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“Socialism,” the Tea Partiers, and Slate’s Political Gabfest

On today’s Slate Political Gabfest the hosts criticized Tea Partiers for misusing the word “socialism.” David Plotz said it’s “stunning” that Tea Partiers would say Obama is leading the country into socialism. After all, the Obamacare legislation benefited corporations such as insurance companies. The hosts accuse the Tea Partiers of basically engaging in equivocation: using the pejorative potency of “socialism” because of its traditional technical meaning but using the word in a looser sense to refer to “big government.”

But of course the Tea Partiers have a point. It is true that socialism in a technical sense has been used to denote economic or political systems in which the means of production are publicly owned–basically, the state owns land and factories, as under communism. But fascism and corporatism can be seen as variants of this basic idea: instead of directly and explicitly owning the means of production, the state indirectly controls such resources by its control and regulation of corporations, who nominally own capital. This was done under fascism in Hitler’s Germany, for example, which was of course socialistic–the word Nazi means “national socialist”. Thus, the Slate Political Gabfest pundits, while a bit condescendingly chastising the Tea Partiers for their naivety, are themselves a bit naive in contrasting fascism from socialism, as if they are totally distinct or opposed.

As I noted in What Libertarianism Is, Austrian economist and libertarian philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in his treatise A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (chapters 3–6), provides a systematic analysis of various forms of socialism: Socialism Russian-Style, Socialism Social-Democratic Style, the Socialism of Conservatism, and the Socialism of Social Engineering. In fact, recognizing the common elements of various forms of socialism and their distinction from libertarianism (capitalism), Hoppe incisively defines socialism as “an institutionalized interference with or aggression against private property and private property claims.” Ibid., p. 2 (emphasis added). He goes on:

If … an action is performed that uninvitedly invades or changes the physical integrity of another person’s body and puts this body to a use that is not to this very person’s own liking, this action … is called aggression … Next to the concept of action, property is the most basic category in the social sciences. As a matter of fact, all other concepts to be introduced in this chapter — aggression, contract, capitalism and socialism — are definable in terms of property: aggression being aggression against property, contract being a nonaggressive relationship between property owners, socialism being an institutionalized policy of aggression against property, and capitalism being an institutionalized policy of the recognition of property and contractualism. [pp. 12, 7]

In other words, although the term socialism is usually narrowly restricted to public ownership of the means of production, from a political or ethical standpoint there is nothing special about “capital”; what is important about it is that it is a type of private property. Thus the essence of socialism is simply institutionalized aggression against private property. In this broader sense, any state action that infringes on property rights is socialistic. The Tea Partiers are right to sense the socialism of Obamacare, for it most certainly involves institutionalized, massive, and widespread interference with private property rights–e.g., the taxes that fund it are theft of private property; the economic regulations imposed on businesses and individuals are trespass. Where the Tea Partiers go wrong is in not realizing that Republican and conservative polices are also socialistic in this broader sense–from the drug war to the war in Iraq. (See also Friedman and Socialism.)

Yet again, we have an illustration of the fact that only libertarians oppose the state, aggression, slavery, and socialism in a principled, consistent way.


{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Bob Roddis April 24, 2010, 7:08 pm

    The progressives are on a roll these days calling those who equate socialism with National Socialism and/or Obama stupid or advancing “fraudulent history”. Slate joins in here:


    It’s a fight they probably shouldn’t have started. They are going to lose it.

  • Noah Dillon May 16, 2012, 12:29 am

    I don’t suppose this will get any traction here but it occurs to me that Hoppe’s description, cited above, is rather overblown and hyperbolic. Calling agreements by the public body and their representatives an “aggression” is so condemnatory as to be laughable. Are prohibitions against child labor also an “aggression” against property? Is free public primary education an “aggression” against property?

    Furthermore, I think that you’re being a bit injudicious with the distinctions you’re making: ideally (though such has never happened as each Communist revolt has occurred in circumstances unlike those that Marx described) in a Socialist-cum-Communist state, laborers own the means of production. (Do labor count as a form of capital in Hoppe’s reckoning?) In totalitarian or fascist states, as under Hitler or Stalin, the state owns the means of production directly or through surrogates, as you describe above.

    Although I’m not a libertarian, I am a libertine. But I am also a leftist. I don’t think that these are mutually exclusive.

    I hope that we can have a conversation about this—it is rare that radicals from any side talk with each other, as I’m sure you know. I wonder what, under your anarcho-capitalist vision of utopia, would prevent butchery, theft, slavery, and other abuses? Can ethical behavior and equitable societies really be unbounded?

  • twv December 9, 2012, 8:42 pm

    I agree more with Mr. Dillon than with Dr. Hoppe. I think, as I’ve stated elsewhere (http://www.wirkman.com/Wirkman/Netizen/Entries/2011/3/20_The_Spectrum_of_Socialism.html), that a social/political system must meet a number of conditions to qualify for the label of “socialism”:

    1. Government (“public”) ownership of the means of production.
    2. Support from taxpayers on the basis of ability to pay, and/or corvée labor
    3. Little or no voluntary user fee financing.
    4. Access to service granted chiefly by “need” or expressed (political?) desire.
    5. Monopoly granted by government.
    6. Policy overseen by government and controlled by some bureaucracy, not using profit-and-loss accounting.

    Still, as I conceded in the piece I’m quoting from, “The more of these six characteristics an enterprise has, the more ‘socialistic’ it is. Since many of our major institutions prove to be two-thirds socialistic or worse, we live in a dirigistic society.” So Stephan and the Tea Partyers are right: Obama and the Democrats are moving in “socialistic” direction, in that they are trying to squelch markets, transform them through regulation, even to the point of suppression in some cases, and if and when the “private sector” aspects buckle totally, or merely have their prices spiral out of control, they will crow about how the government systems “work better.”

    We cannot take for granted that the silly over-regulated

  • twv December 9, 2012, 8:43 pm

    Oops. A stray thought appends my post above. This blog should have a “preview” option for comments! Eh, Stephan?

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