A Rational Fear of Socialism
As we approach the 2020 election and a declared Democratic Socialist is doing quite well, the arguments around socialism are back on the forefront. People argue over Sweden and Denmark, public roads and services, and the history of murderous regimes built on socialist principles. But what really is at the heart of the debate? These fights just barely scratch the surface of what is really going on. Fear of socialism is not just a disagreement of simple social policies, but a differing viewpoint on the nature of humanity itself with theological roots. And this is often the dividing line upon which we separate. A move towards socialism requires a deep change which is at odds with the very basis for American culture.
Collectives vs. Individuals
Essential to the view of socialism is the understanding of our societies, primarily, as groups of people. Of course there are individuals within those groups, but they are shaped by those groups and the primary means of analysis today and throughout history is to first look at people as members of groups.
“…history must cease to be a history of individuals and must become a history of the masses, must at the same time cease to be a record of individual facts but must become based on systematic observation.” — Marquis de Condorcet
This line of thought is at the base of socialist ideas and evolves through academic circles in France and all the way through to its most popular advocate, Karl Marx. But why is this even a problem? What is inherent in this idea that causes so much consternation?
Implicit in many religious ideas, especially those that shape Western Civilization, is the idea that the individual human is its own sovereign. So when we discuss societies as primarily interactions of groups as opposed to individuals, we strike at the heart of the basis for the religious underpinnings of our culture. That’s the deeper disagreement. All the way from being created in the image of God, to Martin Luther’s reformation, and Protestants insisting on individual spiritual responsibility, individualism created a new world. The idea that we are created equal and all individually have rights that our governments are formed to protect, conflicts with an understanding of humanity primarily as groups. And the fact that it was then put into writing as the basis for which to form a nation is the essence of the true conflict. When you invert that proposition and sacrifice the idea of individual sovereignty for the sake of the group, you make it easier to sacrifice actual individuals. Ideas have consequences.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” — Declaration of Independence
Once these groups are idealized and understood, socialism seeks to study the manner in which they interact and use human reasoning to create a structure that guides these groups towards a specific end. This end is usually referred to as utopia. It takes the ideas of the scientific revolution and applies them to the social sciences in order to understand and then guide whole nations of people. Well that doesn’t sound so bad. Why would anyone have a problem with that? Science and reason have done so much good for us. Why stop here?
“Never will man penetrate deeper into error than when he is continuing on a road which has led him to great success.” — F.A. Hayek, The Counter Revolution of Science, Studies on the Abuse of Reason
An elevation of reason is a common sinful trope in religious ideas. It is part of the story of the Tower of Babylon as a warning against corruption. It’s often seen in religious artwork where satan floats above our heads, as a warning against falling in love with our own minds. These warnings are not a directive to abandon reason, but a warning against relying solely on our finest tool, as the experience of billions of people that came before us should still guide us when dealing with human nature. So suggesting that we abandon the advice of our ancestors for the faculties of our individual minds will usually create some angst in anyone who values ancient wisdom or religion.
This is the level at which people split into the two major camps. The idea being that individual people cannot often know what is good for themselves. How can they know what is good for anyone else? And is it not sinful to impose your flawed reason on the lives of sovereign individuals since they are made in the image of God and responsible for their own spiritual journey? There was only one Buddha under the Bodhi tree and only one Christ on the cross. All individuals must ultimately pass through that spiritual precipice on their own, even as others have guided them to that door.
Next time you see one of these discussions, ask yourself about the religious or spiritual identity of those having the talk. Is the secular Progressive more interested in social construction through rational decisions made by those who have that capacity? Is your Conservative, possibly more religious friend pushing more towards individual freedom and more accepting of the tragedy that comes with it while cursing socialism of any kind? Think about the underlying reasons why they may go one way or the other and seek to understand on that level. It may get you further than arguing about surface level politics and why Denmark isn’t socialist.