Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Libertarian History paradox

I have just recently been able to formulate something that I have known at an instinctual level for a long time: that libertarian ideology faces a serious paradox when confronted with historical fact, and that so far libertarians have only managed to find two solutions - both of them quite absurd - to this paradox.

Libertarians start from the premise that free market capitalism is good for the vast majority of the population. But then they encounter a problem when faced with the reality of the fact that the vast majority of the population of every country at almost any given time in history has opposed their brand of extreme free market capitalism.

How do you reconcile your belief that free markets are good for the people with the reality that the people do not want free markets? Clearly, the people must be either stupid or deceived.

Those libertarians who conclude that people are too stupid to know what's good for them take an elitist approach to politics and often end up as bitter reactionary opponents of democracy. Hans-Herman Hoppe, for example - the leader of the Mises Institute - is an extremist libertarian and an advocate of absolute monarchy. This kind of ideological stance can only be described as bizzare; it takes a lot of doublethink to believe at the same time that people are perfect rational actors in the market but somehow too stupid to see their own interests in the voting booth.

The second and more common libertarian solution to the apparent paradox described above is to postulate the existence of some kind of vast statist conspiracy that has somehow managed to brainwash the majority of the population. This stance does not require any orwellian doublethink, but it does require a high dose of paranoia and historical revisionism. It requires you to believe that the 19th century was a golden age when everyone was happy and life was only getting better, until some dark group of evil statists magically persuaded the people that they were unhappy (when in fact everyone was happy and singing kum ba yah). It requires you to believe that all the depictions we have of the extreme misery, poverty and filth that engulfed the life of ordinary people in the 19th century are statist propaganda.

I have not yet met a single libertarian who did not fall into either one of these two categories: elitist doublethinker or conspiracy theorist. Libertarian ideology is too easily refuted by simple historical fact unless you either believe that the people are stupid or that recorded history is a lie.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Portugal says "meh" to abortion

It's been quite a while since the last update, and I have only recently realized that the reason I found it so difficult to write another blog entry was because I was trying too hard to focus on my "definitions" series. It is much easier to write about news than about political science topics.

So, in that vein, I now bring to your attention the recent referendum in Portugal regarding abortion law. As things currently stand, Portugal has some of the most pro-life abortion laws in the European Union (and more pro-life than the United States, too). Abortions are allowed in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy to save a woman's life or to preserve her mental or physical health. That limit is extended to 16 weeks in cases of rape or other sexual crimes and up to 24 weeks in cases where the child is likely to be born with an incurable disease or malformation (as certified by a doctor other than the one who is to perform the operation). Overall, this seems to be one of the better abortion laws in the world - I wouldn't endorse it enthusiastically, but I do support it and it does seem to fall in line with Christian ethics (except for the part that allows late abortions when the child is likely to be born with an incurable disease, which comes dangerously close to suggesting that some lives are not worth living).

Now, this past Sunday - February 11th - a referendum was held in Portugal on the question of introducing a more liberal abortion law. The left-wing government of Jose Socrates proposed to make abortion on demand legal during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. The results were as follows:

Of all voters,
24% said yes
16% said no
60% did not bother to show up to the polls

The result, in other words, was a resounding "meh". This was to some extent predictable, given that abortion is simply not regarded as a major political issue in Europe (unlike in the United States, where it seems to be the cornerstone of the entire Christian conservative movement). I personally lean towards the European paradigm. Though abortion certainly is an issue, it has been blown out of all proportion in the United States.

But that still doesn't excuse people not showing up for a referendum.
Jose Socrates has said he will go ahead with his plans to liberalize abortion law because the majority of the people who voted said yes.

Like Prime Minister
Socrates, I am a leftist. But unlike him, I was never able to understand the left's infatuation with the legalization of abortion. It probably comes from the fact that the modern Western left has taken an overdose of liberal individualist ideology over the past few decades, and is currently experiencing a mild delusional episode. By "delusional episode" I mean the dogmatic insistence on an individual's prerogative to do anything and everything to his or her own body, even when that may have negative consequences. This kind of ultra-individualist insanity is usually found among libertarians. Leftists should really know better.

A woman's right to choose is often invoked in defense of abortion. But surely, in a developed Western society where condoms and other forms of contraception are widely available, a woman has already made her choice when she decided to have unprotected sex. Abortion has less to do with the right to choose and more to do with the right to change your mind. Now, I'll be the first to agree that people make mistakes and everyone deserves a second chance. That is why there is always the option to give up the child for adoption. So, given that you can make a choice to use contraception before the pregnancy, and you can later change your mind by giving the child up for adoption after the pregnancy, abortion can only be justified when there is some exceptional reason to make a choice mid-
pregnancy (such as health issues), or when the initial choice was denied to the mother (such as in cases of rape).

