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How Socialism Fails

James Otteson dissects the moral and economic contradictions of collectivism.

James R. Otteson, the Thomas W. Smith Presidential Chair in Business Ethics at Wake Forest University, possesses one of the greatest minds in defense of classical liberalism in the modern era. I say that as a friend but even more as an admirer. He has authored two definitive works on Adam Smith, a clear rebuttal of the ethics of Peter Singer, and now a crucial attack on the “near-socialist” theories so pervasive throughout the world today.

Socialism not only fails to work in reality, notes Otteson, it is also malicious in its ethics and morality—even if most of its current adherents believe themselves humane and well-intentioned. At its core, “socialism is a difficult and costly system of political economy that the specific conceptions of its moral values do not justify.” This, he continues, “constitutes the end of socialism, then, in both senses of the word end: an attempt to implement it will inevitably end in heavy costs to its community, and the philosophical case for socialism ends in failure.”

Otteson cites the historical examples of the USSR, Cuba, North Korea, and China. Following the horrors of 20th-century socialism in its various communist and fascistic forms, very few respectable politicians in the West today fully embrace the title “socialist.” Yet whatever the problems of socialism, many of its ideals linger, often taking weird, bizarre, and unpredictable forms. As the ex-socialist James Burnham predicted in the 1940s, we can no longer separate the capitalist from the socialist, the labor union from the corporation, the business sector from the political one. Rather we have become, to varying degrees, subjects of the managerial state. Though Otteson does not cite Burnham directly, the man’s ghost haunts this book.

Recognizing the nuances of a post-Berlin Wall world, Otteson labels the two predominant positions in the Western world “socialist-inclined” and “capitalist-inclined.” Socialist-inclined persons not only see centralization as economically effective and morally just, they also tend to “distrust granting local people or communities a wide scope to organize themselves according to their own lights.” While they might not despise individual liberty, they prefer centralized decision-making and, critically, they prize equality as the highest good.

One of this book’s greatest strengths is its author’s unwillingness to counter ideology with ideology. Otteson cites his own authorities, but he takes those with whom he disagrees very seriously. So, on the one hand, he borrows liberally from the ideas of Aristotle, the Scottish philosophers Adam Ferguson and David Hume, American radical individualist Albert Jay Nock, and the German free-market social thinker Wilhelm Röpke. On the other hand, he treats the theories of progressive and socialist philosophers such as John Rawls, Cass Sunstein, Martha Nussbaum, G.A. Cohen, and Peter Singer with the utmost respect.

In his writing style, Otteson carries the reader through his own way of thinking. We see not just his propositions and conclusions; the reader actually travels along with the author on his own intellectual journey. Otteson has too much respect for the intellectual process, his craft, and the human person to manipulate any of it. He offers everything he has—and it is considerable—for his art. thisarticleappears

His attention to his own literary creation follows from his repulsion at those who would rule through a fatal conceit. Drawing upon Adam Smith’s arguments in The Theory of Moral Sentiments against the “Man of System,” Otteson diagnoses socialist-inclined persons’ current conceit as the “Great Mind Fallacy,” the belief that any one person or group of persons knows the details of the past, present, or necessary future well enough to govern in any total or systematic manner. Rather than being planned, real community—that is the community of free and dignified individuals—arises organically and naturally “as a result of human beings associating, and dissociating, with one another according to their own lights.”

The End of Socialism is at its best in Chapters 6 and 7: “Economics and Morality” and “Respect and Individuality.” Otteson’s voice soars here as he movingly explains the mysteries of the individual, creative person. “They are not Africans or kulaks or women or homosexuals or Christians or Jews or Irish or Tutsis or Hutus: they are unique, individual, precious human beings—each and every one of them.”

In each person resides a form or forms of genius, often untapped and neglected and, more often than not, only partially understood. In Otteson’s world, there is no essential left, right, black, white, Asian, male, female, Greek, or Jew. There is, at the essence of each of us, a gloriously flawed unrepeatable center of dignity and liberty. 

No politician, moral philosopher, or economic planner should demand certainty of tomorrow—or of the next hour. “Living free is uncertain and sometimes dangerous,” Otteson explains, “and it involves both success and failure.” In the end, though, dignity demands that we recognize our failures and our successes as our own. “The fact that human beings are autonomous entails that they are the authors and owners of their own lives,” Otteson writes, and “that they are thus responsible for their lives, and therefore that they possess a uniquely human dignity.” Far from being contradictory, dignity naturally adheres to choice. “Autonomy and judgment,” he writes, “go together” and “possession and use of judgment lead to decisions that others are morally bound to respect.”

In one of Otteson’s most interesting side trips, he explores the connection between the drive for equality and the puritanical impulse to control others. Most socialist-inclined persons sincerely seek equality, but in so doing they often conflate it with other values. When they speak or write of equality, they often mean control or nudging toward what is at that moment perceived as healthy for the mind and body.

Consider obesity, for example. Much contemporary socialist-inclined policy is motivated by a desire to combat obesity, which is growing in incidence and in the risks it posts to individuals’ health. Yet consider: it is possible for a person to be rationally obese? Imagine an intelligent person with a high level of education—a Ph.D. in philosophy, say—who makes this claim: “I am fully aware of the medical, social, and financial risks involved with obesity. Indeed, I have studied them carefully. Yet I am also fully aware of the delights and pleasures that I receive from eating what I like to eat, as well as the displeasure I receive from exercising.”

Otteson asks if this is not a legitimate and well-considered choice, at least according to the lights of the one who made it. Does the impulse that insists it is not really arise from a desire for equality—or is it a desire to choose for another what the socialist-inclined person wishes to be the norm? 

The End of Socialism is one of the best books written on political thought and the philosophy of classical liberalism since Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. What will Otteson do next? Here’s hoping that in a subsequent book he explores the horrors of democratic despotisms, nationalisms, fundamentalisms, and terrorisms, as well as the glories of human creativity.

Bradley J. Birzer is author of the forthcoming Russell Kirk: American Conservative and co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative website.



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