tacitly agreed to the exact same underlying premises.

This argument appeals to pragmatism, utilitarianism, empiricism, and consequentialism; the Four Horsemen of Sophistry. It says don’t knock socialism till you try it. Gauge its practical impacts (pragmatism), based solely on experience (empiricism), to see if it confers the greatest good on the greatest number (utilitarianism) by delivering its promised economic equality and prosperity (consequentialism).

This is part of the desperate longstanding campaign to render economics a hard science, with a definitive answer, discoverable through rigorous testing of hypotheses. If you accept these terms, then “it doesn’t work” is no counterargument at all. The possibility of a blown experiment is built right into this scheme. It just hasn’t worked yet, so we tweak the theory and try again.

Did we get… riches and happiness for all? Great! It worked! Or… an extermination campaign of biblical proportions? Ooops, back to the drawing board. There was no way to see that coming.

Here is where “it doesn’t work” surpasses fruitlessness and becomes self-defeating. If you posit one unfavorable result (or a few) as grounds to reject the theory wholesale, the other side can call you inconsistent and unscientific, and they’re right! See how their fraudulent reasoning can make a correct conclusion seem wrong?

Therefore, socialism continues to be apologized for, rationalized, promoted, and consequently implemented around the globe; with more comebacks than Aerosmith (apologies to Aerosmith).

(This is covered brilliantly in Hoppe’s A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism.)

This plays to two of Marx’s great historical swindles. First, commerce and all human action can be scientifically engineered by a central authority to produce desired ends. Second, that the nobility of those ends in the indeterminate future justifies any and all means, potentially limitless suffering, in the present.

Other than stripping the ethics, morality, and all humanity from human action; whether it “works” can never be resolved, just deliberated ad infinitum, making it ideal mainstream media fodder. Under any legitimate scrutiny, it collapses under its own haughty intellectual weight because there’s something missing at its foundation; fundamental principles that can be ascertained as self-evidently true or not.

To go after socialism, you must aim for its fundamental principles. And what are some of those?

  • Rooted in collectivism – no individual is of material importance, only society as a whole. Any number of individual needs, preferences, and lives can and should be sacrificed for the good of the collective.
  • Absence of a market – production and trade operate by the will of central planners, not economic actors. What gets made, in what quantity, and for what use is not determined by consumer demand or the profit motive, but by top-down calculations. Based on what? Such questions will not be tolerated. Now, get in the bread line! Which brings us to…
  • Necessitates a totalitarian state – This centralization of economy requires such thorough micromanagement of human action that monitoring, espionage, harassment, and stiff penalties for violators (for starters) must become features of the landscape. Some adherents claim that state control, and the state itself, will one day become unnecessary under socialism, once the people fall in line (read are beaten into submission). But, like the arrival of universal abundance, that day never seems to come. More on this momentarily…

This argument may not be perfect, but notice the differences between this and where we started. These premises are axiomatically integral to socialism. No experience, experimentation, or research is required to bear them out. No statistical data is going to come along and change them. These aren’t ends, which cannot be conclusively known at the outset of any initiative (if they ever can at all). These are means, which are known, instantly and to a certainty, as they effectively become the material conditions of life in the given society. Economics is a journey, not a destination, so those someday promises of wealth and statelessness in exchange for your present suffering mean nothing from the man prodding you with the rifle.

Now a REAL debate begins.

The socialist must be prepared to defend all of the items above, at least. Any claim against the necessity of these factors can be gleefully met with, “then that’s not real socialism!” If they prefer their ideologies a la carte, by plucking the “good bits” of socialism and discarding the gulags and mass graves; then they’re arguing for something else entirely, a mixed economy, the polluting of the market with some degree of the above tenets.

Do the Horsemen’s graphs and data have any validity? Sure, as persuasive support. But they cannot BE your argument. That must come from First Principles, e.g. freedom, property, and individual sovereignty. These are all that matter. To subordinate them to numbers and stats is to discount them entirely.

So, when it comes to socialism; stop saying it doesn’t work, stop calling it a perfect idea on paper that falters in implementation, and stop dignifying its adherents with “noble intentions.” Give it its intellectual due, then you can call it what it is; an evil concept on its face that has no place among the human species.

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