Where’s the Socialism?
It always seems a bit silly, to me, to fight over words. Use of the word “socialism,” for example, tends to be descriptive among conservatives. That is, we use it because we’re trying to describe a system or institution that we’re addressing, not because it polls badly and we want to throw tar on an otherwise unobjectionable thing. The reaction from the left, though, is often to insist that the term does not wholly apply, rather than to take up the real topic — which is that the aspects that the thing shares with an abstract whole socialism are objectionable in their own rights.
Kevin Williamson takes up that thread:
A more complete definition of socialism incorporates two criteria: The first is that socialism entails the public provision of non-public goods. The second is the use of central planning to implement that policy.
What is a public good? Economists distinguish between public and non-public goods on two grounds, features known as rivalry and excludability. Public goods, under the economic definition, are goods which are non-rivalrous in their consumption and non-excludable in their distribution. A couple of examples will make these distinctions clear. A rivalrous good is one for which my consumption of one unit of the good leaves one unit less for your consumption. A mango is rivalrous in consumption: Every mango I eat is a mango you cannot eat. But some goods are non-rivalrous: a highway, for instance. If I drive down a mile of highway, that does not leave one less mile for you to drive down.
Of course, with the disputes in which socialism arises, the boundaries of the economic term expands, such that some disputants behave as if all goods are ultimately public, and individual consumption is a presumption to be regulated by the state, which Williamson brings up subsequently:
The modern experience suggests that the economist Ludwig von Mises was only partly correct when he wrote, “The socialistic State owns all material factors of production and thus directs it.” That was true for the authoritarian, single-party powers of his day. In our own time, the converse is a more accurate description of the real economic arrangement: Under socialism, the state directs the material factors of production as if it owned them. The state does not have to actually own factories, mines, or data centers if it has the power to dictate, in minute detail, how business is conducted within them. Regulation acts as a proxy for direct state ownership of the means of production.
The key example — not only in structure, but in evidence of socialism’s inevitable failure — is public education as currently constituted, which despite the popularity of arguments about “socialism” is not often enough raised.