With a major presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, running explicitly as a socialist in the 2016 presidential campaign, the debate between socialism and capitalism became publicly front and center. It’s very discouraging that no major candidate in either major political party, and in particular the Republican Party, stepped up to convincingly defend capitalism.
That’s discouraging, but to be expected given the sad state of what today passes for the political Right Wing. But it’s especially distressing to see people who should know better failing to defend capitalism—and in fact handing the socialists an indispensable intellectual victory that amounts to wholesale surrender.
Surrender is what we get in an article titled When Socialism Works. Yes, the article is as bad as its title suggests. And it was put out by Steven Horwitz for the free market think tank FEE, the Foundation for Economic Education. As the name indicates, FEE is primarily focussed on economics, and does some great work showing how capitalism is economically superior to socialism.
But in his article, Horwitz argues that socialism is at the heart of capitalism, but under capitalism socialism “works” because it is organized in a series of small applications.
The subtitle of When Socialism Works is, “Sanders-Style Economics Will Undo Any Large Society.” Small-scale socialism, argues Horwitz, is the norm, even within capitalist societies, but on a large scale, it produces chaos and misery.
[I]f we think about very small, more homogeneous groups, something like democratic socialism can work. Not only can it work; it largely does work within such small groups all throughout the modern liberal, capitalist order. In fact, the liberal order can be seen as the unplanned interaction of lots of little socialist institutions.
What are the small groups Horwitz refers to? Families, sports teams, the military, and business firms—i.e., voluntary associations of individuals cooperatively working toward a common goal (assuming an all-volunteer military). This small-scale cooperation “enables us to be collectivist and altruistic.” But, does it? Collectivism is the repudiation of the moral worth of the individual in favor of the group, with the individual self-sacrificially serving the collective at the expense of his own self-interest whenever the collective demands it.
Are voluntary cooperative associations really based on individual moral repudiation and sacrifice? Or are such associations based on contributory action geared to mutually selfish benefit? (Free individuals can act self-sacrificially—i.e., self-destructively—but that is beside the point.)
If this is socialism, then why not organize society as a whole socialistically? Because, Horwitz claims, “The problem is that this sort of democratic, participatory socialism cannot scale up. Once we get beyond a small, face-to-face, intimate order, we lose our agreement on ends.” So, the whole argument against socialism, with its unrelenting record of poverty, enslavement, and rivers of blood, is only a matter of size! Socialism is good and it works, as long as it doesn’t get too big. With defenders of capitalism like Horwitz, who needs Bernie Sanders to tell us, “Oh yes, it can—and I’m the one that can make it work.” Suddenly, the socialist Bernie Sanders is the optimist, and the capitalist is the pessimist.
I left these comments, edited for clarity:
This article is very disturbing coming from an advocate of liberty.
When we speak of socialism, we’re not referring to human cooperation. We're speaking politically of a social system of forced subordination of the individual to the group, with the state as the enforcer.
Yet the author blurs the distinction between voluntary association and forced collectivism. Voluntary cooperation toward a common goal is NOT socialism. It is capitalism. Socialism is central planning imposed at the point of a gun. The former is based on individual rights to liberty, the later is a chain gang.
Blurring the distinction between voluntarism and forced collectivism, and calling both a form of socialism, is to give moral cover to totalitarian socialism, the only kind of socialism there is. From a pro-liberty perspective, socialism, democratic or otherwise, can’t "work." Socialism is evil on any scale, because it is based on aggressive force aimed at the repudiation of the individual and his rights. If capitalism is to win over socialism, the fundamental difference between the two systems must be clearly articulated. [NOTE: You can view others’ comments here.]
Actually, aggressive force is not the most fundamental nature of socialism. Force is the consequence of a deeper fundamental. Socialism is based on collectivism, which holds that the standard of moral value is the group. Stripped of moral worth, there’s no reason why any individual(s) shouldn’t be sacrificed—looted, regulated, enslaved, or murdered—for the “common” or “public good,” or the good of some particular group, such as the poor, the sick, the young, or some racial group.