Over at Current Affairs, its editor Nathan J. Robinson has laid out his response to a common critique of modern socialists, namely what exactly their post-capitalist system will look like. A committed socialist himself, Robinson concedes that while many contemporary socialists would reject the specific models implemented in their name throughout the 20th century, it’s rare to find a fully articulated vision of what to try instead.

Nathan J. Robinson

But he argues that this isn’t necessarily a problem. Socialism can still be meaningful as a set of principles or ideals, for a just economic and political system, rather than a detailed blueprint spelling out how the mechanics of socialist society would work. Socialism can thus be thought of as a framework within which we can experiment with lots of different kinds of policies, without dogmatically clinging to one set in particular.

Robinson’s initial formulation of some core values defining socialism are indeed intuitively attractive and likely to be universally embraced by people of all political persuasions:

  1. Connectedness and compassion with other human beings.
  2. Personal autonomy — the ability to shape your own destiny.
  3. Everyone enjoying the most fulfilling life possible.

Three cheers for socialism! What’s not to like?

It’s when he starts to flesh out the second principle — personal autonomy — that things get a little more complicated. Take the notion of “shaping our own destinies.” For Robinson, the political manifestation of this principle is nothing short of “the application of democracy to all aspects of social life.”

Robinson argues that democracy should not just be constrained to citizens voting for political representatives, as is the norm in most modern liberal democracies. He maintains instead that we should all have democratic decision-making power over anything that affects us. On its surface, this principle sounds appealing. After all, who wouldn’t want more political power over their life circumstances?

This principle however bears a striking similarity to what the economist Bryan Caplan has termed “democratic fundamentalism,” and turns out to be highly problematic upon closer inspection. Every day, our lives are profoundly affected by thousands of decisions made by all kinds of people, near and far. The idea that we should have political power over each of those decisions is at best unworkable, and at worst, criminally oppressive.

To begin with a frivolous example, I was recently profoundly disappointed by Alex Garland’s film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation. Should I have had a say over the final cut, along with thousands of other fans of the book? Obviously not. It probably would have turned out to be far worse if I had. Clearly I had no right to interfere with Garland’s creative vision.

If mere aesthetic impact seems trivial, let’s consider a darker case. A divorce can be one of the most emotionally and economically damaging events of our lives. Robinson’s radically democratic approach seems to mandate that since the decision of a man’s wife to leave him affects him greatly, he ought to have an equal say in the decision. This presumably amounts to a right to veto it, since he controls 50% of the vote of directly interested parties.

Indeed not too long ago, this used to be the norm. A husband had to give his consent for his wife to leave him. And why not? Not only his life, but the lives of his children, and others in his community, would stand to be profoundly affected by the break-up of the marriage.

I’m assuming Robinson’s progressive instincts would make him cringe at the thought of regressing to such an oppressive, misogynistic state of affairs. But it’s unclear why it’s not a straightforward application of his conception of democracy.

It’s clear enough what specific outcomes Robinson desires as a consequence of his principle. He raises two intuition-pumping examples: long-term home renters having no rights regarding the sale of the property, and factory auto-workers having no decision-rights over whether it is relocated. Robinson’s view is that an injustice occurs in both of these cases, as those most severely affected by the economic decision have no legal involvement in the making of that decision.

Now of course the renters or auto-workers would like more power to direct the decision-making affecting them. But do they also want to share legal and financial liability if the property collapses or the company goes bankrupt?

This gets to the crucial issue: “democratic fundamentalism” grants people rights to be involved in decision-making automatically, so long as they are merely affected by a decision. Advocates of the principle need to be careful of the age-old problem of getting exactly what they wish for.

Rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin, and if you possess the right to decide, you are also responsible for the outcome of that decision.

A key principle in liberal democracies is that our individual decision-making within all non-governmental organisations is proportional to the level of responsibility we have voluntarily adopted. Crucially, in order to have any decision-making power in an organisation, you must have voluntarily entered into an agreement with that organisation. This principle is precisely what protects you from obligations forced upon you without your consent.

If you wish for a system where individuals are automatically granted rights to exercise decision-making within an organisation, you’re asking for a system in which people are automatically burdened with corresponding responsibilities. This is the antithesis of individual autonomy and freedom. It is a reversion to feudal times, where one found oneself born into a set of inescapable legal entanglements, defined by one’s arbitrary starting position in society. It is the meaning of Leszek Kołakowski’s phrase “fraternity under compulsion,” which Robinson cites in his article as an apt description of past socialist regimes.

Either Robinson hasn’t thought through these consequences, or he thinks they are justified by worse outcomes under a liberal, largely capitalist system. He expresses the fear that without radically expanding democracy’s scope, individual voluntary transactions (i.e. a free market) necessarily lead to the wealthiest deciding what happens for everyone else. But here is he projecting onto the free market attributes that in fact characterize government.

In political processes, those who have the most power do indeed often end up exclusively deciding how vast amounts of resources are allocated. But in a market, it is consumers who ultimately decide what companies produce, and how much. Their small daily decisions may seem powerless in isolation, but are definitive in aggregate.

