Socialism has invaded the moral high ground

But it does not deserve to be there


Geoffrey M. Hodgson


Despite the disastrous record of self-described “socialist” regimes, socialism (whatever it means) is remarkably popular.

According to a 2017 survey of American adults, 37 per cent preferred (what they described as) socialism to capitalism. Among millennials (meaning those reaching adulthood in the early twenty-first century), 44 per cent preferred socialism over capitalism. This survey broadly confirmed previous American polls from about 2015, which showed a surge of support for socialism, especially among younger people.

Polling in the UK found that 39 per cent of adults have an unfavourable view of capitalism, while 33 per cent were favourable. Also in the UK, 36 per cent viewed socialism favourably, compared to 32 per cent negatively. Germans were reported as even more positive about socialism, with 45 per cent being favourable and 26 per cent unfavourable.

These polling figures are remarkable, especially when we take into account that regimes describing themselves as socialist led to over 90 million deaths in the twentieth century. Socialism has captured the ethical high ground, despite the poor record of socialist regimes in terms of human rights.

Somehow today’s socialists evade this legacy. They argue that these regimes were not really socialist. Or they were corrupted by bad leaders. Or they suffered largely because of antagonism from the capitalist West. All these arguments assume that a humane socialism is feasible and that there are not congenital flaws in socialism that lead it to dictatorship.

The word socialism has been in existence for almost 200 years and generally it has meant the promotion of common ownership and the abolition or limitation of markets and private property. There have been attempts to change this meaning but they have largely failed.

Love, care and cooperation

Socialism raises the moral flag because it claims to be the creed of love, care and cooperation. By contrast, it is argued, capitalism and markets encourage selfishness and greed.

Socialists point to defenders of capitalism such as Ayn Rand, who like the fictional Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street, promoted the view that that greed is good and altruism is evil.

Mainstream Economists are tainted too: they often favour markets and assume individual self-interest as an axiom. Socialism will subdue markets, private profits and other spurs to greed, and through common ownership create a system that encourages people to cooperate together and act unselfishly.

So the argument goes. But the evidence tells a different story. The socialists, the “greed is good” defenders of capitalism, and believers in our total selfishness are all wrong.

Theory and evidence, from Darwin onwards, show that evolution has provided humans with a mixture of selfish, cooperative and moral capacities, which can be stunted or developed according to different cultural and institutional settings.

There is also strong evidence that market or trading relationships can enhance sentiments of fairness and reciprocity. The notion that markets always make people greedy, selfish and amoral has been refuted. The moral high ground claimed by socialism is challenged not simply by the misdeeds of socialist dictators, but also by extensive evidence about human nature and how it is affected by markets or other institutional circumstances.

Small-scale societies have relied on sentiments of cooperation and moral solidarity that have evolved within groups over millions of years. Solidarity within tribes or bands helped them survive in competition over resources with their rivals. But unfortunately evolution has not disposed us to be nice to outsiders.

The modern world has built up citizen loyalty to nation states, but the downsides have been hostility to foreigners and belligerent nationalism. In the modern world, institutions are needed to encourage mutual understanding and reciprocity on a global scale.

Thomas Paine

One of these institutions is the market. There is impressive evidence that, on balance, international free trade can reduce the risks of war between nations. In larger-scale systems, despite market competition, trade can build bonds and reduce conflict.

While the complete commercialisation of family and community life could undermine trust and altruism, wider trade on a larger scale increases mutual interdependence. As Thomas Paine, Richard Cobden, John Hobson and several others argued, markets can help to build solidarity within and between nations.

Socialism as “obvious”

Yet, despite evidence to the contrary, socialism still clings to the high moral ground. For Jeremy Corbyn and many others, socialism is an “obvious” response, where caring for one another supersedes the greed and profit-seeking that is always fostered by capitalism. Little further detailed evidence is deemed necessary.

If socialism is “obvious”, then how do we explain the failure of other intelligent people to get on board? If they are not stupid, then they must be acting out of personal malice or greed. They must have sold out their principles in some way. Or they are just plain nasty.

When socialism is seen as “obvious”, its opponents are regarded as stupid or evil. Because the solution is “obvious” there can be no doubt. There is no need to look at evidence, to experiment, to seek wise counsel, or to listen to critics. Those that deny the obvious are deluded, corrupt, or in the pay of those that gain from the existing system.

Hence the claim that “socialism is obvious” encourages a remarkable intolerance of those that take a different view.

Modern economies are highly complex, and to pose any system or solution as “obvious” is a dangerous populist naivety. Precisely because something called socialism has now become popular, we are entitled to ask more precisely what it means.

Socialists compare an imaginary “obvious” world with the real world, with all its poverty, inequality and other problems. They simply assume that their imaginary world of love and cooperation will work. They assume that much can be decided democratically, ignoring the fact that it is impossible to make more than a small fraction of day-to-day decisions democratic. They ignore the problems of incentivizing work and innovation, and of ensuring functional autonomy without private property. All these problems became apparent in real-world socialist experiments in the past.

Socialism and dictatorship

A major problem with large-scale socialism is that a large concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the state undermines the economic foundations of countervailing power and empowers totalitarian forces and outcomes. These problems are illustrated by developments in Russia, China and Venezuela.

Such a centralization of economic power requires and promotes a strong executive, unburdened by checks and balances. When this concentration of economic power is achieved, it reinforces political centralization in the absence of countervailing interests and powers.

The argument that “good” leaders will avoid these pitfalls is spurious. Without checks and balances there are strong temptations to cut constitutional corners. Eventually a “good” leader will be succeeded by someone worse, who will have less scruples about abusing executive power.

The conclusion is that democracy and human rights require countervailing power and a market economy with a much smaller public sector. Countervailing interest groups, with their own access to resources and an ability to check or influence the state, are necessary to prevent democratic abuses and over-centralization.

Ignoring this powerful argument, in the face of extensive historical evidence in its support, is morally reprehensible. It betokens a moral irresponsibility in the light of ample evidence to the contrary. The socialist tenure of the moral high ground is illegitimate.


Instead, the moral high ground should be conceded to those who understand that:

– modern economic systems are highly complex and cannot be largely planned from the centre

– genuine autonomy requires rights to private ownership

– the existence of democracy and the protection of human rights require countervailing politico-economic power

– mixed economies have the best economic performance

– a welfare state is necessary to protect the poor and needy

– instead of chasing unicorns, we should follow the example of those capitalist countries that have the lowest levels of inequality.


18 February 2018


Published January 2018



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February 18th, 2018 by