Is Socialism Really Revolutionary?

A central feature of Karl Marx’s thought is its teleological character: the world walks inexorably towards communism. It is not a question of choices. It is not a question of individual decisions. Communism is simply the direction in which the world walks. Capitalism will collapse not because of some external force, but because of its own internal contradictions (centrally the exploitation of the workers).

I don’t know exactly what History classes are like in other countries, but in basically all my academic trajectory I was bombarded with some version of Marxism. Particularly as far as my country was concerned, the question was not whether a socialist revolution would happen, but why it was taking so long! Looking at events in the past, the reading was as follows: the bourgeoisie overthrew the Old Regime in the French Revolution. At that time the bourgeoisie were revolutionaries (and therefore left-wing). However, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a constitutional government, the bourgeois became advocates of the new order (and therefore, reactionary, or right-wing). Socialists have become the new revolutionaries, the new left, the new radicals.

This way of seeing history has a Hegelian background: there are no absolutes. History moves through a process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. History’s god is learning to be a god. I’ve written earlier here about how this kind of relativistic view does not stand on its own terms. Now I would like to say that this way of looking at history can be intellectually dishonest.

According to the historical view I have learned, there is no absolute of what is left or right. One political group is always to the left or to the right of another, depending on how much this group is revolutionary or reactionary. Thus, the bourgeois were revolutionaries at one time, but today they are no longer. But what happens when the Socialists come to power? Do not they themselves become reactionary, defenders of the status quo? According to everything they taught me, no. The revolution is permanent. My assessment is that at this point they are partly right: the revolution must be permanent.

Socialists can not take the risk of becoming exactly what they fought at the first place. In practice, however, this is not the case: the Socialists occupy the posts of the state and begin to defend their position and these positions more than anything else. That’s what I see in my country today. In practice, it is impossible to be revolutionary all the time, just as it is impossible to be relativistic in a consistent way. I have not yet met a person who, looking at the red light, said “but to me it’s green and all these other cars are just a narrative of patriarchal society.”

Politics is unfortunately, for the most part, simply a search for power. Even the most idealistic groups need the power to put their agendas into practice. And experience shows that once installed in power, many idealistic groups become pragmatic.

Socialism is not revolutionary. It is only a reaction against the real revolution that is capitalism defended by classical liberalism. Classical liberalism says: men are all equal, private property is inviolable, exchanges can only occur voluntarily and no one can be forced to work against their will. Marxism responds: men are not all the same (they are divided into classes), private property is relative (if it is in the interest of the collective I can take what was once yours) and you will work for our cause, whether or not you want to. In short, Marxism is a return to the Old Regime.

On Liberalism & Race

Race has occupied my thoughts for the past few months. I have traditionally been against giving too much thought to race. Progressives, I think, abuse claims of racism to shut down discussions and pass questionable public policies; e.g. “We need state provided health care because the current system is racist against people of color.”. Conservatives likewise use racism (nativism really) to justify restrictive migration policies. My default position has been that liberals should seek to reduce the role of race of society. I am no longer convinced that this is a viable goal.

My earlier position was based on my childhood experience growing up in 1990s Los Angeles. I grew up in the city’s Koreatown district. The corner grocery store was owned by an Indian. We had a mosque in the block that catered to the neighborhood’s Bengali population. This being Los Angeles there was of course a mixture of Hispanics from Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, and other nations. With so many groups clustered together in a small place you would expect frequent violence – but there wasn’t. Property crimes (petty theft mostly) were common given the general poverty in the area, but inter-group violence wasn’t common. The reason for peace was because the United States’ market oriented institutions discouraged such violence. All the groups were too busy trying to make money to have time to escalate inter-group conflict beyond making fun of one another in private. I grew up hearing plenty of jokes at the expense of Salvadoreans and Asians, but I never saw any actual violence against them. I figured that this was evidence that a liberal society would in the long run be able to make race irrelevant by making it too costly to be racist.

The events of the past few months have made me skeptical of this. Liberal society certainly makes racism costly and reduces inter-group conflict. However liberal society does not eliminate all inter-group conflict or remove the underlying differences across races.