Further information: The BBC has a very informative survey of abortion laws in the European Union.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Definitions, part I: Capitalism

How many political isms can you think of? Socialism might be the first one that comes to mind, since, after all, you are reading a socialist blog. Next you might think of the word capitalism, which is often thought of as a sort of opposite of socialism (though this is inaccurate; see below). And after that, the most likely words to come to mind would be liberalism and conservatism, probably the most common political terms in use today (especially in North America).

What exactly do all these isms mean? First of all, it is extremely important to remember that, by themselves, they are just labels. You might have heard people talk about true socialism, or what a true conservative would do, or some such things. That is all pure nonsense. It makes about as much sense to debate the true meaning of socialism as to debate, for example, whether "orange" is a colour or a kind of fruit. "Orange" - like "socialism" - is a word. And people sometimes use the same word to mean different things. This happens particularly often in politics. Every time you hear someone talk about socialism, or capitalism, or any other ism, you should never let them say another word before they explain to you exactly what they mean by that ism. If my definition of "socialism" is different from your definition of "socialism", then there is a great potential for misunderstanding (and/or manipulation). Before we can talk about socialism, we must agree on exactly what it is that we're talking about. Just because I am a socialist does not mean that I will agree with anything that some people choose to slap the label of "socialism" on. The same holds true for liberals, conservatives, etc.

And, in that spirit, I will dedicate this post to explaining the definitions I use for some terms that will crop up again and again in my future writings. I have already defined socialism and Christian socialism in my previous post; now I should talk about capitalism.

The word socialism
can refer to either a political ideology or a socio-economic system that is advocated by that ideology. Capitalism, by contrast, always refers to a socio-economic system. In a nutshell, capitalism is the socio-economic system based on private property over the means of production and an impartial code of law. "Private property over the means of production" refers to the fact that the means of production - the things we use to produce more things (for example factories) - are the private property of individuals or groups of individuals, rather than being shared by the workers who use them or by the entire community around them. In other words, the production of goods and services is controlled by certain individuals rather than society as a whole. This separates capitalism from socialism. But private property over the means of production, by itself, is not enough to define capitalism. After all, the means of production were private long before capitalism developed.

To complete the definition of capitalism, we must look at the difference between capitalism and the socio-economic system that preceded it: feudalism. The fundamental difference lies in the structure of the laws used by the two systems. Feudalism had a complex set of customs and privileges that gave more rights to some people (the aristocracy), less rights to others (the free peasantry and city dwellers), and no rights at all to the majority (the serfs). Essentially, feudalism had different laws for different classes of people. Capitalism, on the other hand, has one set of laws that apply to all people. Thus the second defining feature of capitalism is an impartial code of law.

Capitalism is not the only socio-economic system that features private property over the means of production, and it is not the only system that features an impartial code of law. But it is the only system that features both at the same time. The relationship between socialism, capitalism and feudalism - and their defining features - is best expressed by the simple diagram below:

However, this doesn't mean that socialism, capitalism and feudalism are the only economic systems, or that the code of law and the issue of property over the means of production are the only defining features of such systems. It is possible to draw many other circles on the diagram above, in order to show more economic systems.

Finally, notice that an impartial code of law is something that capitalism and socialism have in common. As such, there is usually no debate over it. Most debate between socialists and capitalists focuses on the fundamental difference between the two socio-economic systems:
the issue of property over the means of production.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Welcome to The Christian Socialist, a blog dedicated to presenting Christian socialist ideas and delivering commentary on world events from a Christian socialist perspective. The blog aims to become a valuable source of information on Christian socialism, an ideology with a long tradition but very limited recognition in present-day politics within Europe and North America. The politics of those two continents will be the focus of this blog, though I wish to maintain an international outlook.

In this first post, I wish to give a very short introduction to socialism in general and Christian socialism in particular.

The word "socialism" may refer to either a political ideology (something in the same category as liberalism and conservatism), or a socio-economic system (something in the same category as capitalism or feudalism). Socialist ideology provides the moral and intellectual support for socialist economics and a socialist organization of society.

