Friday, August 1, 2014

The Evils of Unreflecting Socialism


The concept of Socialism is a pretty good idea. It believes that there should be a safety net to support the needy.

No problem there. Anybody with a Judaeo-Christian or Buddhist based code of morality is more or less behind the ideas of simple charity and 'do unto others' bit that underpins social fairness.

(Theoretically Animism can also approach this concept, but like most other 'tribal' religions - from Marxist to Muslim to Labour to Greenie - the specificity of the 'them versus us component' makes this a bit problematical in application... And please note that there are many supposed Jews or Christians who have fallen into the trap of tribalism, and many Muslims or Marxists who honestly believe they can avoid tribalism without abandoning the tenets of their religion... None of them seem to have a clue about what their professed beliefs actually require of them.)

But I digress.

Socialism as an ideal of providing a safety net and an opportunity is a wonderful thing, and I, and many others, would fight to maintain that safety net.

Socialism as a political movement pursuing 'equality' however, is one of the great evils of human invention.

Humans cannot be made equal, no matter how ruthlessly this is attempted. Humans can be given equality of opportunity, but thy cannot be 'made' to be equal. (The best image of this recently was in the Joss Whedonfilm 'Firefly' where the government wants to create 'a world without sin',and where they will keep idealistically trying to make people 'better', no matter how appalling the results of their experiments.)

People who profess to be socialists in the last century include Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and just about every nasty dictatorship currently operating in Africa or South America. (Some of the nasty dictatorships in the Middle East and Africa and Asia - from Iran to Somalia to South Korea - are blatant religious dictatorships... but again with a tribal perspective, not any Judaeo-Christian concepts.)

Now, obviously, the answer there is that just because people say they are socialists, does not mean they really are. Politicians lying about their real motives to fool the gullible is about as traditional as it gets.

But there are many politicians who say they are socialist who really mean it. Unfortunately their definition of socialism is so distorted, that I find them far more dangerous the obvious liars.

Socialism as proposed by most of the political parties with the word 'socialist' in their title usually just means dictatorship under a cloak of respectability that they hope the ignorant peasants and stupid media will fall for. Anything called a Soviet Socialist Republic or just a Socialist Republic will inevitably fit this box eventually.

There is an excellent and amusing section in one of Robert Heinlein's worse books – Time Enough for Love – that defines politicians. 

Heinlein says there are basically two types of politicians, Business, and Conviction. Business politicians rely on keeping their word, as their only saleable asset. They live or die politically by delivering or not delivering.

Conviction politicians by contrast, 'believe' in a 'cause'. They believe so passionately, that they can be easily convinced to change their promises by any new 'idea' or 'evidence' that comes along (at least if it fits their prejudices). The truly dangerous thing about such people is not that they reverse themselves 3 times before breakfast, but that each time they convince themselves (or at least can pretend to), that they are doing it for the 'good' of the people and cause they 'believe' in.

As a result they are more than willing to look their constituents (who are not necessarily the voters) in the eye, and claim their reversals were a genuine attempt to reach the goal that everyone is striving for... for the greater good of course.

The simple fact is that business and conviction politicians usually cannot understand each other's rationales or motives, as they are almost completely incomprehensible to them. Instead they both tend to assume that anyone with the opposite perspective is either mad, or just completely dishonest and working for completely different motives than their stated ones.

(Unfortunately, people being people, they will be right in enough cases to allow them the luxury of painting everyone they do not understand with the same broad stroke of tar. This sort of lazy self righteousness is what forms the basis of 'them and us' thinking, and is the bane of all political compromise through human history.)

It would be nice to think that willingness to change a viewpoint is part of education or just growing up. The amusing aphorism "If you're not a socialist at 20 you don't have a heart, if you're still a socialist at 40 you don't have a brain", would be less scary if it actually reflected a consistent pattern... but it doesn't.

The vast majority of humanity takes the childhood illusion they grew up with as unreflected gospel for their entire life, and is appalled that anyone could dare to disagree. (I use the word 'gospel' here with malice aforethought. The unreflecting religious being almost as dangerous as the unreflecting atheist in taking the most simplistic and childish understanding of their preferred viewpoint and trying to bludgeon everyone else with it. Religious wars are bad enough, the crusades by Fascists and Marxists in the last century have added new meaning to repression and genocide.)

Reflection from adult understanding (particularly after the brain reaches the age of considering consequences at about 24 or 25... not at the extreme of idealistic illusion at University age of about 18 to 21) is absolutely vital to making a childhood preference into a reasoned position. Pity so few people take the time to do it...

One of the dangers of our democratic political system is that we let people start playing 'seriously' with politics at exactly the worst age. Political parties collecting university students is like shooting fish in a barrel, but the modern practice of recruiting them to the party structure in a straight line   student politician, political staffer, party professional, safe seat (with no real life experience to intervene), means that many modern politicians do not get the mental space to reflect on what they think they believe in until several years in office trying and failing to deliver their childish ideal finally convinces them that they were either very wrong, or at least very naive.