Given that liberalism cannot eliminate racism, what should the liberal position on race be? I have no solid answer. Thoughts?

A very short response to Bruno Gonçalves Rosi’s reflection on Latin American Conservatism

With his “The Problem with Conservatism in Latin America, Bruno Gonçalves Rosi brings to NOL a very interesting debate on politics and history. In the case of Hispanic America the controversy is quite severe: during the 17th-century Spain and its colonies were undergoing an incremental process of liberalization and modernization known as “Bourbon Reforms.” These reforms implied a language unification (adopting Castilian – later named “Spanish” – as the national language), an increasing centralization of political administration, and free trade between Spain and its colonies, among other aspects.

In the case of the Spanish colonies in America, the Bourbon Reforms implied that Spanish-born subjects were preferred over American-born ones to take up public duties, and also that American products could not compete with Spanish ones. Up until then, commerce among Spain and its American colonies was restrained to gold and a narrow scope of goods. Free commerce had been allowed only in cases of extreme scarcity (for example, between Buenos Aires and South Africa) and for a very short lapse of time. The Bourbon Reforms put a severe strain on the incipient local production of the Hispanic American colonies that had flourished as consequence of closed markets. Sometimes inefficient local processes of production were outperformed by more competitive Spanish goods. But in other cases, efficient local industries were banned because they were regarded as a menace to Spanish ones.

Thus, the reactions to the Bourbon Reforms were of two opposite kinds: the Liberals rejected them because they limited the free trade only to Spain and its colonies and the modernization process was too slow. Liberals demanded free trade with all countries. On the other side, the Conservatives sought to go back to the Habsburg era: they rejected Modernity and free trade and demanded protectionism. The Emancipatory process of Spanish America was carried out by the conjunction of the Liberal and the Conservative reaction against the Bourbon Reforms. Once independence was fulfilled, the two parties became acutely antagonist to each other…perhaps up until today.

The history of Latin American Conservatism and Liberalism is worth our attention not only because of political history itself, but because it gives us a model to ponder the processes of departure from political and economic commonwealths that have been seen in the recent years -and perhaps are not closed yet.

What the Bible really says about how to treat refugees

Recently a text written by Jesse Carey, in Relevant Magazine, supposedly about what the Bible says about immigrants, refugees and displaced people, has come to me. The text is a bit old (from November 17, 2015), but is being reheated because of President Trump’s recent decisions in this area. Given these things, here are some comments on “What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees.”

Carey presents what he calls “12 verses about loving immigrants, refugees and displaced people”. The first thing to note is that none of the texts presented by Carey mentions the word refugees. The texts speak about foreigners, the poor and needy, travelers, strangers, and neighbors, but never about refugees. A refugee is a foreigner, but not every foreigner is a refugee. The same goes for stranger. Amazingly, refugee is also not synonymous with traveler. Every refugee is traveling (against his will, it is assumed), but not everyone who is traveling is a refugee. Finally, a refugee can be poor and needy, but poor and needy and refugee are also not synonymous. It seems that Carey has difficulty reading: when he sees words like foreigner or traveler or poor and needy or stranger his brain reads refugee. Either that or he’s being flagrantly dishonest.

The second observation is that, in the language used by Jesus, for the Christian every refugee is a neighbor. Not every refugee is poor and needy, not every foreigner is a refugee, nor does every stranger is a refugee and not every traveler is a refugee. But for the Christian, every human being is a neighbor, and so deserves his mercy. The problem is that Carey wants to apply this to immigration policies, and immigration policies are not made by Christian individuals, but by governments.

The history of the relationship between churches and governments is long, complex and tumultuous. To make a quick summary, suffice it to say that during the Middle Ages church leaders and political leaders fought and argued among themselves about who would dominate the people of Europe. The Bishop of Rome wanted to be above the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. At the local level, bishops and priests fought with nobles of all kinds. The result was a general confusion. One of the great victories of the Modern Era, beginning with the Protestant Reformation (which celebrates 500 years this year) was the separation of churches and state. Especially since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the tendency has been for states not to use their arms to impose a religion on the population. Carey wants to go the other way. He even cites 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 as if it applied to every human being, and not only to Christians.