As an ideology, "socialism" refers to a body of ideas that emphasize equality and community spirit as the primary moral values that should guide human affairs. Socialists believe that human beings have equal moral worth and equal dignity; they believe that all people should have the same rights and responsibilities, and that rights and responsibilities should be evenly balanced (there should be no rights without responsibilities, nor any responsibilities without rights). Socialists further believe that all human beings are born equal and remain that way throughout their lives. Differences certainly exist, but they are minor in comparison to all the things we have in common. There are no great variations in strength, intelligence, or other defining features. For example, it is very difficult to find a person who is twice as intelligent as another (in terms of IQ), or a person who is twice as strong as another. There are people who are exceptionally good or exceptionally bad at certain tasks, but most of us lie in the middle, and no one is good at everything. In addition, socialists realize that human beings are social animals. All our achievements - all our science, art and technology - are the result of collective effort. Even when an invention is made by an individual, that individual benefitted from the accumulated knowledge of hundreds of generations that came before. Albert Einstein (himself a socialist) could not have come up with the Theory of Relativity if there hadn't been anyone to teach him basic physics in the first place. And just like knowledge is the result of collective effort, so are the vast majority of our material goods. All of the things we use in our daily lives - such as the computer you are using right now - were built by dozens or even hundreds of people working together. Human beings working together can achieve far more than human beings working apart. Society is greater than the sum of its parts.

As a socio-economic system, "socialism" refers to a kind of society organized according to the principles outlined above. Because human beings are equal, they should have an equal say in political decisions. Thus, socialists support democracy. But socialists also wish to expand the concept of democracy to include not only the political but also the economic sphere. One of the most fundamental aspects of socialism is a democratic economy - an economy in which decisions about the production and distribution of goods and services are made either by the people themselves or by democratically elected representatives. Socialism is the economic system based on public ownership over the means of production. This means that all capital goods used in economic production (e.g. factories, office buildings - the kinds of things that make up businesses and firms) would be the shared property of all the people. In other words, each citizen would be an equal “shareholder” in the national economy. Socialism aims to put the people in charge of the economy and run it along democratic lines. It can be described simply as economic democracy.

Or, to be more exact, socialism means representative economic democracy. The people, as “shareholders” in the economy, elect representatives to manage and plan economic activity. Therefore, a socialist economy is a planned economy. The democratic process - perhaps together with other checks and balances - ensures the planners will do a good job (because if they don’t, they can be voted out of office).

Now let's backtrack a little. Two paragraphs above, I listed the basic principles that all socialists agree on. But what do socialists disagree on? They disagree on the foundations of those principles. In other words, while agreeing that people should be treated equally, socialists often disagree on the reasons why people should be treated equally. They may also disagree on many of the specific details of a socialist society. There is great variety in capitalist societies throughout the world (not all capitalist countries are exactly the same). The same applies to socialism - not every socialist society would be exactly the same. Finally, socialists also disagree - sometimes quite bitterly - on the best means to achieve socialism. These differences have resulted in the development of several branches of socialism. One such branch is Christian socialism.

Christian socialism, as the name implies, is socialism based on Christian values. Christian socialists believe that socialism is the logical political choice for a Christian. This is not to say that we believe all Christians must be socialists. Christianity is a religion, not a political ideology; it concerns itself with the human soul, and one may be a very good Christian without holding any political views at all. One may also make illogical or misguided political choices while still remaining a very good Christian. The reason why Christian socialists hold that socialism is the only logical political choice for a Christian is because only a socialist society can uphold all Christian values at the same time. Other socio-economic systems may tolerate certain Christian values, but will infringe on others. Capitalism, for example, tolerates altruism, but encourages greed, selfishness, individualism and the pursuit of material profit at any cost. Capitalism does not force anyone to sin, but it encourages people to do so (by rewarding sinful activities). Christians cannot logically support a system that rewards sin; a Christian society must reward virtue.

In addition to the principles shared by all socialists, Christian socialists make the observation that all political decisions are, at their core, moral decisions. All laws are moral laws. For instance, we have laws against murder because we believe that murder is bad. That is a moral judgement. From this observation, Christian socialists conclude that it is impossible to separate morality from politics. We may separate religion from politics, we may separate the Church from the state (which is something that Christian socialists support), but we still need to base our laws and our society on some sort of moral beliefs. Christian socialists believe that some of the core values of Christianity - interdependence, the duty to help one another when in need, strong community bonds, sanctity of life, and a rejection of the excessive individualism that permeates Western culture - are values that all people, both religious and non-religious, can embrace. We believe that these values are the most solid foundation for socialism, and socialism is the best way out of the spiritual, political and economic problems of our times. We will never have an ideal society, but it is our duty to strive to get as close to it as humanly possible.

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