The Socialist Temptation

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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.

This is true even in the Church. Not so very long ago Saint John XXIII reaffirmed the teaching of Pope Pius XI that “no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate socialism.” And Saint John Paul II pointed to “the fundamental error of socialism,” namely, 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. This is not about bad or stupid people believing false and destructive things. Rather, there are good and intelligent people who believe these things. Why is that?

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

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

It’s this tendency that I call “socialism.” I’m using the word not in the narrow sense of state ownership of business enterprise, i.e., the traditional view, but in a broader sense to refer to the open-ended expansion of government activity to redress life’s unfairness, i.e., the modern view.

This more general definition takes account of problems—like the need for markets to set prices and allocate resources—that have arisen during the course of the socialist project. Given that this fundamental project continues, why are we holding on to an obsolete nineteenth-century definition? We don’t do this 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. Since government can’t know much about what’s going on at the individual level, it offers not “justice” but “equality” and thereby deprives people of responsibility for their situation. It also 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 have free reign. And since socialism destroys personal feelings of responsibility—for 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 being 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. This is why we now have antidiscrimination laws and similar initiatives. 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.

Thus 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 this is the highest good, people will feel that the world owes them this no matter what they do. Under such circumstances, how concerned will they be about fulfilling their personal obligations?

Such tendencies don’t end well. No matter, proponents of socialism find ways to shrug off objections. They can argue that fixes can be found for some problems and that 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. Discussion about “people’s responsibility for their own situation” is blaming the victim and should therefore not 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 promoting both tyranny and egoism are seen as absurd for 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 view criticism of socialism as well-motivated?

However, the arguing never ends. In the absence of a resolution, 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 needs that could be remedied seem more pressing than possible institutional issues. Thus many people think it is better to err on the side of justice and generosity rather than worrying about problems that may never materialize.

The most fundamental consideration in all this is the influence of the times. The sense of the eternal and transcendent has been weakening, and this 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 all this together and we end up with the view that Catholics should be socialists. After all, shouldn’t we support efforts to advance universal justice? To avoid becoming socialists—as experience, reason, and the teachings of Saints John XXIII and John Paul II tell us we must—we need to change the basic understandings that would lead us there.

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 a 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 a 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.


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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