The Truth About “Socialism”

Guest post by Dr. William Turner.


What exactly is “socialism”? In the United States it is a dirty word.  To give it the least ideological definition possible, one can say that socialism is the practice of devolving certain powers and responsibilities that one could leave to individuals up to the level of the society as a whole to exercise.   Advocates of socialism tend to emphasize the benefits that they predict will accrue to all members of the socialist society when all members cooperate to provide for themselves and their fellow citizens.  Opponents tend to emphasize the perceived loss of individual liberty that they predict will inevitably result from making important decisions at the level of the community, rather than the level of the individual.

 Hence the debate over health care reform: for advocating a law that requires all Americans to buy health insurance – a society-wide decision substituted for individual choice – President Obama suffers denunciation as a “socialist,” which the denouncers clearly mean in the most pejorative sense possible.  As Ron Paul, perhaps our nation’s most prominent libertarian at the moment, made clear in a recent presidential debate, he would rather individuals who fail to buy health insurance die if they fall seriously ill than give up his precious liberty to do without health insurance if he so chooses.John Locke

 In order to sort this conundrum out, I would point us back to John Locke, who, as Gillian Brown explains in her book, The Consent of the Governed: The Lockean Legacy in Early American Culture, had a profound impact on the culture of colonial British America.  Thomas Jefferson notoriously plagiarized (which is okay only when one is fomenting revolution) Locke in writing the Declaration of Independence when he identified the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as rights “we hold…to be self-evident,” meaning axiomatic, the starting point for the discussion, absent agreement on which it becomes impossible to have any discussion at all; at that point, we resort to war.  In his original Second Treatise of Government, of course, Locke wrote, “life, liberty, and property,” which is how the phrase appears in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

In the United States, it is very difficult to ignore or dismiss Locke in any discussion of politics and law, although we do this all the time.  He’s not fashionable these days.

Where did Locke get his idea about rights to life, liberty, and property?  He explains it in some detail in his Treatise.  He states flatly that his starting point is the fundamental equality of all humans, a truth that Locke took to be self-evident.  He then posited a “state of nature,” a hypothetical situation of humanity before the institution of government.  Although as information about Native Americans in “the new world” began to trickle back to England, Locke did speculate about the possibility that they lived in a literal state of nature (which, of course, they did not — they had quite sophisticated forms of government), his “state of nature” was purely a heuristic device that helped Locke to think his philosophy through.  He did not posit, or look for, an actual state of nature that humans really lived in, presumably before the advent of recorded history, if ever.

 In Locke’s hypothetical state of nature, all humans are free to accumulate private property by applying their labor to the fruits of nature.  Presumably at the most basic level, this would involve simply gathering up supplies of edible plants and storing any excess for future consumption.  With the advent of agriculture, one graduates to deliberately cultivating plants, harvesting them, and storing the surplus, and/or bartering some of the surplus to others in exchange for goods or services they have a surplus of.  Because everyone is equal to start with, in the state of nature, everyone gets the same “natural” rights: our old friends, life, liberty, and property.  One can easily see the logical progression here: dead people have little use for liberty or property; one who is imprisoned or enslaved will have little opportunity to accumulate property.

We must appreciate that Locke was arguing with the King of England in his writing.  He even lived several years in exile because he became too closely associated with the faction in England at the time that hoped to replace the sitting king with another (pissing off a self-styled absolute monarch is dangerous business).  Defenders of royal power at the time argued that the King ruledby divine right as the moral, if not the genetic,descendant of the original Adam, to whom god had granted the power to rule over all of humanity and the beasts of the earth.  Because he was arguing with a King who ostensibly ruled by divine right, Locke had to ground his rights in “nature” in order to trump the divine right of kings.  Both positions involve an implicit appeal to an omnipotent deity.  Locke would trump the king’s god with his own god.  Dueling deities.  Insofar as British Americans were arguing with the notional descendant of the same King of England, they similarly needed to ground their rights claims in a putative omnipotent deity in order to win the logical argument, if not the war.

Being a good empiricist, Locke stated, quite loudly for his time, that the argument for the divine right of kings as descendants of Adam was absurd, and that all legitimate political power originated in the governed, a maxim that most Americans take to heart, which is why they now feel free to descend on the seat of government to protest, and which persons in power feel obligated to respect by not sending troops out to disperse any such protestors (at least since World War II – recall the Bonus Army, which U.S. Army troops dispersed from the Capitol in 1932 (

So, in our state of nature, we have a collection of persons living in close proximity who have begun to accumulate, presumably in or near their dwellings, surpluses of food that they have acquired through their own efforts, which they have the natural right to.  Having the natural right to their surplus, they equally have the natural right to punish anyone who attempts to steal their surplus from them, including by enslaving the would-be thief and using her/him as they will.

