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Socialism's popularity - not quite explained

The Commentator.

I am conscious that I have yet to make good on my promise to explain the continued political success of Socialism, despite its core ideas having been so thoroughly and bloodily discredited. Every time I try to write the promised post, something easier comes up to distract me. To be honest, it's hard to write anything the executive summary of which is not that "my fellow citizens are incredibly stupid." I know, on average, that's not true so I keep binning drafts tending that way.

Douglas Carswell MP has however made a contribution to this field of study in the linked post.

...government in many Western states started to grow soon after the introduction of unequal taxation. In the first decade of the twentieth century, in Britain, America, Australia and elsewhere, so-called progressive taxes were introduced. Government has grown in every decade since.

His thesis seems to be that while the original justification for "progressive" taxation (higher rates for those with higher incomes) was Socialist redistribution of wealth, it persists not because voters believe in that.  Rather it's because it makes it easier, selfishly, for them to vote themselves more benefits at the imagined expense of others. I am not sure that saying "my fellow citizens are incredibly greedy" is much more appealing than the way my binned posts were leaning, but he might have a point.

The first comment on Mr Carswell's post is also rather interesting. It has some potential for explaining why the state's "redistribution of wealh" so often seems to be from the poor to the middle class - a sort of national microcosm of the old saw about foreign aid amounting to poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries.

The increase in government increases the employment of middle and upper middle class well educated people who lack the drive, technical skills and initiative to run their own businesses. These people have the ability to understand complex procedures and enjoy the fact that following rules will provide a relatively well paid, safe and secure employment.

Might this at least account for the popularity of Socialism with the middle class Guardianisti? Delightfully, if true, it would mean that they are effectively higher-paid welfare scroungers, which might account also for their indignant defence of those worthies. Of course that's perhaps adequately explained by their making a living from farming the underclass, rather than belonging to its saloon bar version.

What do you think? Did the concept of unequal taxation lead us to our present bind? Is the real motivation for big government not the discredited Socialist ideas used to justify it, but the sinecure jobs it provides to educated idlers?


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Jb Jordan

You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found that most people will agree with you.

ZVN Properties


By this "logic" there is never any recession because the government can just issue more meaning-free chips. Dr Johnson might say "I refute it thus" by throwing a book about inflation at you.


It's all adequately accounted for by Milton Friedman's four ways of spending money.


It's hard to disagree with all this, apart from the "it's not because people are stupid" part. It is monumentally stupid to disregard the future consequences of one's actions. That might actually be a good definition of stupid. Zoom out just a little and it's obvious to the meanest intellect that people are not acting in their own self-interest.


Thank you. Now you have lost your commenting virginity, please be bolder in future. Thank you for the suggestion. I have just ordered the book.


You are right to say that - apart from worldwide experience over centuries - " doesn't follow from this that public services must be bad..." [sarcasm alert].

Pepys' diaries suggest that public sector provision of services (even the armed services, which it's hard to imagine being provided privately) has been corrupt forever. The corruption ranges from the modern norm of the state buying political support by providing jobs where people work too little for rewards the market would never grant their talent to actual theft - as witness the mulit-billion gap in the MoD accounts, as to which Britain's statists are strangely silent, though the losses are easily equivalent to a bank bailout.

I agree with you (!) that when a service is provided by the state it's generally better for it only to provide financing rather than actually running it. The French health service is privately run and not free at the point of use. However insurance is compulsory, premiums are paid for those who can't afford them, and payments can be recovered reliably from the caisse sociale within 14 days so that there's no problem in people bridging the costs. Incidentally, the requirement to pay before proving entitlement to reclaim also cuts out health tourism.

As to equality, I stand by the traditional view that it is not equity. All should be equal before the law, but justice must then be done to them - which will almost never mean that they are treated equally. Those who work (whether for the tawdry material objectives you so loftily disdain, or to better their family's life) must in all justice do better than those who prefer to fish at the expense of others. Those who have talents must be rewarded for deploying them, which results in the unfortunately untalented prospering less. Most importantly, and libertarianism is a moral cause for me or it is nothing, those who do good, should generally enjoy better outcomes than those who do evil.

In this latter category, for all the affection I am beginning to feel for you, I have to put you yourself. You constantly argue for the armed seizure of the lawful gains of others. You may cloak your banditry in ideology, in envy politics and in quirky attempts to deny the validity of economic metrics, but you are a bandit still.

The rest of your comment is as delightfully eccentric as usual. Sincere thanks, as always for your contribution. You annoy my regular readers, but you also stimulate and challenge them for which I am very grateful. This would be (and indeed was) a less interesting blog without you.


