Friday, September 18, 2015

Sad and tired arguments for socialism

A very sad and tired argument on behalf of socialism from Benjamin Radcliff in A Happy State. Radcliff is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and does no favors to either his personal cognitive reputation or that of his university with such tosh.

The argument is poorly structured and ill-supported. He wants happiness, a notoriously slippery subject, to be the organizing principle behind society. He does not understand capitalism at all if his description of it is any indication. He likes socialism. Yay, if we live in a socialist country, we will all be happy.

This is not much different than much of the academic cognitive pollution floating around out there. It only distinguishes itself by so clearly highlighting the weakness so often hidden in these type of essays.

1) You ought to understand how markets work before you criticize them. When you provide a one-sided description that does not match to any known empirical reality, it does your argument no good.

2) If you do not deal with the dynamism of human systems, then you are discrediting your argument to the point of irrelevance. Yes, there is creative destruction in the capitalist system. It exists because human circumstances are in constant flux and evolution. It is not capitalism that is the issue. Any system, socialist or capitalist, has to address the underlying dynamism. Regardless of their original oratory and stated objectives, all socialist systems quickly devolve into static systems of cronyism owing to the dynamism of human systems. "We've designed the perfect system, now don't change it." It is why all socialist systems fail. They work against human dynamism and seek to lock in all social conditions in an unchanging state. This ignorance of dynamic circumstances is what blinds people like Radcliff to changes in the real world, as exemplified by the other common failing.

3) If you do not realize that the short-lived socialist nirvana in Scandinavia was only the temporary product of a homogenous and highly productive culture which only lasted circa 1960-1975, then you discredit yourself as an informed observer. Norway has been largely insulated owing to its oil wealth but Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark have been becoming more and more politically conservative and have been introducing more and more market reforms because the happy socialist paradise of the post-war years of 1960-75 were economically unsustainable.

4) Which is the final critical point. All systems have to eventually pay for themselves. You cannot forever live off of the wind-falls of other people's money. All the Scandinavian countries have been wrestling with the economic implications of their formerly generous welfare systems and the strong elements of central planning and industrial policy. They are not yet settled into any sort of steady state and they are still subject to all sorts of pressures, both external and self-inflicted. Any socialist apologist who uses Scandinavian countries as socialist successes betrays a lack of awareness of what has been happening in the past forty years.

Aim for utopia, sure. But whatever you suggest has to address the real nature of free markets and not some straw man mischaracterization, has to accommodate the dynamism of human systems, has to use real world steady state examples not temporary anomalies from two generations ago, and has to demonstrate that it is self-sustaining.

These four elements are almost always missing in these sorts of essays but you have to read them in their entirety before you can know that in fact they have the same weaknesses as all their predecessor essays. Eventually it creates the stereotype that all advocates of socialism are simply not worth the time thinking about as their arguments are so tired and sad.

UPDATE: I believe my criticism of the article remains valid. However, Ben Radcliff has contacted me with the suggestion that I have misinterpreted his assessment of the beneficial function of markets. He indicates that in his book, The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters' Choices Determine the Quality of Life, his commitment to the beneficial aspects of the market is much clearer. His argument is that there are other factors that should go into the distribution of goods than simply market factors. I still do not agree with that argument, both on evidentiary and experiential grounds, but perhaps we are a lot closer than an article and book blurb ("The results indicate that in each instance, the program of the Left best contributes to citizens leading more satisfying lives, and, critically, that the benefits of greater happiness accrue to everyone in society, rich and poor alike") might suggest. It is a complex set of issues, so possibly so.

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