Note that this is the only moral form of slavery in Locke’s system: as punishment for violating another’s rights.  This is essentially the principle behind the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…within the United States.”  In Locke’s account, the liberty of individual human beings being a gift of, and therefore technically the property of, god, it is immoral for any human to sell her/himself into slavery.

Enslavement as punishment is condign because, along with these natural rights comes the concomitant natural responsibility of each to respect the natural rights of all others.  Failure to live up to that responsibility subjects one to the retribution of others.  Being not an imbecile, Locke well knew that it would be absurd to deny that some persons would choose to disregard the rights of others and try to make their own way easier by liberating surpluses that others had accumulated, rather than working to accumulate their own surplus.

Thus, in Locke’s imaginary, persons in the state of nature were completely free to do as they wish, but this “perfect liberty” came at the high price of a large element of insecurity.  Anyone who wished to prevent the thieving of her/his surplus must remain ever vigilant, lest her/his neighbors should take advantage of any opportunity to steal from her/him.  Obviously, this creates a significant dilemma: once one has accumulated any surplus, s/he will be reluctant to leave it to go out to accumulate yet more for fear of losing the existing surplus to thieves in one’s absence.

The solution, according to Locke, is that all of the persons living in a given area, however defined, should assemble and agree to create a government, endowing it with the power to enforce rules and to collect a portion of everyone’s surplus in order to provide sustenance to individuals who would volunteer to serve as enforcers of the society’s rules: police, judges, and jailers.

 Note well: referring back to our non-ideological definition of socialism, at the moment we create any government at all, we have a measure of socialism, because everyone has agreed to forego a certain measure of the complete freedom of the state of nature in favor of the different freedom that comes with knowing that the volunteer enforcers whom one is paying from part of one’s surplus will protect the remainder of one’s surplus from theft, thus leaving one more free to accumulate yet more surplus.  This points up the important issue for thinking about these issues in the present: the difference between freedom in the abstract and freedom in practice.  The self-styled greatest defenders of liberty often defend a highly abstract definition of “freedom” in contrast to highly concrete freedoms for others.

Plainly, perhaps the closest any human society has ever come to actually enacting Locke’s version of the creation of government out of a “state of nature” was the Founders of the United States when they wrote and ratified the Constitution.

Here’s news!  The Founders were socialists, and they wrote and ratified a socialist Constitution. 

Necessarily so: under our Lockean account, all government entails the decision to confer an increment of one’s absolute freedom to government in return for an increment of security.

As is always the case with great thinkers, every generation that chooses to attend to them develops its own understanding of them.  There is no eternally correct version of Locke’s philosophy in the air that correct scholars can elucidate and pass along to the rest of us.  You want to understand Locke?  Go read him for yourself.

In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx, originator of Marxism, chose to emphasize the point that Locke first articulated what we now call the labor theory of value: the idea that the abundance of nature becomes useful, that is, valuable, to humans, solely through the application of human labor.  This was the starting point for Marx’s argument that workers should have control over the means of production, what we might now call the plant and equipment necessary to manufacture goods.  Without workers, nothing on the planet has any use to humans, so workers should have pride of place.  Further, from this perspective, paying wages to workers and keeping a portion of the proceeds from their work as “profit” is technically a form of theft.  One could respond reasonably that, especially in a world with large corporations engaged in highly technical manufacturing processes that the managers who assemble the means o production are performing labor that is essential to making others’ labor valuable, but that assertion only places managers on the side of workers as persons whose labor owners are technically stealing.

 In the United States, especially in the post World War II period, scholars who attended to Locke in contrast chose to emphasize his point about ownership: that one who labors in the fruitful fields of nature owns what s/he produces, claiming thereby the right to exclude others from the use or enjoyment of it.  This is purely a matter of interpretive choice: Marx was more concerned with workers, twentieth century Americans were more concerned with owners.

The result of the American choice was libertarianism, the proposition that government should leave owners of private property as free as possible to do what they leave with their private property.  This position finds at least some support in the U.S. Constitution, not least in the Fifth Amendment.