The Bible teaches that individual Christians must care for needy people, and certainly refugees fall into this category. But the Bible does not teach that the state should do this. The role of the state, according to the Bible, is to carry the sword to punish wrongdoers and to benefit those who follow the law (the classic text regarding this is Romans 13). In other words, biblically the function of the state is restricted to security. Receiving immigrants is certainly a policy with which Christians can agree, but fully open borders, without any vigilance, are a delusion and nothing more. Wrongdoers can disguise themselves as immigrants to enter a country, and it is up to the state to do some kind of security check.

I am not discussing here the details of Trump’s current policy for immigrants and refugees. It is quite possible that there are aspects within it that Christians can or should disagree with. But by wanting to impose Christian behavior on the state, Carey goes against one of the greatest victories of the Modern Age, the separation of churches and state, something amazing for a liberal and progressive author. Does he approve of compulsory prayer in schools, the end of teaching Darwinism and punishment for those who do not attend Sunday worship? Hope not.

Roger Williams has already presented this discussion very clearly more than 300 years ago: Christians cannot impose their religion using the state for this. What can be expected Biblically from the state is in the second table of the law: you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony … Basically, do not hurt others, do not lie to them and do not take their stuff without permission, things that any kindergarten child knows are wrong. I do not think we need the Bible to teach us that.

I hope that the state is open to immigration as much as possible, being restricted only by security concerns. I hope Christians will welcome the refugees. I hope the wall of separation between church and state is never overthrown. And I hope that the rulers of the United States will leave the Islamic world for the Islamists to take care of. They already have enough work taking care of the safety of Americans in North America.

Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story

Over at the Niskanen Center, Matthew Fay wrote a blog entitled “Thinking about Libertarian Foreign Policy.” Brandon was so nice to point this out to me.

Fay’s main point is that, apparently contrary to what some libertarians think (Fay leaves them unnamed, no references either), there is big divide between the foreign policy pronouncements of Donald Trump and libertarian views on foreign policy. So far, so good. I have no dispute with that.

Yet Fay’s blog post is seriously lacking at other points. The main one, and the focus of this post, is that he mixes up different views on international relations within the liberal tradition at large, which is in some way not so surprising because he appears to be ignorant of those differences to begin with (at least in this piece). That is not very comforting for those concerned with this issue, as the Niskanen Center is about to start a larger project on foreign policy. Should it indeed be born in neglect and oversight, it won’t add much to our knowledge, I am afraid.

Conceptual mess

Fay’s essay gets off to a false start as he fails to properly introduce “libertarian.” He then continues to use this label for all kinds of theoretical ideas, originating from both liberal political thought, and international relations theory. To make things worse, Fay routinely claims that there is one unified libertarian position on foreign policy.

This is erroneous, as classical liberalism, libertarianism, and social liberalism all have partly different views on the matter. The various thinkers associated with those different liberalisms have different views on domestic and international politics. Any meaningful analysis on foreign policy from a libertarian or other liberal position should acknowledge that, and use it to the reader’s advantage. It is impossible and perhaps even deceiving to enter into a topical debate when your own position is a conceptual mess. This applies to all debates, academic and otherwise.

Proper conceptual approach

So what should Fay have done instead? Simply acknowledge there is more to liberal thought on international relations, and work from there.

To keep this blog to a readable length, I will just present these differences very briefly. My presentation is based on the writings of the British political theorist Michael Freeden. He argues that every political ideology (and liberalism is one of them) should be seen as a framework (which he calls morphology) composed of a number of political concepts. These concepts vary in importance while their meaning is contested within the ideology. It is possible to distinguish core, adjacent, and peripheral concepts, which together make a unique set of political ideas. While some of the individual concepts overlap, there is significant variation between the frameworks. This enables the distinction between different liberal variants, which are still part of the larger liberal family.

