Dada is the sun, Dada is the egg. Dada is the Police of the Police.

5/20/2005

Defending socialism

Now that the dust has settled a bit from the Newsweek episode, and I've got my weekly 'I am Dada, hear me roar!' post out of the way, I can return to what I was doing before: finding common ground with my political opponents.

Now, of course I'm not talking about the type of folks who hang out the Rottweiler site or the goons from Stormfront I mean, Little Green Footballs. I'm talking about my sane political opponents: the extreme libertarian/anarcho-capitalist types like Eric, Brad(?), Robert, and the Cattalarchy contributors.

Now, I'll be honest, when I first started reading these blogs, I was kind of surprised to find out that there was such a thing as capitalist anarchists. The two had always seemed quite incompatible to me, and every anarchist that I knew of was an opponent of capitalism: people like Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Noam Chomsky, etc.

Having become a bit more acquainted with this ideology, I think they are mistaken, of course, but I think that they--unlike, say, the GOP--are acting in good faith: i.e., we're both genuinely trying to affect change for the good of all, but just have very different ways of doing that.

I think that their opposition to socialism is based on a misconstrual of what socialism is. It's going to take me a bit to explain myself, so I'm going to put the rest below the fold. Those who are interested in this can click the link below and read the rest, and everyone else can keep scrolling down and see what it would look like if Natalie Portman and I had a child.

Click here to continue reading 'Defending socialism.'


'Defending socialism' continued:

Robert at Libertopia, who describes himself as a 'minarchist', which I take to be very close to the anarchist position, recently wrote a post stating his objection to the use of the state to enforce moral principles:

To demonstrate my point, take Dada, the wooden Head, who’s world-view is quite dissimilar to mine, in that he advocates a level of coercion to achieve his moral ends that I simply find unconscionable. As a “leftist”, he thinks that government ought to compel individuals to monetarily assist their fellow man…through force if necessary. Make no mistake, it’s always by force. Just try to inform the IRS that you plan to pay only what you think is justified to support the basic functions of government.

Another strong argument against compulsory moral behavior has been made by Eric the Grumbler, who articulates the folly of coercive “virtue”.
I'm sure that most folks on the left, Dada included, don't think of what they are doing as "coercion", any more than the right authoritarians pushing their social agenda think of it as "coercion". But if you want to use the power of government to require me to do what you deem to be right then you are "forcing me", "coercing me", "making me" do it. There's no getting around that.

This, it seems to me, is the essence of the libertarian argument against socialism: that it involves an unacceptable level of coercion for the sake of 'equality' or of seeing to it that everyone has what he or she needs.

I do not rule out the use of state force in certain situations, that's true. As things stand now, any kind of anarchist or even libertarian society is purely hypothetical. So just as anarchists no doubt call the police if someone has stolen their car, I don't have a problem with the government, say, 'forcing' a corporation to pay fines for polluting the air.

But I think that the conception of socialism here--i.e., state-enforced equality--is fundamentally mistaken. It seems to be using the wrong 'picture' so to speak: in the libertarian's view, everyone rightly owns their property, and an external entity--the state--comes a-knockin' and demands that some of that property (money) be forked over, because the Smiths down the street are in a bad way, while you are doing pretty well for yourself. In other words: the government is forcing you to help out the Smiths.

This isn't necessarily the way to construe the socialist idea. Let's say that you and I, and a hundred or so other people find ourselves for whatever reason on an uninhabited island. We have no hope at all of being rescued, so we begin to make plans to simply live out the rest of our lives on the island.

The island is small, but it looks like it will provide more than enough resources to support all of us. The next question, then, is how to divide up the resources.

There are numerous options. A seemingly fair way to do this would be to simply figure out how big the island is, and divide the area by 100 (or however many people are there), so that each person gets an equal share and can use it to support herself (let's assume for the sake of simplicity that resources are distributed equally across the island, so that any plot is as good as any other).

Another prima facie fair way to do it would be not to divide it up at all, but to own it collectively and all work the land together, equally sharing whatever we reap.

However, not everybody gets along so well, and some of them are frankly loathe to work with one another. The ship we were on was carrying a group of people from New York, and some of them were Yankees fans, while the others were Mets fans. The Mets fans want to move to the other side of the island from the Yankees fans so that their interaction is as minimal as possible.

The rest of us, neutral on the Yankees-Mets question, agree that it is reasonable for them to have this wish respected. So we agree that the island will be divided up equally, so that no one will have to interact with anyone they don't want to.

But we can't simply divide things up and be done with it. Since we are starting from scratch, we have to stipulate what exactly it means to say that Mary 'owns' plot 79. Surely this doesn't mean that she can do anything she wants to with the plot--for instance, we can't permit her to start a fire on it that will spread and destroy the plots of others. So we have to have ground rules.