But it is always important to recall that a major component of the private property the authors of the Constitution worked to defend consisted of slaves, that is, other humans as “private property.”  As the issue of slavery came to a head in the first half of the nineteenth century, owners of slaves in the United States would assert that their slaves in the South were better off than the wage slaves working in the factories of the North, allegedly because ownership of slaves imposed certain responsibilities on slave owners that factory owners ignored with respect to their wage slaves.

Whether losing one’s freedom of movement and living subject to the arbitrary discipline of the overseer’s whip in exchange for the putative security of retirement with a minimal allotment of food, clothing, and shelter, all dependent on the whim of an owner, is a question we as a society have answered with a resounding “no.”

Later scholars in the United States, including Gillian Brown (see above) have gone back again and, given their present foci, have chosen to emphasize the consensual element of Locke’s philosophy: the existence of government depends on an act of consent.  We only get the benefits of government insofar as we cooperate with one another, and that by our own free choice.

Further, as we have seen, the loss of liberty that comes with the advent of government is relative, not absolute: although one can posit a form of absolute liberty in the state of nature that one loses with the advent of government, that absolute liberty comes with a sort of absolute insecurity.  Our absolutely free person – not citizen, because a “citizen,” by definition, is a member of a society organized to the point of having government – must stay awake all night every night, armed to the teeth, constantly on the alert to any threat to her/his surplus.  This, of course, is the ideal citizen of Grover Norquist’s fantasies.  You will recall that Norquist is the infamous anti-tax activist who has buffaloed nearly all Republican members of Congress into signing his pledge not to raise taxes.  Our citizen, who has consented to a government, now is no longer theoretically absolutely free, but is practically free of the need to remain perpetually vigilant in defense of her/his surplus.  Again, the distinction between highly implausible abstractions versus robustly verifiable reality.

We can see the principle of consent in the language of the Constitution, in this instance from the very beginning: “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union…do hereby ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  In principle, this is a contract.  This, of course, was the argument of the secessionists in the Civil War: the Constitution is a contract that some signatories to have violated, leaving us free to depart.  On that level of description, they were absolutely correct.

The key point they always conveniently omitted from their version of the argument was that they defended, literally to the death in many instances, their rights and freedoms as including the “right” to deprive others of exactly the same rights and freedoms by holding them as slaves.  This, as we have seen, is the foundational hypocrisy of the United States, one that we continually allow to come back and haunt us by dint of our refusal to face honestly up to its implications, whatever that might entail.

The subsidiary irony here is that the self-styled greatest defenders of individual liberty in the United States throughout its history always seem to emerge when the issue is whether to empower the federal government to defend an abjected minority, defined exclusively by reference to the irrelevant accident of skin color, from having local majorities deprive them of the very rights the great defenders claim to defend.  This was the case with secession and the Civil War, and again in the Civil Right Era, when defenders of segregation screamed that the federal government was infringing on their god-given rights by preventing them from discriminating systematically against their African American populations.   And again, the self-styled greatest defenders always defend a highly abstract version of freedom in opposition to the very concrete freedoms of the minority to exercise elementary acts of citizenship, such as vote in public elections and attend public schools and engage in commerce with businesses that are open to the public.

We see this again with the current debate over health care reform, a policy that Democratic Presidents since Harry Truman have advocated.  Only historical accident would see that the first one to have a clear shot to actually enact it also happened to be the Republic’s first African American President.  It seems too obvious to dispute that the response from the self-styled defenders of liberty against the alleged socialism of health care reform are at least implicitly aware that, as a class, African Americans continue to fall out at or near the bottom of virtually every metric of social well-being – unemployment, life expectancy, income, household wealth, access to health care, health outcomes, etc. – and that they therefore will likely benefit disproportionately from health care reform.  Sad indeed that our nation’s foundational hypocrisy on the issue of Africans and their descendants continues to haunt us, poisoning our politics as it has and continues to do.

 In terms of the abstract/concrete issue, health care reform will cost its opponents what libertarians often treat as the most concrete of possessions, money.  Still, it seems reasonable to insist that money, or, even more abstractly, the things that you might have bought with that money had you kept is, is still relatively abstract in comparison to any given individual’s continuing health and well-being.  Then, of course, there is the question of whether we as a society really want to make money the measure of all value.

My commitment to interpretive fluidity notwithstanding, it seems to me impossible to avoid the basic point that all government involves some measure of “socialism,” thus proving the point that libertarianism is just anarchism for rich people.  That is, persons claim to favor absolutely minimal government only when: A. they have profound trust in the ability of ordinary humans to behave themselves absent government (anarchists); or B. they have profound trust in their ability to afford private security guards, roads, schools, etc. (libertarians).

