The case against socialism as a system for the organisation of human relations and economics should be easy to make. Ludwig von Mises showed how economic calculation is an impossibility without the price signals provided by free markets, the morality of socialism has repeatedly been refuted – from Frederic Bastiat and beyond – on the basis that it necessitates violation of basic rights to personal property and individual freedoms, and the centralisation of power to the state over the people which socialism necessitates amounts to a condescending degradation of the individual. We can of course also point to history, which is strewn with the wreckage of every attempt at practical implementation of socialist ideology.
So why, in the face of such overwhelming evidence of its theoretical and practical deficiency, is socialist doctrine still so revered?
The answer is certainly complex, but one reason is that even sound arguments are ineffective against an opponent who carries with him a feeling of righteousness. Socialism has succeeded in making its devotees believe that it is they who have the moral high-ground: the superficial compassion socialist ideology lends to its followers affords a feeling of ethical superiority, which contrast sharply with the alleged “selfishness” of the more individualistic ideologies of the free-market right. The vitriolic rhetoric of the left shows how their differences with political opponents go much deeper than mere disagreement: socialism has a monopoly on decency and dissent betrays a contemptible lack of empathy with fellow human beings.
But there is hope: we should not be cowed, because it is all a trick. While their rhetoric is of empathy and kindness, in fact their ideology provides an intellectual justification for the exact feeling which they claim to hold in contempt. While they protest against greed as a moral defect of the despised “rich”, in fact it is greed that motivates them: greed for special privileges, larger welfare handouts, better public services. Despite their claim to the opposite, greed is the very essence of socialist policy making. At its core, socialism gives intellectual justification for being greedy for unearned wealth; it legitimises making demands on others for the things you desire. Policies are dressed up as compassionate redistribution from the greedy to the needy, but is it? There is a dramatic disconnect between the intellectual virtues espoused by socialists and the political reality of supporting policies which sees themselves as beneficiaries. As the great Thomas Sowell put it: “I have never understood why it is “greed” to want to keep the money you have earned but not greed to want to take somebody else’s money.” In Wall Street, Gordon Gekko famously said that “greed is good”, but that is not the point. Greed is, full stop. It is a fundamental tenet of human behaviour, and regardless of your political persuasion you are driven by greed and self-interest. Socialists’ great feat is that they have claimed the moral high-ground for their version of it.
The burden of paying for that which the socialist desires is conveniently put on someone else: the “rich”, perceived to live in undeserved excess and somehow morally bankrupt because of it. The easy logic of taking from those who have, to give to those who don’t is of course alluring; it is not hard to understand the comfort evoked in those who see themselves as standing for the little man. The left wants to know why some people are poor? But that is the wrong question, the right one being why anyone got rich in the first place? Alas, socialist rallies are usually not lining up speakers to explain where wealth originates, focussing instead on the more pleasant task of promising to dish out money to worthy causes. The left claims virtue in taking that which belongs to others to fund that which they want for themselves; they leverage the power of the state to enable a wealth transfer from those they deem underserving towards causes they champion. And they do so under the guise of moral superiority.
The right disagrees with the left. But the left hates the right, because they have convinced themselves that wanting to keep what is yours is morally repugnant. Having absolved themselves of the duty to bake the cake, they moralise over how to split it. We who believe in free markets must never succumb to their ethics, but call their bluff when they claim their ideas stand for decency and justice. Our ideas are better, and when we champion the power of capitalism to build a better future for all not only are we right, but we do not have to turn morality upside down to believe it.