For example, the concept of liberty is key to all liberal variants, but liberty has different meanings. Isaiah Berlin’s famous divide between positive and negative liberty is relevant here. The latter can be defined as ‘the freedom from interference by others’, the first ‘the freedom to fully enjoy one’s rights and liberties’, which often demands some support of the state. Classical liberalism is associated with the negative conception and social liberalism with the positive meaning. Yet the meaning of negative liberty may be further contested. The protection from interference by others may be taken as absolute, which is far more stringent than the classical liberal interpretation, which does allow for compulsory taxation of individuals to pay for public services. Now we are entering the libertarian domain, which is in itself divided into those who hold an absolute idea of negative liberty (the anarcho-capitalists), and those who permit a minimal infringement of property rights to pay for police, external defense, and the judiciary (the minarchists). This is also why conservatism is not as closely related to the liberal family as is sometimes thought. For conservatives, individual liberty is not a core concept at all.

Applied to liberalism and conservatism is comes to this:

Table 1: The Morphology of Liberalism and Conservatism

Classical Liberalism Social Liberalism Libertarianism Conservatism
Core concepts Negative freedom, realistic view of human nature, spontaneous order, limited state Positive freedom, positive view of human nature, social justice as self-development, extended state Negative freedom, realistic view of human nature, spontaneous order, natural law including strict defense of property rights Realistic view of human nature, organic change, human order with ‘extra-human’ origins, counter movement
Adjacent concepts Natural law, rule of law/constitutionalism Modern human rights, rule of law and neutral state, social contract (Mill: utilitarianism) Minarchism: minimal state, rule of law Groups/family, hierarchy, active state, sometimes: spontaneous order
Peripheral concepts Social justice, strict defense of property rights, democracy, utilitarianism Property rights, spontaneous order Social justice Individual (property) rights, freedom

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

Liberalism and international relations

Interestingly, yet of course completely logical, these differences also translate to views on foreign policy and international relations:

Table 2: Liberalism, Conservatism, and International Relations

Classical liberalism Social liberalism Libertarianism Conservatism
Nation as limit of individual sympathy Yes No No Yes
State as prime actor in world politics Yes No No Yes
International governmental

institutions/regimes

No Yes No No
Can war be eliminated No Yes Yes No
Does trade foster peace? No Yes Yes No

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

So, in contrast to Fay’s approach, it is not so simple to claim all kinds of concepts and ideas for just one liberal label. There is far more to it. I shall leave it at this for the moment, but for those wanting to read more about this, see my longer essay at libertarianism.org, or my books Degrees of Freedom and Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory.

On the trade off between the rule of law and lower taxes

The recent Carrier deal has caused some controversies in liberty-oriented circles. For example, The Mises Institute published a defense of the deal, arguing (along other lines, please read the article yourself):

there is nothing inherently wrong with an administration focused on keeping jobs in America — especially if this is accomplished by relieving tax and regulatory burdens.

The point I wish to make here is a general point, so I won’t go into the specifics of the Carrier deal. Among other reasons: I don’t know the specifics of the deal (I don’t know the content and I don’t know how the deal came to pass.) What I wish to do here is to argue the general case on how to view these kinds of tax exceptions.

The point we ought to remember, I think, is that there are a trade offs between two important liberal values, although they are important in different ways. On the one hand, we have the idea of rule of law, the idea that the law is general, not specific, applies to everyone rather than some, and that it’s not designed to favor some because it should serve an open-ended order. Things that contribute to such a legal order are ipso facto prima facie good, things that take away from such a legal order are ipso facto prima facie bad.

On the other hand we have the idea that taxes are bad. Things that lower taxes are prima facie good, things that increase taxes are prima facie bad.

But neither of these things trump all other considerations. Let me give you two examples.

  • Suppose there was a law that said that the taxes on, for example, business started by family members of politicians are automatically exempted from taxes. Would this be a good law?
  • Suppose there was a law that said that everyone has to be drafted and has to serve mandatory military service overseas, except the family members of politicians. Again: would this be a good law?