"Your team kicks a field goal and on the scoreboard, the score changes from, say, 7 points to 10 points. Does anyone wonder where the stadium got those three points? Of course not! Or you knock down 5 pins at the bowling alley and your score goes from 10 to 15. Do you worry about where the bowling alley got those points? Do you think all bowling alleys and football stadiums should have a ‘reserve of points’ in a “lock box” to make sure you can get the points you have scored? Of course not! And if the bowling alley discovers you “foot faulted” and lowers your score back down by 5 points, does the bowling alley now have more score to give out? Of course not!
We all know how data entry works, but somehow this has gotten turned upside down and backwards by our politicians, media, and, most all, the prominent mainstream economists.
Just keep this in mind as a starting point: The federal government doesn’t ever “have” or “not have” any dollars."


I'm sure that public services in Britain do leave a lot to be desired, but it doesn't follow from this that public services must be bad. With respect to the supermarket analogy - the government does pay for people to eat without having to nationalise the supermarkets or food production - couldn't a similar thing be done with healthcare (as it is elsewhere)? Is the problem with education related to public provision itself, or the ethos of the educational establishment? If we need a market in education, surely it could be introduced while maintaining a degree of government funding and free access to information.
I think the degree of equality people want depends on the person. Most people accept others having bigger houses, TV's, more status, exclusive holidays etc. Personally, I'm very happy for people to devote themselves to the aquisition of status symbols to exactly the same degree that I'm free to ignore them.

" what happens if you were to go to your local IRS office to pay your taxes with actual cash? First, you would hand over your pile of currency to the person on duty as payment. Next, he’d count it, give you a receipt and, hopefully, a thank you for helping to pay for social security, interest on the national debt, and the Iraq war. Then, after you, the tax payer, left the room, he’d take that hard-earned cash you just forked over and throw it in a shredder.
Yes, it gets thrown it away. Destroyed! Why? There’s no further use for it. Just like a ticket to the Super Bowl. After you enter the stadium and hand the attendant a ticket that was worth maybe $1000, he tears it up and discards it. In fact, you can actually buy shredded money in Washington, D.C.


Mark, “And this is what the majority of people want - they are worried about education provision, healthcare and insurance - a degree of equality with respect to their ability to live.”
I agree I and most people I know or know of in the UK worry about healthcare & education. I and they worry about the obvious fact that the government is not competent to provide them and gives no choice but to pay for their practical monopoly anyway. For many people they take the money they might be able to put towards choosing effective providers and by doing that take away choice.
The only way to get free of this is to earn enough money you can afford to pay twice for the same thing or sacrifice something else to allow you to pay twice for the same thing.
Imagine the state nationalised all the supermarkets and then took a grocery tax that used up all the money you could afford to spend on provisions. Then gave you limited choice, cheap cuts, bin end and incompetent surly staff. No one would starve I guess, but no one would get fresh good quality produce and food would be rationed.
And you mentioned equality in respect of ability to live, what do you mean by that exactly? Having the same to spend as everyone else, living in the same sort of houses in the same sort of area? I can’t help but think you just don’t approve of someone earning more even if it is by their working harder or smarter. I guess you don’t approve of the story of the ant and the grasshopper at all do you?

And where on earth did you get the idea taxation doesn't pay for most everything the state does?


I figure there is probably some cosmic law like gravity or maybe the speed of light to do with empire building in government/civil service?

“Progressive” taxation lets that happen without any one else’s empire taking a hit to allow it.

It is all scarily close to Benjamin Franklin’s quote about people voting themselves money. Do they know or care that there is no such thing as a free lunch? Not as long as they just can’t see it, they cant figure out that they are paying for it, or they think someone else is paying for it.

Maybe I am being jaundiced (great word) but could it be the problem is lying politicians and voters too dumb to see the holes in the promises or understand where what they are voting for will really get them?


The answer to all questions of this type is "it depends what you mean".

What is meant by "Socialism" in this context?

I would rather avoid labels and look at the practical effect of certain policy statements. In the UK the question is, and has for many years been, why do people vote for the Labour Party at general elections when every Labour government leaves the country bankrupt? The answer is to look at the policies they promote and ask why they are attractive to so many.

To my mind the answer is always a version of the magic money tree.

Currently two magic money trees dominate the economic policies of Labour and the LibDems and feature more than they should even in the policies of the Conservatives. One is the power of government to borrow money and the other is "the rich".

People will always vote for a party that promises them a better standard of living provided they believe it will happen.

