The Socialist paradigm has been dominant in the West for well over a hundred years. The October Revolution in 1917 was the radical realization of the Marxist dream, but the Socialist ideal had been overwhelmingly popular among the educated classes for at least a generation before that. State Socialism on the Prussian model began with Bismarck, and it was followed in short order by the Progressive movement, the Fabians, the Futurists, and all the various forms of fascism that arose coterminously in Europe and the United States. Socialism was an idea whose time had come, and we have been stuck with the consequences ever since.
It is The Dream That Will Not Die.
The habits of Socialist thinking are deeply ingrained and difficult to break. With the full force of the state behind collectivist public ideology, brainwashing in the West has been ubiquitous and thorough. After four or five generations of an uninterrupted Socialist monologue, it is very difficult to frame arguments about public policy in anything other than Marxist terms. To put it in post-modern jargon, there is only a single “narrative”.
An interesting discussion developed in the comments to Thursday’s post about the massive and inevitable corruption that accompanies the modern welfare state. Before I recapitulate some of what was said there, I will define my terms:
By Socialism I mean a political system which coercively extracts a large proportion of private wealth from its citizens, and then redistributes it for purposes which are decided by administrative fiat in a huge and powerful welfare state.
By redistribution I mean the apportionment among society’s non-productive members of those public monies drawn from the productive members of society, that is, the people who generate the wealth.
In using these terms I am describing an operational political system. My description does not address whether it is just to take private wealth coercively for public purposes, nor am I discussing the issue of whether the recipients of state largesse are “deserving” or “undeserving”. I am simply outlining how the system works.
By my definition, Socialism does not include what might be called social legislation: child labor laws, female suffrage, the regulation of working conditions, or even the setting of a minimum wage. All of these issues are worth debating, but they can all be accomplished legislatively without the necessity of mass income redistribution. For that reason they are not included them under the umbrella term “Socialism”.
The rest of this post is adapted from an exchange with the commenter Pasta on Thursday’s thread.
Doing away with welfare altogether would leave a lot of people starving or freezing.
I agree that we can’t just abandon the welfare state without a lot of suffering for ordinary people who depend on it. I don’t advocate a revolution in which the current system is instantly destroyed. We will have to wean the public off the government teat gradually — assuming that it can be done at all.
The idea that people would starve and freeze if the government didn’t take care of them is venerable and persistent, but it is not true. Most starvation and destitution in history occurred before the advent of general prosperity. It was not the lack of the welfare state, but the lack of societal wealth, that caused that kind of suffering.
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As a counterexample, take America in, say, 1901. There was virtually no welfare state, yet it was extremely rare for anyone to starve, or to live in destitution outside of the big-city immigrant ghettoes.
America had general prosperity, and the country was made up of communities. People were taken care of within those communities by families, friends, churches, local charity organizations, and other private structures that were close to those in need. They weren’t taken care of by an enormous centralized bureaucratic state.
In fact, such an idea would have been alien, repugnant, and vaguely un-American to most people. The Progressives worshipped at the European altar of a strong State, and it wasn’t until they got through with us that the fundamental ethic of the country changed.
We can’t go back to those conditions, not by fiat, anyway. But baby steps could be taken in the right direction. For example, requiring people to take care of their parents in their old age would be a start, forcing them back into what was the social norm a hundred years ago. Of course, all those Boomers with no children are going to have difficulties, and in another thirty years more than half of the elderly will be without siblings to take care of them, much less children.
The problems the next generation will face are going to be immense.
A basic rule for the classical liberal is that government should perform as few functions as possible, and that taxes should be kept as low as possible, in order to eliminate the corruption and non-productive behavior that saps the national commonweal and the individual character.
Defending the borders, managing the currency, maintaining national security, and regulating interstate commerce — those are some of the very few necessary functions of government. There’s no earthly reason — other than a century of Progressive habit — why the government should design school curricula, tell people what they should eat, or fund ballet companies. Localities can do the first, individuals can decide the second for themselves, and people who like ballet can do the third.
I don’t know enough about history to judge with certainty how the living conditions of the poor were before the advent of the welfare state. But if everything was fine back then, why did the Socialists become so popular and why was the welfare state created in the first place? I reckon that it happened because many people took offense to the poverty of many in the presence of the wealth of a few.
It’s difficult to separate out the various strands of received disinformation that are implicit in what you say.
First of all, everything wasn’t “fine” back then — people were subject to the vicissitudes of fate, just as they are now. They were also consigned to live with the consequences of their own poor choices, which is no longer true.
Under the welfare state, one can be lazy, improvident, and self-destructive without having to face the natural consequences for one’s behavior.
Socialism was not a bottom-up innovation. The masses did not embrace it. It was foisted upon them from above.
Before the 1930s, none of the Socialist leaders — whether they were “revolutionaries” or “reactionary” Socialists like Bismarck — was an ordinary working-class person. They were all elite, sophisticated, well-educated people.
Socialism was “scientific” and thus beyond dispute. It was imposed on the whole of society for the good of everyone by the Progressive leaders of the day, who were certain that they knew better than the unwashed masses what was best for them.