Unfortunately this can then have it's own problems. You sometimes get the overly simplistic from both sides responding to the discovery of the unreality of what they were attempting by veering widely (and almost equally unreflectingly) to the opposite perspective... Such people often adopt equally (or even more scarily) unrealistic simplifications of a world view. (In Australia the most famously pathetic example is the ex-Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, but 'reborn' ex socialists or communists are often even more worrying in their fanaticism!)

Or, perhaps worse, they simply decide that they will keep mouthing the words they don't believe in any more, in a ruthless attempt to get power... Not that they really want to achieve anything particular any more... just get power.

So how to choose the lesser of two evils?

1. Given a choice of politicians who 'believe' unreflectingly in childish idealism, always go for the conservative, not the radical. It will slow progress to a pathetic crawl, but there will be a lot less bloodshed. (Shedding blood is necessary sometimes, but conservative reasons like 'defence of traditional liberties' aka English or American Revolutions is always better than blood shed to 'save the world and remake it in perfection' aka French or Communist revolutions, or almost any religious war...)

2. Given the choice of politicians who genuinely believe, after genuine adult reflection, they are working for the common good, again you should always go for the business one not the conviction one... you may not like the result, but it will at least it may resemble what they were originally talking about.

3. Give the choice between politicians who only pretend to believe in what they are promoting, go for the business politician anyway. They may only be in it to line their pockets and enjoy the fruits of power, but, because they live or die by keeping heir word, they will only stay in it by making the trains run on time. Corrupt but competent is always going to do less damage to the society than well meaning but incompetent.

A 'true believer' is always going to throw public money at anything that sounds good anyway, and is always surprised the result is often the opposite of what was intended. (Education 'improvements' that lead to mass illiteracy; workplace 'improvements' that lead to mass unemployment'; health 'improvements' that lead to failing hospitals; etc.) But a cynic pretending to be a true believer stays in power despite incompetence by throwing money at things they know won't work just to claim they are doing something. (And to buy voted of course... but they all do that...)

4. But given the choice between two socialists: one of whom says they accept the world is imperfect, but believe in the justice of a safety net; and one of whom really truly believes that equality in all things is both desirable and achievable... go for the sane one. The raving lunatic can only finish one of two ways. Disillusioned and corrupt, or so convinced in their cause that they eventually have to make themselves all powerful to make it happen because they can find no other way. (Stalin and HItler are great example of the first, and Cromwell and Mao are fun examples of the second. And note, I have chosen supposedly right and supposedly left versions in both samples to make the appropriate mockery of right versus left.)

It is probable that through history the majority of so called Socialists who have achieved and grimly maintained power until their society collapses under the dead weight of extreme socialism (as Churchill said, 'the problem is they eventually run out of other people's money') have been the first... just corrupt shadows of their original so called beliefs. This would include almost any socialist government elected over too long periods in Southern and Eastern Europe (and Ireland, which counts as 'southern') or in Central or South America. They just slowly drag their countries down to a level of poverty and violence that it was their stated intention to replace with their idealised utopia. (Prime examples of mouthing without meaning would include Stalin, the Castro's, Chavez, and the current dynasty in North Korea.)

The real problem though, is the ones who continue to believe in their dream, and are willing to do whatever it takes, including seizing all power for themselves, to see it happen. Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mugabe, and Adolf Hitler are all 'conviction' socialists (almost all of them with some sort of claim to be elected leaders of republican forms of government) who took their societies to the extremes they felt were necessary to achieve the purity they genuinely believed in...

Historically, socialism for the goal of a safety net will inevitably reduce the overall living standards, education, employment, and opportunities, of a society... but not necessarily destroy it completely. (Or at least not yet, in the cases of places like Scandinavia which are back-pedalling fast on the excesses that reduced the PIIGS Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain - to basket cases with up to 50% youth unemployment). It can even be argued that some of this equalisation might be a good thing, but the long term reduction of living standards over the admittedly less pleasant chaos of more free flowing capitalism is the inevitable price.

But historically Socialism for the goal of a fantasy ideal of universal equality and wealth will lead to the nastiest and most bloody dictatorships in human history. (On a scale that would make even a tribal barbarian lunatic like Genghis Khan green with envy.)


If you love the idea of 'safety net socialism', as I do, and are willing to accept a limited diminution in overall living standards to achieve it: be very, very afraid of the 'ideal' of 'perfect Socialism'. The more people unreflectingly pursue an impossible dream, the less chance the reflecting have of achieving some sort of reality.

9 comments:

  1. Hi Nigel. Another fine article as ever. Probably a bit off topic, but a facscinating development today is Tsirpas in Greece. Perhaps a communist will be the death of the world's greatest socialist dream of recent years: the EU. Perhaps only one left wing nutter is good enough to destroy another. We shall see

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  2. Great topic Nigel, the goal of government IMO should be to give it's citizens more choices, not make their choices for them.

