Through most of American history, our country has demonized socialism openly. In fact, during certain periods of time, refusing to do so was costly. During the McCarthy Era, for example, those who did not condemn socialism and communism were often subject to sharp punishment. In other time periods, the same has been true.
Of course, it is safe to say that punishing someone because of their views is unjust. Nonetheless, it has occurred many times. Why is this? Naturally, there was a great American fear of socialism and communism during the Cold War. But, does this justify the general fear and hatred of socialism itself? The simple answer: it’s complicated.
Is Socialism Bad for a Country?
There are a number of elements to the question of whether socialism is bad for a people or country. In order to properly answer it, it is critical to address all parts of it. Failure to do so, as I will explain below, can create a dangerous partial truth at best.
The Definition of Socialism
First and foremost, one must comprehend what socialism truly is. This notion is logically sound: it is impossible to fairly like or dislike something that you do not understand. Ultimately, socialism is a worker ownership of the means of production. Rather than private individuals owning money and land, the collective society does. In some, more authoritarian cases, the state steps in to handle the distribution of goods. On the other hand, smaller socialist societies claim an ability to do this without the state.
Naturally, this runs in direct contrast to the current American way of life, which centers around private profit. Yet, different is not inherently good or bad. Now, a convincing argument could exist, saying that if the socialist system forces you to participate, then it is a negative force in the world. This, of course, is due to the lack of autonomy and choice that such a system would bring about.
What can we say, though, about a more voluntary form of socialism? A number of such communities exist, notably the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. By joining the group, you agree to abide by the rules, but you also can reside peaceably without contributing or receiving anything. This, of course, does not rob you of that same autonomy. At every point, you are free to sever communication and allegiance with the group. The same is not true about a modern democracy or a forceful socialist community. In both cases, there are punishments for refusing to comply. So, if someone is allowed to opt out of this process without harm, there is no loss of autonomy. A form of opt-out socialism, therefore, does not violate the ideal of individual freedom.
Clearly, the idea of socialism does not always take away autonomy. So, it does not necessarily run in contrast to the moral freedom that we as human beings all possess. Various forms may support or oppose the idea of freedom, but it is wrong to place a blanket statement on them.
What is Political Good and Bad?
Beyond the word socialism, it is also important to define the other terms. To know if socialism is bad, you must furthermore know what it means to be bad. The word itself is a negation of good, so for the sake of definition, I will focus on the positive form. The thing is, though, it is frankly impossible to think of a real definition that can apply to a country or group of people.
When it comes down to it, different people will have different ideas for what is good. Some, for instance, may believe that economic indicators are the surefire way of determining the goodness of a political system. For them, it appears that a more open or mixed market may be a good system. The numbers, on the surface, appear to support this notion. After all, world poverty dropped from 53 percent to 17 percent from 1981 to 2011. This perfectly coincides with industrial revolutions throughout the world and the formation of market economies in developing countries.
Other Measures of Goodness
Looking deeper, though, it becomes clear that this may not truly be good for everyone. Arguments can exist far beyond the economic scale. For example, there may be environmental, moral, religious, or philosophical perspectives on the issue.
From an environmental perspective, industrial revolutions cause a great deal of pollution. In a decentralized, agrarian society without mass industry, rivers would perhaps not be as unclean as they were after shifts to market and industry. Morally, perhaps the consumer lifestyle does not bring a sense of inner peace. After all, would not a happy but poor life to 60 be more fulfilling than a rich, miserable life to 100? Neither capitalism nor socialism will make everyone happy. Inevitably, though, there will be some who would prefer that shorter life.
A Question of Perspective
Clearly, there are countless perspectives on this forever back and forth debate. Is socialism bad? The question is not a fair one. Socialism can mean a number of things, and the word bad is too one-dimensional. It may boost a certain man’s wealth and life expectancy, but take away his connection to his community and pollute his river. Perhaps, in some other cases, it will not drastically affect his income but will make him a happier person.
If we can say that two or more perspectives exist, then the word “bad” is not proper for the discussion. And, with just those two above, we have the two necessary ideas. Of course, many more can exist, and each only furthers my point. Socialism is not bad, necessarily. It very well can be, according to an individual. The word bad, though, is one-dimensional and limiting. Thus, it is not accurate to use it to describe many different perspectives, provided that the preferred system does not initiate force against anyone. And, as shown above, opt-out socialism does not cause any loss of autonomy.
Still, someone may use it subjectively, to describe his or her own life. A woman may prefer capitalism to socialism or vice versa, and declare one of them good for her. But, that woman is in the heads of no other man or woman. Thus, she cannot decide if it is good for any other person, let alone the world. For such a complex issue, we must always turn to the individual: each person can only assess his or her own best interests.
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