Selfishness and socialism

Excellent post by Chris Dillow giving some home truths to the left on the major obstacle confronting it. As he puts it (after quoting Socrates in his support):

…a just society requires a just people. Which we don’t have.

Or to be more specific:

The brute fact is that there is no public demand for liberal socialist policies. Voters don’t want worker ownership, a citizens’ basic income, a liberal immigration policy, steeper inheritance taxes or many other items on the left’s wish list. I’ll grant that there is some demand for higher taxes on the rich, but I fear this is arises less from socialist ideals than from the same motive as hostility towards paedophiles and immigrants – a hatred of people who are different.

Of course, some reading this will disagree vehemently that Dillow’s “wish list” would represent a “just society”, but his point still stands: it’s impossible to build a society like that unless the people in it want a society like that. And, by and large, people in western societies don’t want a society like that.

As Dillow goes on to point out, it’s no use telling people that they are stupid and blinded by the capitalist media, either. So if we want to build “a significantly better world” from “the crooked timber of our own humanity”, how can we go about it? As Dillow asks:

are there any social institutions which can use people’s imperfections – their selfishness, greed and stupidity – for beneficial purposes?

Because that’s what’s needed. And the answer is not a comfortable one for the left:

[H]erein lies yet another embarrassment for much of the left. There is indeed one such institution. It’s called the market. The left – so far – has not found anything to match it.

This is similar to the late G.A. Cohen’s argument, in his book Why Not Socialism?, that socialism is unachievable (at least at present) because of the lack of mechanisms as effective as the market – though Cohen sought mechanisms that would harness people’s instincts for community and altruism rather than (as does the market) harnessing their selfish desires for public benefits.

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6 thoughts on “Selfishness and socialism”

  1. Is there any reason why the market is necessarily selfish? The problem with most definitions of the market is that they operate on the assumption of the privacy and non-alignment of ends. It is the realm where people act in their own interests. The key assumption is not that people are selfish (for under this definition the market is still able to account for generous orientations on the part of individuals), but that naturally ends are private and not shared. For this reason the resultant marketplace is nothing but a neutral realm of exchange and cannot be thought of as having an orientation (just or unjust, for instance) of its own.

    My question is whether this really is the case. In more natural human relationships it would seem that reciprocity and the sharing and aligning of ends is the norm. The more natural form of society is one that operates in terms of the primacy of the gift, rather than in terms of the primacy of the self-interested action.

    The gift is an action which overcomes the modern dichotomy between self-interest and disinterested altruism which underlies the market. The true gift is never disinterested. What it seeks is communion, the sharing of ends. As the giver cannot be separated from the gift, it would promote a society in which some form of worker ownership were maintained, for instance.

    I see no reason why the market can’t be reconsidered as a realm (not the only realm) where man’s gift-giving character is expressed. Within such a market economic interactions would be a matter of forging shared ends and common goods (within a society where the concepts of common goods and shared ends framed the activity of the market, and were not permitted to become mere subjects of it).

    Such a market would work, not by giving greed, selfishness, and stupidity full rein, but by privileging those who maintained and formed trust and acted in the interests of others. The form of the current marketplace is in many respects a testament to what happens when trust evacuates a society on account of the presumed privacy and self-interest of ends.

    The creation of such a marketplace would be by no means easy, but I am not as pessimistic about it as Dillow is. I really don’t think that the state is the answer here. Putting the resources of the coercive state at the disposal of envious, angry, greedy, and self-interested people will produce no less ugly effects than the market (for my own part, the threat of empowered statism concerns me even more than that of unfettered capitalism). Besides the modern state is built on principles opposed to the concept of the gift as the primary form of human sociality no less than the modern market. The state is in danger of doing little more than inverting conceptual themes that frame the modern market, rather than providing a genuine alternative to them.

    What is needed is a renewed appreciation of the primacy of the category of gift and the commonality of ‘goods’. Within such a society the oxygen of trust would be far more highly valued, and those who maintained it would be privileged, while those who betrayed it would be far more likely to be noticed and avoided. Such a project can begin on a smaller scale: we don’t need to change society all at once.

    1. What Alistair said.

      In a competitive market, transactions generally only take place when I offer something you would like and you offer something I would like. So we have to think of each other’s needs and preferences in order to achieve the exchange. That is actually deeply unselfish.

      By way of contrast, the ‘socialist’, or at least social democratic, route seems to take the form of forcing people to fork out to some collectivised pot; what then ensues is a battle royal, each looking for ‘their’ slice. We temper the process slightly by applying democracy, but it doesn’t take much for the hellcat to appear. I really don’t see why a society where goods are distributed according to argument, dispute and disagreement is more just, more equitable or more attractive than one where goods are distributed according to a system which requires us to live peaceably and consider the needs of others.

    2. Thanks for these replies. I think, though, that actual human behaviour in actually-existing markets tends to support Dillow’s more pessimistic account.

      In particular it seems naive at best to suggest that market capitalism is a “deeply unselfish” system that “requires us to live peaceably and consider the needs of others”.

      Anyway, there is no choice to be made, in reality, between a pure, capitalist paradise and a statist hellhole. We have, and are going to continue to have for the foreseeable future, a mixed economy combining private-sector capitalist enterprises and public-sector organisations, with the balance shifting first this way, then that.

      Within each of those spheres there is scope for both good and bad behaviour. The NHS, state education and welfare benefits (to pick three examples) didn’t come out of nowhere, or out of some “statist” desire to take over people’s lives: they came out of the direct and unpleasant experience of what happens in a system of pure “reciprocity” to those who have nothing to give in return, but also from a more collective concept of reciprocity in which everyone puts in and everyone takes out. (One reason why welfare benefits have lost a lot of their “social legitimacy” is, arguably, the loss of that sense of communal reciprocity as their basis.)

      Ditto the growth in statutory employment rights, interfering as they do with the “free” contracting relationship between an employer and employee, because of the direct experience of the exploitation that results from the power imbalance where one party (the employee) ultimately faces a choice between working and starving, especially in a capitalist utopia where no-one is forced to “fork out to some collectivised pot” in order to pay welfare benefits to those without employment.

  2. Of course, I was exaggerating a little for effect. Competition is good but like anything it can be twisted, and I was aware of issues of power and monopoly as I wrote. And indeed, neither of us is arguing for a purist system.

    But I do stand by my basic point, that voluntary exchange is generally better than politics as a distributive mechanism. There are special cases to which you can point, I know; but those special cases do not undermine my general case.

    1. Well, I think that’s the point that Dillow (and certainly Cohen) is making: that governmental/political control has proved highly unsatisfactory in many areas of activity compared with “voluntary exchange”, so that if we are to find a way to improve on the market (with its downsides of instability, exploitation and so on) then a new and as yet unknown mechanism is needed.

      Interestingly, in “Why Not Socialism?”, Cohen discussed concepts such as “market socialism”, which attempt to re-engineer market mechanisms to produce fairer outcomes. That’s perhaps not a million miles away from Alastair’s vision of a market which has “a renewed appreciation of the primacy of the category of gift and the commonality of ‘goods’”.

      Because that’s the ethical issue in the end for me: the capitalist market reduces us to individuals engaging in reciprocal exchange, and thus encourages individualistic, atomised and selfish ways of living – the myth of the “self-made man”. The reality is that we are each shaped by and dependent upon complex webs of social interaction and exchange (both positive and negative in effect). The “welfare state” of the post-1945 settlement was, at its best, an attempt to recognise that. However, the problems with trying to use the state as the medium for recognising/enforcing those social webs and dependencies are now only too apparent.

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