Is Socialism Good in Theory?

Sheldon Richman, Editor, Ideas on Liberty
Published in Ideas on Liberty - October 2003


Socialism has been mortally discredited on economic grounds, thanks to Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and history. But for many people it has not been discredited on moral grounds. You can tell this by how often people say that while socialism doesn't work in practice, it is good in theory.

Strange notion that a theory which doesn't work in the world can somehow still be good. Where else is it to be judged? One would think that a theory whose consistent realization requires gulags and secret police would be morally disqualified even if it "worked."

I guess the people who say socialism is good in theory really mean they regret that it doesn't work without the attendant unpleasantness. Why should that be regrettable? The typical answer is that in socialist theory people are not acquisitive or self-regarding; they are more concerned about others. The regret about socialism turns out to be a regret about human nature.

Leaving aside the facts that the taint on self-interest is assumed not established and that one prospers under capitalism by competitively attending to others, is this a valid statement about socialism? Originally socialism promised a superabundance of goods so much of everything that no one would have to do without anything. Sharing would be unnecessary because scarcity would be abolished. Wasn't that an appeal to acquisitiveness, even gluttony? To be sure, socialism's miserable record has compelled its advocates lately to discover the "age of limits," but that is only to make a virtue of necessity.

Socialism of course did promise to reconstruct humanity, but the message was always mixed. It promised to subordinate the individual to society while liberating him to be fully himself free of the necessity to make a living. Leon Trotsky wrote that "Communist man . . . will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx." But the nice Bolshevik also said, "In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat."

Was the new Socialist Man to be a self-centered achiever or group-centered worker bee? It was never clear how both could be accomplished.

Maybe all that people mean when they lament socialism's impracticality is that the theory held out hope for an end to material inequality. As intellectual historian Ralph Raico reminds us, it didn't exactly do that. Marx promised only "to each according to his needs." He never said we all have the same needs. Besides, it is capitalism not socialism that has achieved essential material equality.
(See Donald Boudreaux, "Equality and Capitalism," September 2002, www.fee.org/vnews.php?nid=5201 .)

The ugliness of socialist theory now comes into focus. Under individualist and capitalist theory (and practice) each person is free to determine his own needs and, through the division of labor and voluntary exchange, to produce what's required to satisfy them. (As the old Spanish proverb puts it, "Take what you want and pay for it.") Under socialist theory the individual's needs are determined and satisfied collectively. Dissent and venturing out on one's own are not options. As Trotsky acknowledged, everyone is an employee and tenant of the collective that is, the state.

It's a mystery why anyone would find that theory beautiful or regret that it doesn't work in practice.


Copyright Sheldon Richman

Taken from the
Foundation for Economic Education website

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24 oct 2003