“Five myths about socialism,” response

On March 1, 2019, Sheri Berman of Barnard College published a column entitled “Five Myths about Socialism” at the Washington Post. This is my response:

Socialism is making a comeback in recent thought. There is a multiplicity of causes for this; some of which being the seeming rise in relative wealth inequality, the forgotten knowledge of previous generations, and a way to overcompensate for strong voices originating in the political far right.

The five myths purported by Berman are as follows: 1) Socialism is a single coherent ideology. 2) Socialism and democracy are incompatible. 3) All socialists want to abolish markets and private property. 4) When socialism is tried, it collapses. 5) Socialism offers a ready-made solution to numerous current problems. None of these myths are technically false, but technicalities do not always pass muster.

The first myth is an attempt to differentiate various strains of socialism so that if one has failed in the past, is currently failing, or may fail in the future, the author and all other socialists can stand on a platform as they decry the fallen economic system, claiming that it was never true socialism. Given their ardent cognitive dissonance, they have nothing to fear from the failures of others claiming to be socialists. This further aides them in future potential failures: “If the system fails, it was because we didn’t get X correct; therefore, this couldn’t have been a true test of socialism. The ideal form of socialism still prevails and we will succeed next time.”

Often times, supporters of socialism engage in the “No true Scotsman” fallacy as way to continue their ideology without coming into direct contact with any of the logical flaws that might persist underneath. It still stands to reason that the purest form of socialism ever attempted by an economic system, War Communism. The top goals of this regime were as follows:

  1. Nationalization and centralization of all industries
  2. State control of foreign trade
  3. Control over labor
  4. Forced labor of citizens
  5. Prodrazvyorstka
  6. Rationing of goods, complete with centralized distribution centers.
  7. The abolition of free markets and enterprise
  8. State control of intranational transportation

In many of these goals, the Soviet Socialist government succeeded, but at what cost? according to multiple sources, the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), including the time of War Communism (1918-1921), resulted in between 9 and 20 million casualties. Only a relatively small percentage of these were due to combat; the overwhelming majority were due to famine and disease. Berman’s critique that the division of Democratic-leaning socialism and Bolshevik-style communism shows that socialism stays true to a democratic form of governance is another example of her allowing room to decry these experiments as being untrue forms of socialism.

Perhaps the abolition of markets and private property is not explicit in all forms of socialism, but underlying the expanse of socialist ideology is the implicit knowledge that such forms of market governance and institutions will be overturned in the name of the “greater good.” She points to redistribution as a virtue in that it does not abolish the market; though, she fails to posit that redistribution by definition entails the destruction of property rights for some and the creation of new rights for others. Intuitively, this changes the market mechanisms and causes the potential destruction for some markets.

Berman points to the Scandinavian countries as lights upon a hill for socialism; however, a quick look at their histories show that many of these nations are more capitalist than socialist. Furthermore, they built up their capital and institutions far before “socially-democratic” words were being slung at them. It is not hard to find perspectives that mesh with one’s priors in the information age. Yet, we haven’t seen the long term outcomes for many of these systems; nor do we know what additional issues other countries not being as homogenous would have to resolve. Furthermore, one cannot merely transplant the institutions from one country to that of another. There exists no anti-immune pills for economic systems.

Her final myth is the truest of all. Though it might be purported by its proponents, socialism fails to offer a panacea for all the world’s problems. Given its history, socialism might offer short-term solutions that remedy a few economic ailments, but the final cost of these solutions might outweigh the losses from the initial problems.



Author: Deric Tilson

I am a classically-trained economist and doctoral student at George Mason. I'm an ecopragmatist and interested in the cross-section where economics, ecology, and ethology meet. I hope to work for non-for-profits specializing in economic development and eventually moving to either the public sector or a think tank. My research interests include the political economy of war, resource economics, the applications of complexity theory, the mitigation of risk by impoverished individuals, and global water scarcity.

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