A common objection to socialism is that it has never worked in practice. Each time it’s been tried — in Soviet Russia, in Venezuela, and so forth — it has led to widespread poverty and the centralization of power and wealth into the hands of an elite few.
The response on the part of socialists and socialist sympathizers is by now so standard that it has virtually achieved meme status: “That’s not real socialism.”
You see, real socialism is incompatible with the authoritarian dictatorships we’ve seen in so-called “socialist” countries. So the story goes.
If you’ve spent any amount of time debating the merits of socialism versus capitalism, you’ve almost certainly witnessed this move. In the face of objections to socialism based on its (allegedly) typical practical consequences, defenders of socialism simply deny that the examples cited are instances of bona fide socialism.
In the spirit of whataboutism, we should note that capitalists and capitalist sympathizers can be found making the exact same move. A common objection to free-market capitalism is that it invariably leads to a radically unequal society in which the majority of the wealth is amassed by a select few private individuals or corporate entities, and those who have all the money can and do influence the system in their favor, either by exploiting workers with little capital or by colluding with the government to further their own interests.
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The common response on the part of capitalists and capitalist sympathizers directly parallels the socialist’s rebuttal: “That’s not real capitalism. That’s cronyism or corporatism, both of which true free-market capitalists completely reject.”
It’s understandable why someone defending a particular economic system would do this. They want to distinguish historical perversions of their favored system from the genuine article. And if the point being made by each party in this debate is simply that the examples cited do not fit the canonical definition of socialism or capitalism, fair enough.
But more often than not, this strategy is deployed as a way of subtly changing the subject from the typical practical consequences of implementing a particular economic system, to the canonical definition of that economic system — the system as it exists “on paper,” or as a doctrine. These two questions are clearly related, as we shall see, but they are nevertheless different, and sliding promiscuously between the two has a way of undermining clear thinking about the subject.
First, failing to keep track of this distinction leads to double standards. It isn’t hard to find socialists who accept socialism on the basis of its definition on paper while rejecting capitalism because of its typically negative practical outworking. Likewise, it isn’t hard to find capitalists who accept capitalism based on its canonical definition while rejecting socialism based on its typically negative practical outworking.
This is unreasonable. The standard for acceptance or rejection of a particular economic system should be the same across the board. Anything short of this is just cheating, and it should be called out as such by all genuinely inquiring minds.
Second, and most important, failing to maintain and highlight the distinction between an economic system on paper and what happens when that system is implemented in the real world can prevent us from seeing the potential causal connections between the two. When someone objects to a particular economic system on the basis of its typically negative practical consequences, it is sophistry to pivot back to the theory as doctrine to block the objection. It does not answer the objection, while giving the appearance that it does.
It might turn out that the truth is somewhere in the middle — that the example in question is in part an instance of a particular economic system and in part a perversion of it, at least as it exists on paper. Suppose that each economic system has at least two components: a set of stated goals, and a proposed mechanism for achieving those goals. There are probably additional elements to many economic systems, most notably commitments to certain rights or values which can furnish additional reasons to accept or reject a particular theory. But these can be set aside for present purposes, since we are focusing on the consequences of particular systems.
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You might think that the goal of socialism is public ownership of the means of production, which leads to or constitutes a radically economically egalitarian society. The proposed mechanism of socialism could be seen as the forced redistribution of wealth via the state, an entity that will eventually dissolve, resulting in a classless and stateless society.
It may well turn out that the proposed mechanism of socialism simply does not typically lead to socialism’s stated goals. In that case, the examples of socialism brought forth by critics may not be “real socialism” with respect to their results, since they are cases in which socialism’s stated goals were not achieved. But they may still be examples of socialist mechanisms at work. And this is something we would never come to know if we insisted on pivoting back to the stated definition of socialism every time someone brought up the consequences of socialist mechanisms at work in the real world.
The same can be said for free-market capitalism, its stated goals, and its proposed mechanisms (as well as any economic system that can be properly situated between socialism and capitalism). Let us assume that free-market capitalism has the goal of providing prosperity according to merit and effort, and its proposed mechanism is unregulated trade. It may well turn out that unregulated trade simply does not typically lead to a distribution of prosperity according to merit and effort. In that case, the examples of capitalism brought forth by critics may not be “real capitalism” with respect to their results, since they are cases in which capitalism’s stated goal was not achieved. But they may well still be examples of capitalist mechanisms at work. Again, this is something we would never come to know if we perversely deflected objections based on real world consequences by changing the subject to the theory as it exists on paper, in the abstract.
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The distinction between socialist mechanisms and socialist goals might help explain why socialist sympathizers and capitalist sympathizers often can’t agree on the relevance of examples like Venezuela and Soviet Russia to the debate over the merits of so-called “democratic” socialism, the model of Scandinavian countries like Norway. Democratic socialists typically dismiss examples like Venezuela and Soviet Russia as irrelevant to their favored version of socialism because, unlike the systems in those countries, the Scandinavian model seems to meet their desired goals. Capitalists, on the other hand, are usually more interested in evaluating socialist mechanisms, which is why they insist on the relevance of examples like Venezuela and Soviet Russia, where socialist mechanisms have had disastrous results. In their mind, the Scandinavian countries are outliers that succeed in spite of their socialistic tendencies, not because of them.
The underlying lesson here generalizes to other debates. Subtly changing the subject as a response to an objection to your position may be an effective debate tactic. But it does not evince a commitment to finding the truth, nor should it persuade rational minds in pursuit of the truth. We have to do better.