Why the Debate Over Socialism Isn’t Over:

Many commenters on my post on “Israeli Kibbutzim and the Failure of Socialism” argue that socialism is a dead issue. Why, they ask, should we bother arguing against an ideology that is already so completely discredited? Their point is not without some merit. In most of the world, socialism has far fewer adherents today than at any time in the last 100 years.

Nonetheless, there are still some good reasons to continue the debate over socialism, and to explore the reasons why that ideology proved so disastrous in both theory and practice. First, to state the most obvious, there are still at least two governments that continue to practice full-blown socialism: Cuba and North Korea. It is important to understand the reasons why the people of those two nations live under such horrible oppression.

Second, it is far from impossible for socialism to stage a political recovery in the future. Especially when packaged with nationalism, socialist rhetoric still has tremendous appeal to many people. Hugo Chavez’s political success in Venezuela is an example of how some of the most disastrous socialist policies can be successfully sold to the people if combined with nationalism – a lesson first taught by Hitler and Mussolini. Political entrepreneurs in other Third World nations may well try to emulate Chavez’s successes; the same could even occur in parts of the developed world if economic conditions deteriorate sufficiently. And, as Bryan Caplan shows in this excellent paper (scroll down to the link marked “The Totalitarian Threat”), several likely future technological and political developments may increase the viability of socialist totalitarianism and render its reemergence more likely.

Third, full-blown socialism continues to have some important and respected advocates in the intellectual world. Yale economist John Roemer and Oxford political theorist G.A. Cohen are two of the most sophisticated, and both are leading scholars in their fields. There are other academic advocates of socialism who enjoy considerable followings despite the fact that their work is far less impressive than Cohen’s and Roemer’s, or is even downright dishonest (as in the case of Noam Chomsky’s political writings). By contrast, there are virtually no intellectually respectable advocates of fascism (in the true, rather than the purely pejorative, sense of the word) or racism left in the Western world.

Fourth, even among those who agree that socialism has been an abject failure to date, there is disagreement about the reasons for that failure. Some defenders of socialism claim that it failed in the USSR and elsewhere only because of insufficient ideological fervor, negative attributes of Russian culture, the hostility of capitalist states, or other causes that do not discredit the ideology’s core ideas. As I explained in my previous post, the failure of the Israeli kibbutz model is important precisely because it helps rule out some of these arguments.

Finally, some, though by no means all, of the shortcomings of full-blown socialism are shared by more moderate interventionist policies. The problems of knowledge, incentives, and political ignorance that undermines democratic control of big government are particularly important here.

For all these reasons, the debate over socialism is far from over. The spectre that once haunted Europe and the world may have been defeated and discredited. But we have not yet completed the task of driving a stake through its heart.

UPDATE: To avoid confusion, I should emphasize that in this post, as in the previous one, I use the term “socialism” to refer to government control of all or most of the means of production, not to more moderate departures from the free market, such as welfare statism or government regulation of industries that remain privately owned.

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