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  3. Dear John,

    the best argument for the collapse of the Roman Empire (apart form weaknesses resulting from plagues and other things), is that the bureaucracy got so big, and the tax base so small, that a 'Grexit' seemed like a bloody good idea.

    I have concerns with the Euro Union fantasy. (But then The US was a weird fantasy, and it only took 600,000 dead to make it work!)

    Dear David

    I follow the line H Beam Piper uses in Space Viking (one of the best and most detailed historical analysis books ever written on the rise and fall of civilisations). He had his lead character say, 'Mostly our people think the role of government is to stop people shooting at them while they get on with their lives'.

    By dentition ANYTHING run by government is inefficient.

    The only thing that possibly has to be run by government, despite the inefficiencies involved, is the defines forces. (The Condottiere proved that.) if governments want to play with health or education or anything else, they should fund the best results on simple competitive tender (tender for RESULTS, not tender for lowest cost...)

    It is notable in Australia that the health and education establishments run by churches and charities 9with government funding) are hugely more efficient and effective than the health and education establishments run directly by the state 9in Austrlaia 'state' means union movement... which is currently approaching the levels of disfunction that Britain experienced in the 1970's.)

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    1. Bloody autospell.

      Where it says 'defines' forces, read 'defence ' forces. The military needs government control. Perhaps police. Nothing else. Contract it all out.

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  4. Do you believe Castro's regime in Cuba to have attempted to achieve the radical equality you deplore, or only to have provided a safety net? Raul Castro recently said that he was considering returning to attending Mass. Personally, I'm uncertain as to whether the fate of Cubans under the Castro dictatorship was really worse than that of Haitians, El Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans or Mexicans since 1960. Maybe Cuba would have been better off if the ruling class had not been dispossessed, and it certainly seems to be a place where you'll go on a diet, but there has been relative order, an education system, national health that probably compares favorably with what most people in the nations I've referenced have and now the possibility of a peaceful rapprochement with the United States and for a long time the Soviet subsidy. I think Fidel plunked for equality like Diana Moon Glompers (my personal favorite example in literature of the terror perpetuated by those who would render us all equal is Kurt Vonnegut's short story in which she is something called the "Equalizer General" or something like that), but Cuba was being run by the mafia before his revolution so maybe he wasn't as bad as all that, even conceding that he murdered a lot of folks. I'm just not as certain as some that free markets are always better for most folks everywhere. I agree with the author that a humane or Christian safety net is something worth fighting for, whatever its inefficiencies, that revolutions are usually awful, that evil thugs often disguise their viciousness by spouting socialist platitudes, and that governments are generally inefficient. But I'm skeptical about capitalism as well as socialism, both being materialist and reductive in the end and would probably plunk for whatever messy compromise between the two best addresses the crisis of the moment in a given society. Cuba's revolution violates my principles, but its apparent history since sometimes seems to have been not as bad as what I would usually expect from a communist firebrand seizing power in a bloody revolution. Cuba is in a tough part of the world, and may muddle through as well as the nations to whom it may most easily be compared, though I reckon the fate of the Dominican Republic to have been better, for one.

    I like your blog a lot.

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    1. Dear Will,

      interesting comments. I will throw a though back at you.

      I count Cuba, and South America in general, as 'robber baron' Catholic empires, run on the 'loot what you can' principle. Unfortunately the resulting bureaucratic and political classes have exactly the wrong idea about how government works, or what it is for.

      The Protestant 'trade' empires - US, India, South Africa, Australasia, (while still having plenty of corruption and violence involved), nevertheless at least attempted to leave bureaucracies and governmental structures that serve a useful purpose. India, Singapore, Malaysai, Indonesia for instance looking almost as good as the US and the Dominions.

      But I note that such Empires need at least a century or tow to establish such systems and settle them down. The forty or fifty years that some empires held some tribal areas in Africa and the Middle East hardly made a dent on their traditional tribal infighting...

      As an amusing aside, successful protestant states are 90% constitutional monarchies, (or bastardised versions like the US division of Executive, Congress, Courts). Most Catholic republics are actually straight dictatorships. Most Orthodox republics are 'people's republics', and most Muslim republics are theocratic dictatorships'...

      Where do you think Cuba fits in that lot?

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  5. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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    1. Dear Gerald,
      any human action can be dubious. Or to quote 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people, guns are just a tool'.
      I take it you would say war is never moral? Not a war to stop HItler's holocaust? Not a war to top genocide in Cambodia? There is no purpose worth committing troops to?
      We recently had the Australian government cause the death of 1100 odd people at sea through an ill thought out opening of our borders to an extremely evil group of people smugglers. But the self righteous smart alecs who caused those deaths are still campaigning for a 'compassionate response' that would cause more.
      In fact far more deaths have been caused in recent decades by self righteous incompetents wringing their hands than by quick and forceful steps to stomp out such horrors.
      Wars are a 'necessary evil', and without them we would still be living in small bands of hunter gatherers in a life that could really be described as 'nasty, brutish and short'.

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