What Is Socialism?

Socialism occurs whenever a government has a controlling role in producing goods or distributing goods. Goods are things that satisfy human wants. (This definition of goods includes services as goods.)

Governments control territories and their inhabitants by force. This means that the voluntary production and distribution of goods that involves no force being used by cooperating persons is not socialism. If people voluntarily get together to build a barn or to make computers or to aid the poor, these endeavors are not governmental in nature and not socialism. They are social, but that has little import since so much of what human beings do is inherently social.

By the above definition, socialism involves the involuntary. It involves the unwilling or forced participation of some people who are made to participate by government, which involves other people doing the controlling.

By the definition above, every government is socialistic to a greater or lesser degree. This is the reality and a point in favor of the definition.

Other definitions obscure the socialism inherent in government. For example, a web definition reads “a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”

What’s wrong with the preceding web definition? Socialism is not only a theory, and it is not only a normative theory. Socialism is not implemented by communities as a whole but by governments made up of specific people. Communities as a whole do not exist. Socialism is not an all or none thing, that is, it exists along a continuum of 0 percent government ownership and control of production and distribution to 100 percent such ownership and control. If we observe that a government doesn’t (fully) own the means of production, that does not mean that the government is not socialistic.

There need not be any ambiguity whatsoever in describing all the activities of governments as socialistic or as examples of socialism. When a government taxes (net) taxpayers as all governments do, the government people invariably decide what to do with the proceeds. These decisions necessarily involve either producing or distributing goods or both. This is socialism. If government people establish a ceiling price for apartment rent, this necessarily involves the production and distribution of goods. This is socialism occurring. If the government uses taxes to build missiles and drop them on Syria, socialism is occurring.

Socialism is a practice, not simply a theory, not simply an ideal, not simply what various governments did in the past who had “Socialist” in their names. It is not simply what “democratic socialists” of today advocate or say is socialism. Socialism is a pervasive practice that we see spread over the entire world.

Socialism, which involves involuntary human action via governments, co-exists with voluntary human action that occurs conceptually outside the realm of government control. Government regulation of economic activity is so widespread, however, that there is almost no free market activity, conceptually speaking, that is untouched by socialism.

Still, it is essential in analyzing socialism vs. free markets to distinguish these two opposing ways of organizing human social behavior. And, for that purpose, we need a clear understanding of what socialism is, which is any degree of government control over the production and/or distribution of goods.

By this understanding, the Soviet Union was socialist in high degree as was the German government of the 1930s. American governments are far more socialist today than in 1900, as measured by the taxes taken by those governments as a fraction of total income.

Single-payer health care is clearly more socialist than the current system, which in turn is more socialist than the production of health care in 1940.

There is no need to get into debates over whether or not a government-enacted measure of control or a government is or is not socialist. They all are, to a greater or lesser degree. There is no need to debate varieties of socialism or Marxism or obscure theories, not when what we need is a clear understanding among great masses of people as to what socialism is and is not.

Socialism is basically control over the economic decisions of many people by a small set of government people. Its opposite is free markets, which is control over economic decisions on a voluntary basis using a price system and a division of labor that arises in an unforced way.

There is a lot more that has been said about why socialism is to be avoided and free markets preferred. There is a lot more to be said about controls that are social in nature, or that leak over into government control. These lie beyond the scope of this blog.


9:07 am on November 27, 2018