Do You Prefer Your Socialism Voluntary, or Mandatory?

Recently there’s been a lot of social-media talk about socialism, what it is and what it isn’t, if for no other reason than one of the candidates to be the Democratic nominee for the Presidency is a self-described Socialist.

Now, before we get to the question posed above: in the hopes of improving communication let’s take a moment to define a few terms. At the very least, we might ensure that we are not confusing socialism with other -isms. According to the online version of Webster’s:

  • socialism is “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”
  • communism is “a theory advocating elimination of private property; a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed”
  • capitalism is “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”
  • fascism is “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”
  • altruism is “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”

From the dictionary definition, it would seem as if there could be no such thing as “voluntary” socialism except in the context of voluntary adherence to the dictates of government and collective society. But socialism seems to have come to mean something different in common usage, which is why I included altruism among the defined terms.

So far as I can tell, a lot of the people who advocate for socialist policies do so out of personal altruism — i.e., out of concern for others’ welfare — and not because they believe that the government or other collective entities should own and operate factories and businesses. That is, in some respects “little-s” socialism has come to be understood in terms of social action (or even social “justice”) and thereby in terms of caring for members of society, as opposed to its dogmatic, collectivist big brother: systematic, capital-S Socialism. In other words, from what I’ve observed some people look at socialism not as an economic theory, but as a form of human tribalism (defined by Webster’s as “tribal consciousness and loyalty; especially, exaltation of the tribe above other groups”) where the “tribe” consists mainly of the downtrodden as opposed to the related.

altruism makes you more attractive

(Image: ” altruism makes you more attractive,” by Will Lion, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

In this manner of thinking of socialism, the question posed in the title distinguishes between two possible modes of implementation: voluntary or mandatory.

The first is voluntary socialism, practiced primarily through personal social action: giving of one’s excess treasure, time or talent to help the less fortunate. This is the socialism of charity, of personal altruism, of expressing one’s individual concern for one’s fellow man by actually doing something — writing a check, building a house, cooking a meal. This is the socialism of the soup kitchen, the homeless shelter, the sanctuary.

The second is mandatory socialism, practiced primarily through government-led social action: empowering the government to take everyone’s (and particularly other people’s) excess — most readily in the form of treasure —┬áto help the less fortunate. This is the socialism of confiscation, of redistribution, of assigning responsibility to the government to take care of one’s fellow man and thus absolving oneself of the need to act. This is the socialism of the tax office, the entitlement check, the welfare line.

So, do you prefer your socialism to be voluntary, or mandatory? Do you prefer to volunteer your contributions to social action, or to be made to contribute to it?

Generalizations always exclude those who do not fit them, but I have observed that, in general, many people who regularly practice voluntary social action oppose mandatory social action, and many people who promote mandatory social action don’t seem to engage in much voluntary social action (other than perhaps organizing people into promoting more mandatory social action). That is, many people who frequently donate their time or money to charities they deem worthy oppose efforts to empower the government to exact donations from them, and many people who support the idea of the government providing and expanding all of the social safety nets do not often seem quick to engage in personal acts of charity. I find that curious, but I admit my observations are limited and perhaps flawed.

But which do we emphasize: the voluntary, or the mandatory? As with most dichotomies of this sort, most continua, I think that everyone favors a little bit of volunteer action and a little bit of mandatory contribution. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone so dyed-in-the-wool that they did not accept some of the alternative approach. (Perhaps the one Trotskyite I’ve met, though we have not discussed this in any depth. Perhaps a Libertarian or two.)

When we emphasize the voluntary, we allow ourselves to practice socialism — to contribute to social action — to the degree we feel comfortable, and we allow others also to practice it (or not) to whatever degree they want.

But when we emphasize the mandatory, we may ourselves end up practicing socialism to our preferred degree but we almost certainly require that others practice it to a greater degree than they feel comfortable. And when we enforce contribution through coercion via the rule of law, we should not be surprised when those others bristle, and balk, and even prepare for battle.

Where do you fall on the continuum between voluntary and mandatory contribution? If you tend to take the burden of helping others onto your own shoulders, with no thought of reward and no expectation of other people pitching in, then you probably fall closer to the voluntary side. If you sometimes think “someone ought to do something about that” and sometimes think “can I do anything about that,” then you probably fall somewhere in the middle. But if you tend to think “those other people ought to do more to help” more than you think “what can I do to help,” then you probably fall closer to the mandatory end.

I’m not here to pass judgment; in the end, I think in some way we will all pass judgment on ourselves. But I know who I’d rather have as my neighbors, if I ever find myself in a pinch. And I know what kind of neighbor I’d like to be.

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3 Responses to Do You Prefer Your Socialism Voluntary, or Mandatory?

  1. Sorry to take so long to reply — thanks for the comments!

    I suggest that regardless of how we might differentiate between degrees of need, doing something about the needs we know about is better than debating about needs we may not perceive. If we start helping the needy closest to us, and extend our efforts to help as many other needy people as we can, then eventually we may reach those that someone might judge to be the neediest. If we never start, then we never will meet any needs, and if we spend too much time discussing whose need is greater then we might miss the opportunity to start helping.

    Thanks again, gents!
    G

  2. Chris Darling says:

    Jim M, further to your comment above I would ask, is the central government the best agency/authority to determine who is truly needy? What has the government’s record been so far regarding its ability to avoid fraud/waste/abuse? And secondly, is it possible that government aid misapplied creates dependency, and is worse than no aid at all? I wonder about one of the principles behind the Hippocratic oath that suggests “first, do no harm.”

    Great article, Gray.

  3. Jim McQuaid says:

    A useful discussion, Gray. The issue not explored is the most critical perhaps: who receives the charity, personal or governmental. In other words, will the neediest people be the ones chosen by personal charity? Or does personal charity tend to go to groups / causes familiar to the individual while people in the worst circumstances remain invisible?