In both of these questions, the answer depends on the liberty-inspired framework you use to answer the question. If you think the value of the rule of law outweighs the value of individual liberty of those family members (who are, after all, not responsible for the actions of their political family members) than you think these are bad laws. If you think the increase in individual liberty for those family members is more important than the violation of a rule of law principle, than you think these are good laws. My point is not to say how one should determine this, my point is that there are two liberty-inspired frameworks that can justify an outcome, and both of these frameworks are relevant in determining what kind of laws we ought to support.

To make the issue slightly more applicable: is the increased damage on the rule of law (created by allowing a specific exception on the general laws on taxes) larger or smaller than the benefits that allow a company to have less taxes?

Some people have tried to argue by analogy – for example, comparing it to the draft. The problem is that analogies quickly run into the problem of changing the relative values of the two important concepts. For example: is it a good thing that women are exempted from the draft? Yes, this seems like obviously a good thing. Would it be a good thing that male children of politicians would be automatically exempted from the draft? This seems like less obviously a good thing.

Would it be a good thing if white people were automatically exempted from the draconian drug laws? Maybe it would, but maybe that also lowers the chance of getting rid of the drug laws altogether. Different margins matter in these kinds of evaluations.

The wrong thing to think is that all policies are pro tanto good just because they increase liberty on some margin for some people, especially if this allows for the prolonging of bad policies by the current ruling class. Some policies can be bad on some margins and good on others and reasonable people can disagree whether the complete net effect of this is good for all.

Maybe it’s a good thing that some people are exempted from evil laws (such as taxes), but it’s not good that the political class gets to choose who does so. Because those who will be exempted will be those who are connected to the political class. So one can absolutely like lower taxes, oppose politicians’ power to choose who is exempted and oppose that, and still be happy for a company that they got a tax cut. (Unless, of course, the company itself is evil. This is certainly possible if they are partners in, for example, the wars that the USA commits.)

So tl;dr. As I posted somewhere on facebook:

Rule of law and lower taxes are two good things. A president (or important person connected to the ruling class such as the president elect) getting to pick and choose winners isn’t desirable, but a tax break is. A higher tax isn’t desirable, but a rule of law is.

Trying to argue the case based on principle seems wrong. It depends on the margins. In the case of the draft, the margin *against* rule of law seems important enough to say it’s a clear victory for liberty to not have women included.

In the case of tax breaks, this is less obvious and reasonable people can come out on different sides of this, I think.

O que é socialismo?

Alguns posts atrás fiz uma exposição sobre o que é capitalismo, e também procurei expor e desmistificar alguns equívocos a respeito dele. Nos próximos posts pretendo fazer algo semelhante com o socialismo: explicar o que é e desfazer alguns mitos e equívocos. Falando a respeito de capitalismo, expliquei que esta palavra é utilizada de forma bastante livre, e assim há muitas variedades de capitalismo. Optei por expor um tipo de capitalismo associado ao pensamento de Adam Smith e à tradição liberal, algo que pode ser chamado de liberdade econômica, liberdade de mercado ou liberdade de escolha. O socialismo também aparece em variadas formas. O que exponho aqui é a variedade associada a Karl Marx. Marx foi um historiador, filósofo e sociólogo, mas o que me interessa aqui é principalmente sua teoria econômica.