Businesses seek to satisfy consumer needs and desires, which means the less wealthy still end up being serviced because businesses stand to make a huge amount of money selling cheaper but effective products to larger numbers of people. The Sudanese electrical engineer Mohammed Ibrahim made billions selling mobile phones in impoverished African countries, and has been credited with “transforming a continent.” A politician, on the other hand, has an incentive to “sel” his policies to the loudest, most influential interest groups in a society. This is how we end up with wasteful and unjust corn, sugar and coal subsidies, not to mention full-blown international trade wars.

The masses can also pressure companies via direct social activism in a liberal capitalist system. There’s never been a better time to call out companies for unethical behaviour and rally your fellow concerned citizens to boycott or divest. The power of an individual to affect a company’s reputation and bottom-line has grown exponentially with the advent of social media.

Robinson’s fear that a liberal market democracy is not responsive to citizens’ choices is therefore overblown. This is not to discount however the classic coordination problems that emerge in markets that require democratic political action to resolve, such as market failures and externalities.

The sensible alternative to Robinson’s democratic fundamentalism is the classical liberal conception of democracy. In this tradition of thought, democracy is a rather blunt mechanism for ensuring that a minority group in a society cannot enslave the majority. It serves as a powerful solvent for many oppressive forms of government, such as monarchies, oligarchies, caste systems, theocracies and so on.

As the philosopher Karl Popper put it, democracy’s primary function is to enable a society to remove bad leaders without bloodshed. It is thus absolutely necessary, but far from sufficient to guarantee many of the elements of an open and prosperous society, such as free and rational discourse, rights for minorities, and protection of individual autonomy. This thinner concept of democracy is fully compatible with a capitalist system of production, and doesn’t produce the same absurdities that Robinson’s does.

It also works in practice. For all of Robinson’s genuine concern with the concentration of economic power under capitalism, he seems ignorant of the historical fact that the most robust modern democracies arose in predominantly capitalist societies. The relatively strong protections of private property rights for ordinary workers in countries like the UK, US, Canada and Australia helped to enable a relatively wide dispersal of property ownership. With ordinary citizens having genuine control over their parcel of resources, they were able to command greater political representation, and put up strong resistance to would-be dictators appropriating all their hard-earned wealth. Indeed, this general historical trajectory from capitalist economies to universal political enfranchisement undermines the central socialist claim that capitalism is fundamentally in tension with democracy.

To be fair, Robinson’s call for a rational, sensible alternative to the nightmares of 20th century socialism should be welcomed. But as always, the devil is in the details. His clarification of what he means by “experimenting” with socialist economic models doesn’t exactly reassure:

“Experimentation doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be bold. It just means constantly checking to make sure you’re upholding the principles.”

Note that Robinson doesn’t say “constantly check to make sure your predictions are coming true,” or that “the empirical evidence supports your principles.” He advocates pursuing socialist principles. Period. Regardless of their consequences.

The problem is that his principles are mistaken. It’s just a question of how many more “broken eggs” will convince him to abandon that ever-elusive omelette.

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  1. It’s easy to topple a straw man, Oliver.

    Here’s how you represent Nathan’s principle in your divorce example:

    “Robinson’s radically democratic approach seems to mandate that since the decision of a man’s wife to leave him affects him greatly, he ought to have an equal say in the decision. This presumably amounts to a right to veto it, since he controls 50% of the vote of directly interested parties.”

    Your example is a defense of slavery. We can agree this is absurd. But it’s worth noting that the absurdity arises from assumptions that you (not Nathan) inserted into the example. For inexplicable reasons, you leap from “the decision of a man’s wife to leave him affects him greatly” to “he ought to have an equal say in the decision.” For someone who claims to believe “the devil is in the details,” you don’t have much care for them yourself.

    Here’s what Nathan actually said in his essay:

    “It’s not that I am necessarily entitled to get my way. But democracy does entitle me to have a share in the decision-making proportional to my stake in the outcome. Free market capitalism ensures no such participation; the ones who decide what happens are the ones who own the most resources.”

    It is obvious that in a divorce, the person deciding to leave has a greater stake in the outcome than the person who hopes to keep the marriage in tact. Being forcibly trapped in a relationship is slavery. On the other hand, while divorce might be very painful, it does not destroy any personal freedoms or liberties for either person.

    So your divorce example poses no threat to the principle Nathan defended.

    Ironically, the principle Nathan states is actually the best defense against slavery. Since you never directly addressed it, it’s unclear if you really reject it. But if you do, then you end up without a serious answer to your rhetorically-posed question: “And why not?”

  2. I think I have written on this topic before too. Anyway, here’s my thinking:

    Democracy is only fair when applied to issues that are UNAVOIDABLY COLLECTIVE, like how to run a government. Extending democracy to issues that can be resolved individually is unnecessarily extending collectivism to those issues. That way, those in the majority will effectively be oppressing those in the minority, therefore it’s unfair.

  3. The the idea that everywhere you go, from a sports club to volunteer work or even a circle of friends, everything should be open for discussion, sounds nice but is in fact horrible, leads to some kind of maoist society.

  4. Socialism, like all forms of collectivism, degrades the sovereignty of the individual in favor of some nebulous ‘greater good’ – so however much lipstick one tries to apply, it fails at first principles by trampling on individual liberty.


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