One of the questions we will have to answer is: should we allow the plots to be transferred, so that one person ends up owning more than one plot? Say that Jake owns plot 78, right next to Mary. Jake does OK at working his land, but Mary does much better. On top of it, Mary is quite the cook, and every evening he smells her delicious meals and wishes he could have some. So he goes to Mary and offers her a deal: Jake will cede his plot to Mary, in exchange for her making him dinner every night (and of course allowing him to continue living there). Mary, who has lusted after Jake's plot for a while, since it would allow her to grow a greater variety of crops, takes the deal.

Should we allow the deal to take place? Jake, a libertarian, says of course: after all, it is his plot; why shouldn't he be able to make a deal with Mary and give it to her? Now, of course, we've got a dilemma; we have to decide whether or not ownership of the plot includes the right to cede that ownership.

So let's rewind: given the possibility of such a scenario, it would behoove us to deal with it preemptively, at the outset. That is: when we divide up the land, we must decide what ownership of a plot entails, and one of the things we must decide upon is whether ownership entails the right to transfer.

Jake, the libertarian, speaks up and says yes: once ownership has been established, everyone should be able to transfer their property in whatever way they see fit.

But Leo, a socialist, disagrees: 'If we permit free transfer of the plots, we run the risk of one person coming to own a great number of plots--perhaps even a majority of them. This one person, then, will have inordinate power, for while we make all our decisions democratically, the one who ones many plots will be able to control the votes of those living on them (for he can threaten them with eviction), and it will be as if this one person had 50 votes, while the rest of us have only 1. I see no reason to build into our concept of ownership the ability to transfer plots to another; it has the potential to do us much harm, and to destroy the democratic decision-making process that we have been relying on.'

Jake responds: 'But not all of us want to own a plot; perhaps some of us would be happier ceding our plot to someone else, in exchange for something (Jake had tasted Mary's cooking a few times on the ship, and was already anticipating striking the deal with her). If it would make me a happier man, why shouldn't I be allowed to exploit my plot not by farming it but by trading it for something?'

Leo: 'A good point; many might indeed not want the responsibility that comes with ownership of a plot. But still: the danger is too great that one person may accumlate a grossly disproportionate share of land.'

'But,' Leo continues, 'perhaps I can think of a compromise that will satisfy both of us. We will allow transfer of plots--but only conditionally. That is: you are free to transfer your plot as you see fit, and others are allowed to own more than one plot. But--if we see that this is creating an unacceptable imbalance of power in the way I just described, we reserve the right to reapportion the plots to correct this. We will allow the free transfer of plots up until the point where the benefit from doing so is outweighed by the danger.'

*****

Now what I want to ask is this: supposing that Leo's suggestion is taken up and implemented, whose rights are being violated if down the road, it is determined that Mary, who is a really good cook, has acquired too many plots of land, and is beginning to exert an inordinate amount of control over our decision-making, and we thus decide to negate her ownership of some of those plots and distribute them to others? This was part of the agreement from the beginning.

Now, it might not have been: even if the majority of us agreed with Leo, Mary, anticipating a windfall, could still have said: 'No, I find this unacceptable. I will not agree to it.' At which point we could say: 'Very well, but don't expect us to recognize your ownership of any but the plot assigned to you. You have no necessary claim to any of this land; out of fairness, we are willing to acknowledge an equal portion of it as yours, but no more. If you insist on trying to assert control over more of it, you will do so with no sanction from us. This means that we will consider it as public property--having built into our concept of ownership the stipulation that any plot abandoned goes back into the kitty, so to speak--and do what we see fit with it. We don't recognize your claim to it, and so we will not hesitate to assign it out if, say, a new person lands on the island and needs a plot for herself.'

*****

This, essentially, is socialism. Property rights are an artificial construct, so we are free to sculpt them as we wish. What could be wrong with sculpting them in as democratic a way possible? Libertarians can even have their markets; we simply reserve the right to step in when the effects of those markets become unacceptable. Since this is built into the very concept of ownership, how can they complain? It is only because the rest of us recognize their property rights that they have them at all.

Is force an essential part of any of this? The only place for it is if someone tries to acquire land we do not recognize as rightfully theirs; in such a case, we might very well resort to force in order to put a stop to it. But is this any different from what the libertarian would do? Presumably, libertarians are quite willing to resort to force if, say, someone were squatting on their land; otherwise, their 'ownership' of that property would be so toothless as to be nonexistent. So when Mary tries to encroach upon land we do not recognize as hers, and we use force to prevent her, how are we doing anything different--or more objectionable--than is Mary if she uses force to repel someone who comes along and tries to use one of her plots?

It's possible I could have said all this in a simpler way, but this is the best way I could think of to express it. It seems to me that if you slightly shift your perspective--stop seeing ownership as something primitive, but rather as something that is constructed, and in fact is an ongoing construction, socialism stops looking like forced equality and starts looking like common sense. Why on earth should we agree to a concept of ownership that may doom us? Since ownership is conditional anyway, why not include among its conditions that society not be disadvantaged by it?

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