Is democracy evil?
In 2018 a free-marketeer think-tank, the Henry Dearborn Institute, published a 90-page book entitled Socialism is Evil by a Justin T. Haskins. What is interesting is that, for once, an opponent gets the meaning of socialism more or less right. Basing himself largely on what we say on our website, from which he quotes extensively, and on some quotes from Marx, Haskins concludes that socialism (or communism, which he accepts means the same in this context) is a necessarily world-wide, democratically-organised society based on the common ownership of the means of production with distribution according to need:
‘I think it’s fair to say that Marx’s socialism should be defined as a classless, mostly stateless, democratic economic and political system under which all or nearly all private property ownership, especially the “means of production,” is abolished and replaced by a system in which property is owned collectively. Further, in Marx’s system, society embraces the general operating principle “from each according to ability, to each according to needs”’ (pp. 22-23).
‘In a world with few, if any, markets and perhaps no money, people would get the product and services they need from the collective (many socialists would reject that this group should be called a “government”) without having to “pay” for anything’ (p. 11).
This leads him to accept (at least for the purpose of his argument in this book) that Cambodia, China, the USSR, Venezuela, etc., are not socialist.
As a supporter of unregulated market capitalism, Haskins doesn’t think that socialism in the sense defined could work. For him, it is impossible because it is incompatible with human nature. He repeats the usual objections – What about the lazy man? Who will do the dirty work? Who will get to live in the best areas? – that have been dealt with time and again.
However, this is not enough for him. He wants to go further and demonstrate that, even if socialism was not impossible, it would still be ‘evil’. By which he means ‘highly immoral’ (what else could he mean without descending into mysticism?).
To call something ‘immoral’ is to imply some standard of morality. In Haskins’s case,
‘ …it’s immoral to force – using the threat of violence or imprisonment – peaceful people to participate in activities they are morally opposed to. Or, put another way, it’s highly immoral to force people to engage in actions they believe are immoral’ (p. 43).
He claims that this is what socialism would have to involve:
‘Collective property ownership… necessitates that the majority have total power over the minority to make all important moral decisions’ (p. 80).
What total power? Democratic decision-making where ‘the majority has its way and the minority has its say’ does mean on paper that the majority could vote for anything, but that does not give it ‘total power’ to impose what it has voted through. In fact, unless the majority has at its disposal a coercive political machine it has no power to enforce it at all. Socialism will have not have the means to threaten ‘violence or imprisonment’, as Haskins himself accepted when he wrote that socialism would be ‘almost stateless’.
What this means is that in socialism the carrying-out of a majority decision will depend on the acceptance of that decision by the outvoted minority. This assumes not just formal democratic procedures but also a democratic consciousness amongst the participants, which includes allowing majority decisions to be implemented in the common interest. It also encourages decision-making based on seeking and finding a certain degree of consensus; in fact, majority voting is not the only way of reaching a decision democratically. Why in these circumstances would a majority even consider trying to impose a uniform system of morals? Would a majority even be found to vote for this?
But Haskins persists and argues that, in socialism, not only would a majority vote to allow some activity that might offend or discomfort some people – which is possible – but that it would force those people to participate in such activity. Socialism, he claims,
‘either requires all people to abandon their personal morals in favour of some universal standard of morality … or some people must participate in social programs or activities that violate their beliefs.’
Where does that come from? Why would everyone have to agree on ethical issues? And who says that, if the majority votes to allow rearing animals to eat, this means that those opposed to this ‘must participate’ in rearing and killing animals and eating them? Who says that, if the majority votes to allow contraception and abortion, those opposed to these must practice contraception or take part in abortion procedures? A decision to allow something is not the same as a decision to make it compulsory.
Haskins is not arguing here against socialism as such but against democracy and only indirectly against socialism because it would be democratic. His arguments amount to a rehash of the old individualist anarchist objection to democracy as ‘the tyranny of the majority’. It is not clear if Haskins is himself an anarcho-capitalist. A footnote in which he says that he does not necessarily share the view of some free-marketeers that ‘taxation is immoral’ suggests that he might not be. In which case, he leaves himself open to the charge that he too is ‘evil’. Assuming that he regards taxation as moral to fund armed forces, this would be forcing pacifist taxpayers to pay for something against their moral principles.
So, while he gets what socialism means more or less right, his arguments against are weak and contradictory.