Over the final ten of the thirteen years of the last Labour government people enjoyed an improved standard through the government borrowing more and more money. Those people saw that government borrowing actually gave them something. They can hardly be blamed for thinking more of the same will improve their standard of living further. And it will, until such time as government is forced to repay that borrowed money. Who will vote for a party proposing such repayment if it will hit them in the pocket?

When the subject of repaying debt arises all three parties talk about taxing "the rich" more, as though that could close the £120billion-ish annual deficit all by itself. Once they talk about taxing other people more, those who would not be affected by those taxes are all in favour. There are an awful lot more of them than there are of "the rich", it's a natural vote winner.

It's not because people are stupid, there is nothing stupid about not being interested in economics. It's not because they are greedy, there is nothing greedy about wanting to hold on to the standard of living you have.

It's all about self-interest. People will vote for the party putting forward policies they think will make their life better. Obviously all sorts of marginal policies will attract votes from some, such as anti-abortion and pro-abortion platforms, but I would guess the majority vote according to what they think will make them better-off in their lives, for their families, for their friends, for their towns.

Long-term problems caused by their increased standard of living is unlikely to make them say "I'll vote against the party that will make me £1,000 better-off next year because in five years' time the government will have to repay £X-billion". The magic money tree is there to roll-over that repayment by government borrowing or by taxing "the rich" more.

Martin Keegan

Dear Mr Paine,

(long time reader, firstish time poster)

You should read David Stove's "The Plato Cult" which examines the motivations for socialism in some depth (concluding similarly to you, but with the added claim that some degree of bloodlust is necessary). You'd enjoy much of Stove's writing (and be infuriated by the rest)


If, by "socialism", you mean a mixed economy or welfare spending, it is not at all clear that it has been discredited.
And this is what the majority of people want - they are worried about education provision, healthcare and insurance - a degree of equality with respect to their ability to live.
The desire to control the actions of others beyond this point, is not a primary motivation, or only a primary motivation for a few "busy-bodies" who most people view with contempt (even if the busy-bodies do happen to possess tremendous political power).

Obviously the denizens of this comment section are unusual in that they believe a person's right to live should be secondary to a rich man's right to do as he pleases - as such even the saftey-net function of government is equivalent to the Gulag. All I can say to them, is that in any society our ability to do things will always be limited by a consideration of others. The important point are the rules we agree to, which decide who deserves what - and on this point, it is fanciful to assume that people will accept the untramelled market as supreme arbiter - or that success in business, especially within companies, neccesarily comes from making a contribution to society at large.

Anyway, the problem with the taxation debate is that both left and right have reason to propagate the false idea that taxation pays for things.

Taxation exists solely to stop people from doing things.

In an ideal world we would then use those resources to do something different. Unfortunately we are now engaged in the kind of mindless debate where Jimmy Carrs money in the Caman islands is killing babies in intensive care. By what mechanism is this possible?
As such the busy-body left (who hate the rich) use the lie of neccessity as a way of gaining mass support for tax increases, while the right who want more power over labour use "lack of money" as an excuse to undermine everyone elses quality of life. Lack of money?

Dick Puddlecote

Government grows when it has the benefit of high overall tax receipts, it's true. The problem for socialists is what to do when they reach the ceiling above which it's impossible to make the sums add up. WE're at that level, or beyond, already.

When taxes can't be squeezed anymore from the productive to pay for the vast dreams of socialism, there is no more scope for bribing voters with more freebies. Or, actually, there is. We're now in an era where voters are being bribed not by what government can give them, but what government can give them from other people's money. Hence minimum wage legislation, paternity leave, and - most recently - auto-enrolment pensions using the cash of private businesses.

Then they accuse the other parties of not being able to create growth. It's one big, disastrous con. But people won't see the solution as it means not riding the gravy train anymore.


The simple explanation is that socialism offers something for nothing and as most cannot see beyond this fallacy it attracts many adherents. The fact that everything has a cost escapes most people and of course eventually a socialist system puts in place a large proportion of the population that are dependent in total or in part to that system being maintained. As you say this system has been seen to fail many times before and the ones in current use in most Western nations will be no exception. In fact they can be seen to be crumbling all around us as we stagger from one crisis to the next.


I think it is the creation of sinecure jobs, with appropriate status (ersatz masters in fact) which is the motivation for big government.
The greater the volume of laws, the greater the number of jobs for the middle class to enforce them.
Hitler was, of course, expert at this with many Party members and civil servants being otherwise unemployed lawyers. The same applies to the UK now- as it does to the EU.
So, money, status, and moral smugness all rolled into one-how could it be resisted?

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