Thus, on this view, one should not be a libertarian unless one is confident of possessing sufficient money to employ a private army, private tutors, and a private road building crew, although with respect to building roads, even employing an engineering and paving crew will not suffice, because inevitably one will want to extend one’s road beyond one’s own property, thereby implicating the private property rights of one’s fellow citizens, each of whom is entirely within her/his rights to deny one the opportunity to extend the road across her/his property.

 Fancy where the United States would be economically absent the power of government to override individuals’ decision to refuse permission to build roads.  Can you say, “barter”?  Any road that extends beyond your own front yard, that is (meaning any road at all), is thus a manifestation of socialism, literally on your own block.  Let’s not even talk about that socialistic interstate highway system.

Then, of course, the problem with a private army is that none of one’s fellow “citizens,” if citizens they be, have any responsibility to regard your private army as anything other than an armed band of marauders whom they should kill off as quickly as possible.  This is another advantage of consensual (socialist) government: all who enjoy its benefits (that is, everyone) agrees, at least implicitly, to accept its authority, which is why, even at its most anarchic moments – during, say, the protests against the Vietnam War during the 1960s – the United States has never seen wholesale resistance to duly constituted authority.  One rather suspects that the great defenders of private property do not wish to see that outcome.

Or about those socialistic courts of law that we use to enforce contracts.  One can easily imagine that, in the state of nature, before government, absolutely free individuals were free to enter into contracts with one another.  But, what to do when one’s absolutely free contracting partner uses his absolute freedom to abscond without performing her/his end of the contract?  Whoops.

Well, you could run after the absconder yourself and, if you catch her/him, hold her/him as your slave and wring out of her/him the labor s/he had contracted to provide you with.  Sound like fun?  Are you off your meds?

 Or, you could become a filthy socialist, enter into a compact of government with like-minded socialists, and agree to set up a police force and courts of law who would have the power to arrest the absconder and order her/him to perform her/his end of the contract or forfeit a sum of money (the society’s surplus rendered abstract for ease of exchange) to compensate you for your loss, on pain of imprisonment for failure to comply.

Aha.  As is often the case in human life, paradox and high irony.

It turns out that the big businessmen, especially those banks who are eagerly foreclosing on houses all over the land, are the most eager socialists of all.  Who knew?



©2011 Dr. William Turner. Visit his web site

Click here to see our series of posters about the crazy liberal ideas that have made America what it is today


  • “My commitment to interpretive fluidity notwithstanding”, This line really sums up your thought process throughout your ramblings. Weaving in an out of one straw man argument after another, You remind me of a quote from a great “African American”
    conservative ” Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it”. Thomas Sowell

  • The moment a group of people make any advancements in the direction of civilization, aspects of socialism manifest themselves. This is a well written piece.

  • Hey, thanks so much for tackling this difficult subject! It’s great to have these ideas articulated in a thoughtful way.

    So sick of “socialism” being turned into an epithet and hurled like a brickbat. When it’s turned into an insult it stops having any objective meaning.

  • Interesting, though not without faults. I am a socialist myself, and I disagree with many of the assertions made here, but at least its better than the derogatory use of the term (most often used to describe things that are not socialism. For example, the bailout: not socialism. Obamacare: a hair closer, but still, by far, not socialism).

    • Well, a key part of the motive for writing the piece was to change the discussion about “socialism,” however defined (and there are, of course, many definitions of the term) in part by moving more toward the view of people who think “Obamacare” is socialism and point out that all government has a socialist component to it. So, um, hoe do YOU define “socialism”?

  • A very eloquently written series of false dilemmas and strawmen. Worth reading, but indicative of central flaws in the author’s thought process.

    I’m not going to get into all of the details here, but I’ll provide a couple of examples. Not all roads are socialist, as demonstrated by the Bridge of the Gods on the Columbia River. Nor are anarchism/libertarianism devoid of a social contract, both assert that social contracts should be voluntary and managed on a regional or municipal, rather than national, scale.

    I was impressed with the author’s view of anarchism however, which seems substantially more enlightened than the average.

    • What about the Bridge of the Gods makes it not socialist under my definition? Does it not connect to any other roads? I didn’t say that anarchism or libertarianism were devoid of social contract. In fact, I clearly refer to them as “absolutely minimal government,” and in my definition, all government assumes some measure of social contract.

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