A teoria econômica de Marx começa com a teoria do valor trabalho. De acordo com esta pressuposição, o que dá valor a um produto é a quantidade de trabalho envolvida na produção. Em outras palavras, o trabalho (trabalho braçal, entenda-se) é a fonte de todo valor. Esta percepção de valor trabalho pressupõe uma ligação entre mais valia e acumulação de capital. Marx argumentou que toda a riqueza é fruto do esforço dos trabalhadores. No entanto, os trabalhadores não recebem um salário correspondente ao valor pelo qual sua produção é vendida. Na percepção liberal, a diferença entre custo de produção e valor de venda é chamada de lucro. Na percepção de Marx, isto é mais valia: os donos das fábricas (ou donos dos meios de produção) enriquecem a custa do esforço dos trabalhadores. Mas esta é uma relação insustentável: para lucrar os empresários precisam pagar aos trabalhadores o mínimo possível, somente o suficiente para garantir a sobrevivência e reprodução dos trabalhadores. Com o tempo, os lucros iriam cair, o capital (ou os recursos de produção) iriam se concentrar em poucas e imensas fábricas (fabricas menores seriam levadas à falência pela competição), haveria dificuldade de transferência de capital (os investimentos seriam cada vez menos rentáveis), o número de desempregados se elevaria, a capacidade de venda cairia, crises cada vez mais profundas e frequentas ocorreriam, todo o sistema iria inevitavelmente chegar ao fim. Uma sociedade socialista, onde os trabalhadores seriam donos dos meios de produção, surgiria.

No coração da teoria econômica de Marx está o conceito de mais valia: os trabalhadores não recebem o que merecem pelo seu trabalho. Ao invés disso, eles são explorados pelos patrões. Acredito que esta noção de exploração comove muitas pessoas, mas ela não faz o menor sentido. Marx não está dizendo que alguns patrões exploram os trabalhadores. Ele está dizendo que, por definição, todos os patrões exploram os trabalhadores, pois retém na mais valia uma riqueza que não lhes pertence.

A pedra fundamental da teoria econômica de Marx é a teoria do valor trabalho: o que confere valor a um produto é o trabalho que se tem para produzi-lo. Daí que necessariamente haja exploração. Mas a teoria do valor trabalho está certa? Ela corresponde à realidade? Acredito que está bem claro que não: posso ter muito trabalho para produzir uma escultura de palitos de fósforo no meu quintal, e nunca conseguir vende-la, pois ela não tem valor para mais ninguém. Todo o meu trabalho, todo o meu esforço, é inútil e sem valor se eu não estiver produzindo algo que seja do interesse de outra pessoa. Além disso, a revolução marginalista do final do século 19, e particularmente a Escola Austríaca, veio demonstrar que valor é algo subjetivo e sujeito a condições de tempo e espaço.

A questão clássica a respeito de valor é: “porque diamantes, que não alimentam, são tão caros, enquanto que água, que é essencial à vida é tão barata?”. A resposta do valor trabalho é que dá muito trabalho conseguir diamantes, enquanto que água literalmente cai do céu. Mas esta resposta é incompleta: em alguns lugares água não cai do céu. No deserto do Saara, morrendo de sede, uma pessoa pode trocar muitos diamantes por copo de água. Em outras palavras, se a teoria do valor trabalho está correta, então há um valor objetivo: é possível calcular com precisão o valor de alguma coisa considerando o trabalho empregado em sua produção. Mas é manifesto que isto não é verdade: produtos tem seu valor afetado por muitas circunstâncias, e o esforço empregado na produção pode não ter qualquer relevância no valor final.

A conclusão é simples: se a teoria do valor trabalho está errada, toda a teoria econômica de Marx está errada. Isto quer dizer que patrões nunca exploram seus empregados? Claro que não! Isto quer dizer apenas que esta exploração não ocorre segundo a explicação de Marx.

As previsões de Marx (salários menores, maior desemprego, crises econômicas recorrentes e profundas) foram desmentidas uma a uma: a Europa do final do século 19, progressivamente marcada pelo liberalismo econômico, experimentou uma prosperidade impar em sua história. Num quadro mais amplo, nações que optam pelo liberalismo econômico prosperam, e principalmente prosperam os trabalhadores. Basta comparar Coreia do Norte e Coreia do Sul, China e Hong Kong, Alemanha Ocidental e Alemanha Oriental, EUA e URSS e assim por diante. Entendo que muitas pessoas se encantam com o marxismo (e como o socialismo) por se apiedarem das condições muitas vezes precárias dos trabalhadores. Porém, não basta ter o coração no lugar certo. É fundamental ter uma compreensão correta da realidade. Caso a exploração dos trabalhadores seja uma preocupação para você, sugiro considerar o capitalismo e esquecer qualquer forma de socialismo.