The Socialist Temptation

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By James Kalb, Crisis Magazine, July 6, 2018

Socialism never goes away. A quarter century after its collapse in Eastern Europe and Russia and the success of market-oriented reforms elsewhere, many people once again see it as the ideal.

That’s true even in the Church. Not so very long ago Saint John XXIII could reaffirm the teaching of Pope Pius XI that “No Catholic could subscribe even to moderate socialism.” And Saint John Paul II could point to “the fundamental error of socialism,” that it “maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice.”

That was then and this is now. Today we find people, some of them serious and well-informed, who call themselves Catholic socialists. So it’s not just a matter of bad or stupid people believing false and destructive things. There are good and intelligent people who believe those things. Why is that?

Many people find socialism irresistible. Life is unfair, as we all know, but unfairness can often be remedied. When that’s so, justice calls for the remedy to be applied. And if similar situations keep arising—which they do—it seems right to get organized and make the remedy a matter of routine backed by public authority so it can be relied on. After all, shouldn’t government establish justice?

Apply that line of thought again and again and you end up with comprehensive bureaucratic control of social life for the sake of fairness. In a prosperous modern society, fairness would include providing everyone with all things necessary for well-being. Anything short of that would leave some harms unremedied.

It’s that tendency that I’m calling “socialism.” So I’m using the word not in the narrow sense of state ownership of business enterprise but in a broader sense to refer to open-ended expansion of government activity to redress life’s unfairness.

This more general definition takes account of problems—like the need for markets to set prices and allocate resources—that have arisen in the course of the socialist project. But since the fundamental project continues, why stick with an obsolete nineteenth century definition? We don’t do that with “liberalism” or “civil rights,” so it seems odd to do it with “socialism.”

Whether it’s the older or newer version, it’s easy to find serious problems with socialism. It’s inefficient and doesn’t deliver on its promises. When it fixes one thing it deranges others. Government can’t know much about what’s going on at the individual level, so it redefines “justice” as “equality” and so deprives people of responsibility for their situation. And it concentrates power, supplants autonomous institutions like family and religion, and makes it impossible for important centers of thought and action independent of the state bureaucracy to exist.

The end result is a non-functional society with an arbitrary, corrupt, and ineffective government. When government controls everything, nothing controls government, and those who run it can do what they want. And since socialism destroys personal feelings of responsibility—how can they develop when people don’t depend on each other in daily life?—those in power lose any motive to sacrifice their personal advantage to the public good.

Even if those in charge manage for a time to run a principled and efficient government, socialism causes problems. The reason is that it gives all power to a false vision of the human good.

Every state claims the right to back its decisions with deadly force and demand the ultimate sacrifice. Today’s state claims the further right to remake human relations and social understandings. That’s what antidiscrimination laws and similar initiatives are about. It’s inevitable that the principles behind an institution with such comprehensive authority will take on a religious quality. And since the purpose of the state is to enforce those principles, they will become in effect an established and intolerant religion.

So if the goal of the state is to guarantee and equalize material goods, and even intangible goods like social respect, then equal status and comfort for everyone will be seen as the highest social goal. But if that’s the highest good, people will feel that the world owes them the same no matter what they do. Under such circumstances, how concerned will they be about fulfilling personal obligations?

Such tendencies don’t end well. Even so, proponents of socialism find ways to shrug off objections. They can argue that fixes can be found for some problems and others are misconceived or out of order. Efficiency and accountability can be improved by various institutional arrangements. Side effects can be identified and dealt with. Talking about “people’s responsibility for their own situation” is blaming the victim and shouldn’t be part of the discussion. And if what props up institutions like family, local community, and religion is government failure to deal with social unfairness then they are the opiate of the masses and don’t deserve preservation.

Worries about socialism becoming an intolerant religion that promotes both tyranny and egoism are also thought to be absurd. There are Christian socialists, and the secular ones talk about diversity, tolerance, freedom, solidarity, and sacrifice for the common good. Why not accept that their goals and values are what they say they are? And since socialism is simply an effort to advance justice, why not view socialist criticism as well-motivated?

The arguing never ends. In the absence of a resolution the uncertainty of the future and the compelling presence of human need decide the issue for many people. At every stage of the process leading to full socialism, human problems that could be remedied seem more pressing than possible institutional issues. So many people think they should err on the side of justice and generosity rather than worrying about problems that may never materialize.

The most fundamental consideration is the influence of the times. The sense of the eternal and transcendent has been weakening, and that leaves social action as the main focus of the Church. A technocratic approach to social life makes bureaucratic management—which eliminated smallpox and put a man on the moon—seem the obvious way to deal with problems. And people accept the democratic claim that action by the state is action by the people.

Put those things together and you get the view that Catholics should be socialists. After all, shouldn’t we support efforts to advance universal justice? To avoid that result—as experience, reason, and the teaching of Saints John XXIII and John Paul II tell us we must—we need to change the basic understandings that lead to it.

First, we need to understand that government provides a framework and not a vehicle for our actions. Acts of government and acts of the people are two different things, and confusing the first with the second is the road to totalitarianism and other madness.

We also need an understanding of man based on classical natural law rather than technology. The problems of modern technological society won’t be solved by a more modern and technological society. To bureaucratize a social world composed of natural institutions like the family and cultural community, and so convert it into an industrial process, is to destroy rather than perfect it.

And finally, we need a rebirth of the sense of the eternal and transcendent that puts earthly affairs in perspective so we can deal with them from a standpoint of overall prudence rather than this-worldly eschatology. From the first point of view, it’s the predictable effects of socialism that matter; from the second, it’s the sacredness of social justice as a cause. The first approach means better decisions.

Of these, the most important is the last. As Saint John XXIII noted in Mater et Magistra: “The most perniciously typical aspect of the modern era consists in the absurd attempt to reconstruct a solid and fruitful temporal order divorced from God.” Without God, man and the state become gods. And that way leads to disaster.