Books and Code · A Miscellany

Socialism and social norms


As I explained in a previous post, I think that libertarian politics should be strictly utilitarian (maximizing individual freedom) and that such a characterization is not inconsistent with cooperative action. The difference is in conscious choice.

Most socialists would assert that social programs such as welfare must be implemented by a government which compels compliance through taxes and other coercion. This argument doesn’t make a lot of sense for democratic socialists. If the government program must be favored by a democratic majority to be implemented, then why wouldn’t the majority in favor of the program be willing to contribute without the threat of government force? The whole point of a government program over a private one is to force the minority opposed to the program to fund it.

What socialists fail to accept is a revolution of society through an evolution of social norms rather than via Mao’s “barrel of a gun.” I had a Marxist archaeology professor who loved to describe a supposed extinct egalitarian society of hunter-gatherers. In this society, the best hunter of the group would become the de facto leader, but its social norms dictated that the greatest respect was afforded to those who gave away the most. That is, the best hunter would be the last to eat. What he failed to realize is that the hunter’s actions were only influenced by the norms of his society, not dictated.

I have no qualm with charitable action and even feel a Kantian duty to perform it, but if we as a society want to encourage such behavior we must do so by affecting change of social norms. Be charitable yourself and publicly shame those you feel are exploitative. If you want someone to feel a duty toward his fellow man robbing him usually doesn’t work. Government programs discourage personal duty toward mankind because it provides a means to disclaim responsibility.