I don’t see why it would strengthen the individual character and why the national commonweal would be served better if the financial contribution to it through taxation was kept as low as possible, so that people could spend as much of their income as possible for indulging in selfish pleasures instead.
This is the legacy of 100+ years of Progressive brainwashing. Socialism has convinced you that people who work hard, make money, and then spend it in ways that they choose themselves are somehow “greedy” and “selfish”.
Implicit in this description is the assumption that the officials of the State are better guardians than you of your own money, that they will spend it more wisely and do more good with it. Nobody represents this attitude more clearly than Hillary Clinton.
A hundred years of evidence to the contrary makes no difference; the fairy tale persists. There is not one whit of evidence that government decisions serve the general welfare better than the decisions of the people themselves, those who are most affected by such decisions.
Economic improvement, the increase in the standard of living and general well-being, all took place before the advent of the Socialist state. Read Thomas Sowell if you doubt me — he has amassed the econometric statistics that show the correlation between economic stagnation and Socialist policies. This was true in 1917, and it has held sway everywhere ever since then.
The idea that Socialism improves the living standards of the population is propaganda, pure and simple. It’s a myth generated by the Socialist elites themselves.
Like so many modern “facts”, it has no empirical basis.
The expenses required for the commonweal are enormous and can’t be covered by voluntary donations alone. Therefore these funds need to raised by (forcible) taxation instead. Everybody understands this intuitively when it comes to other items than welfare. For instance, nobody in our times would advocate to fund an army by other means than (forcible) taxation. In order to serve the commonweal best, everybody needs to be required — and force applied, if somebody shirks one’s duties — to contribute to it according to his capabilities.
I agree with you here, but the normal functions of the state, which are stipulated by the social contract and paid for through taxation, are not an issue. The normal functions of the state include providing for the common defense, maintaining the currency, running a legal system to enforce laws and adjudicate private contractual disputes, and other similar necessities. When the government assumes additional functions, it is a usurpation of the natural rights of the people, and it inevitably leads to tyranny. Inevitably.
For more than a hundred years the American Republic performed those basic functions with a very low rate of taxation. I don’t know the exact figures, but public spending as a percentage of GDP was extremely low by today’s standards — probably in the low single digits — until the income tax was adopted in 1913.
Nowadays we pay nearly half our wealth in taxes, and some European countries pay more than half. The vast bulk of this money is simply a transfer from productive citizens to non-productive citizens. There are two reasons why we have managed to do it for so long without a popular revolt:
|1.||Westerners live in phenomenally wealthy societies, and|
|2.||It’s a Ponzi scheme — in order to function, it depends on a continuous population increase to provide new suckers for the system.|
The demographic collapse will see the end of the modern welfare state. It’s inevitable; it has to happen. There is nothing anyone can do. No matter how powerful a government is, it cannot solve this problem by fiat. Before the middle of this century, the welfare state will be gone.
If we choose to assess this prospect honestly, and act prudently, we may be able to restructure our governmental functions so as to avoid a cataclysm. But the longer we delay systemic change, the less likely it is that there will be a non-violent solution.
I don’t see why it should be any different for social expenses like welfare or universal health care. You may consider these expendable, but if you don’t, then covering them by taxation-raised money seems the soundest way to do.
Unfortunately, you are operating under the same false premises that most people do nowadays in the West. We have all been brainwashed for so long by Socialist propaganda that it is very difficult to think about these issues in any other terms.
The standing assumption is that we cannot guarantee the general well-being of the citizenry without the intervention of the State. This is a pernicious fallacy. Prior to the modern all-encompassing Socialist state, civil society — a plurality of institutions that included family, church, local government, voluntary organizations, charities, fraternal orders, guilds, trade associations, and so on, in addition to the national government — provided a web of support that included virtually everyone. As long as there was general prosperity, people were fairly well taken care of.
But the Industrial Revolution, followed by the various Socialist Revolutions (both soft and hard versions) saw the end of all that. Civil society has been all but destroyed by Socialism, and it is an open question whether it can be re-established without a prior societal collapse.
I call massive coercive removal of people’s resources by the government for state-mandated redistribution not “Socialism” (which I don’t defend, I am not a Socialist), but simply taxation.
Ah, but as I mentioned before, the vast bulk of taxation is given over to Socialist redistribution of wealth, and goes to the maintenance of welfare state “entitlements”. In the United States, the proportion is more than two-thirds, with almost all the rest given over to national defense.
European countries generally spend very little on national defense, so I assume that the proportion of their tax money that is redistributed to non-productive people is even larger.
The Socialist state we have all come to know will cease to exist. It must come to an end; there is no alternative. With an aging population and a general demographic decline, the simple mathematics of the situation make the result inevitable.
The question is how the various nations of the West will cope with this change — assuming that we somehow manage to survive the Islamist onslaught and close our doors to further Third World immigrants. The good news is that we know it can be done: Western civilization flowered and persisted for centuries without the dubious benefits of Socialism.
It means re-learning the old habit of self-reliance. It portends a riskier life, without the State to cater to one’s every need and whim. But for those of us who prefer freedom and autonomy, it’s worth it.