Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Decomposting Socialism

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 14, 2005

How many times do we have to hear these tired old stereotypes?

We've seen socialism fail all around the globe.

No, you saw dictatorships failing all around the globe. You didn't see people storming the government buildings in Sweden, did you? You didn't see mass protests after a socialist government was elected in Spain, right? The people aren't rising up in Argentina, in Venezuela. Democratic socialism is alive and doing just fine, thank you.

If there is any over-riding conclusion to come from the left after this last election, it's that the gloves have to come off.

I think that the left has (finally) realized that it has been losing a propaganda war for a number of years. The right has been effective in low-level frame-building and opinion-making. It has managed to skew words and images to that people have a distorted view of the left, the typical left voter, and the left world-view.

Because, there is one observation about the left that is true. It has become the party of an elite. An elite that doesn't like to mucky-muck in trench politics, doesn't like to get in there and challenge right wing blogs, doesn't like to go to churches and challege the Pastor's call for hate politics, doesn't like to mess around with letters to the editor, a left-wing press, policy think-tanks, white papers and submissions, policy appeals and other stall tactics, and more.

The left has for a very long time thought it was above politics, above propaganda, above getting into the mud and duking it out with those mud-turkeys.

I think that's going to change. I certainly hope so. because, in a democracy, if you don't speak to the people, for the people, you've lost. Doesn't matter if you're Jesus, you've lost.

So let's reframe.

Socialists argue that important functions ought to be carried out by the state. Insofar as other parties agree with this, they are to that degree socialist. These services are universal, that is, they are intended to benefit, and are paid for by, everybody in society.

Another myth:

Yeah, and universality fails everywhere it's been tried, including the United States. How many countries' economies have to wallow in the toilet before you admit that socialism sucks?

Well you say this, but it's true only if you look at it through a very selective filter - and in a larger sense, it's not true at all.

Some universal social services:

- Police, military and fire services that do not perform means tests and who serve every person, rich or poor. Disaster prevention such as earthquake warnings, dikes and levees. etc.

- Public roadways, which are free for all (or when they charge tools, charge the same regardless of income). Public transportation, such as buses - even free in some places, such as Logan, Utah.

- Public health care, in Canada

- Public schools in most countries (but not the U.S., where the competing private system has bled the public system dry)

I could go on, but you get the idea. Perhaps you don't like these services - but it would be a stretch to call any of them a failure.

More to the point, simply dismissing a program because it is universal is a non-starter. Sure, some universal programs fail. But many succeed, so much so that they're taken for granted. The issue lies in what separates the successful from the unsuccessful universal services, not in whether or not a service is universal.

Many income-support programs vary by contribution - Canada's Employment Insurance, for example. This is the concession made to rich people so they'll allow the program to exist at all.

Myth: By making these "anti-squalor" programs universal, the bulk of the money goes to those who weren't in danger of living in squalor in the first place. It isn't those who are in danger of living in squalor who are protected.

It turns out, people like collecting money from such programs whether or not they live in squalor. Canada's 'baby bonus' program, for example, is paid to everyone who has a baby, rich or poor. So many people who don't need it still get it. But the thing is, they're still happy to get it.

The assumption is, if the money is paid to someone who doesn't need it, that it's a total loss, that it's wasteful. But this isn't so. The people who it gets paid to supported the program with their taxes in the first place. For them it's virtually a break-even proposition - pay $1000 in tax, get $1000 in baby bonus.

Of course, it's a leveler, right? Rich people pay $1250 in tax and get back $1000. Poorer people pay $750 in tax and get back $1000. The destitute pay no tax, and get the whole $1000.

So why not just charge $250 in taxes to everyone, and pay $1000 only to those who need it? Well, then this nice self-balancing system begins to break down. You incur a large overhead conducting the means tests. You lose the subtlty, that allows some households to get a net benefit of $250.

See, what people know is that if the benefits are means-tested, most people wouldn't qualify for anything, but they'd still pay the same taxes they did before, because of the increased cost of the program. Who wants to risk that?


Socialist twits are regarded as wusses because they want to remove competition from economics.

This is a naive and caricatured version of socialism. True, there are some people who believe all forms of competition are evil. They are as bad as the Puritans. People who think hockey games should not have scores, for example. But I think they are in the minority.

Certainly this is not characteristic of the sort of socialism I have advocated. I have started on numerous occasions that market principles, within broad constraints, ought to be allowed to apply. I don't characterize this as 'competition' per se although of course competition is the inevitable outcome of autonomy. And I don't see as in any way evil the competition that does occur within a free marketplace.

Broadly stated, contemporary socialism holds to two major tenets with respect to competition and the marketplace:

a) where marketplace failures occur as a shortage of supply, intervention is warranted in order to prevent cases of extreme need. These interventions typically take the form of (a) market regulation, such as price caps, and (b) market stimulation, such as publicly funded production.

b) where the marketplace is compromised because of collusion or monopoly, intervention is warranted in order to prevent cases of extreme need. Typically, a regulatory framework is applied to prevemt abuse of the monopoly, with as necessary entry points into the market provided for smaller players, often with government support.

These principles are based on the premise that a civil and democratic society becomes unstable and cannot function when inequalities produced by market failures create extreme need. Hence, the principles for intervention are and must be results based, specifically:
- they must actually reduce extreme need
- they must address market failures and not, say, self-inflicted losses
- they must be the minimum required in order to address the need

Many socialists also stress the virtue of cooperation. Capitalists do as well, which explains their support for corporate enterprise (which is, after all, nothing more than privately-funded structured cooperation). What distinguishes socialists from right wingers in this regard is their recognition and support for a wider array of types of cooperation.

Specifically, in addition to corporations (which would not be eliminated by socialists), it is necessary to provide equivalent support and legal frameworks to enable:
- worker cooperation, more commonly known as unions
- cooperatives and similar employee-owned enterprise
- community initiatives, such as community networks, where cooperation exists within governmental or community agencies

The principle here is that certain modes of cooperation (corporations, say, or religions) should not be allowed to obtain a legislative advantage. The principles therefore of social cooperation are based on the principles that:
- alternative forms of cooperation are effectively possible
- these enterprises have equal standing in legislation with other forms of cooperation

To return again to the concept of competition:

When socialists oppose competition, what they are opposing is what they perceive to be the dogma that competition is always good. It is taken as a trusim by socialists that in many areas of endeavour competition is more harmful than good. This, for example, is always the case when:
- a single instance of a resource produces a significant increase in efficiencies over multiple instances - for example, having two, competing, road networks would create significant inefficiency
- the cost of competition substantially increases the cost of a scarce resource -- for example, health care is a scarce resource (and already a subject of market failure) -- competition in health care exaggerates this market failure, rather than alleviating it, by adding layers of inefficiency to the production and distribution of health care services

Other than these cases (if pressed I might think of some others, but these are the biggies), competition is preferred over market management, because of the oft-noted observation that markets tend to allocate resources more efficiently, that autonomy is preferable over control, and that innovation and resourcefulness often arise in competition where they might not otherwise.

This is obviously a brief sketch, and hopelessly inadequate with respect to the details, but it should be sufficient to show that the dogma that 'socialists hate competition' is a myth, or as Lakoff would say, a 'frame', used to discredit rather than to inform.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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