Does Socialism Protect Rights or Violate Them?

  • February 2, 2024
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In last week’s column, I discussed Scott Sehon’s new book, Socialism: A Logical Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2024), and this week, I’d like to continue the analysis of the book, focusing on Sehon’s discussion of rights under socialism. The main topic we need to look at is whether socialism violates important rights that people ought to be accorded in a just political and social system.

Before addressing this topic, though, we need to look at Sehon’s definition of socialism. Readers may recall that by “socialism,” Sehon means a system with “(i) Collective ownership and control of the means of production and (ii) Equality of distribution or redistribution of wealth.” Sehon uses this definition to distinguish two types of socialism, which he calls “S-socialism” and “D-socialism”: roughly, S-socialist countries are like the USSR, which was collectively planned but not democratic, and D-socialist countries are democratic.

This definition allows Sehon to counter an argument that socialism violates important rights. He says:

One might start with the claim that socialism violates one of the traditional political rights: free speech, freedom of religion, free assembly, or perhaps freedom to travel. . . . I am inclined to think there are some genuine rights of this sort, particularly insofar as such rights are grounded in a more general right to be treated as a free, equal, and autonomous citizen.

Sehon says that “conservatives” might argue that socialism violates these rights, basing themselves on the record of S-socialist countries. He acknowledges that there “is a great deal of truth to the claim that the Soviet bloc countries and others violated political rights. Speech was significantly restricted, as was travel; freedom of religion was usually technically allowed, but the exercise of religion was uncomfortable and intensely scrutinized.”

Sehon is quick to detect a fallacy in using this fact to argue against socialism. The conservatives are forgetting about the D-socialist countries! Aren’t the traditional political rights protected in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark? How then can it be argued that socialism violates rights when there are democratic socialist states that do not do so?

In arguing in this way, Sehon misses a fundamental point. The D-socialist countries he mentions aren’t centrally planned economies. They operate within a market system and are examples of what Ludwig von Mises calls a “hampered market economy.” If this point is borne in mind, a simple reconstruction of the argument that socialism violates political rights is available, and though this reconstruction is obvious, Sehon fails to consider it.

The reconstruction is that a centrally planned economy leads to the suppression of political liberties. As the political philosopher Gerald Gaus has pointed out, there are no exceptions to this. If that is so, don’t we have a very plausible argument to reject “S-socialism”? The appeal to “D-socialism” is irrelevant.

Sehon’s failure to address this argument is odd. Elsewhere in the book, he discusses Friedrich Hayek, but he appears to be unfamiliar with Hayek’s most famous book, The Road to Serfdom. Had he read that book, Sehon would have discovered a carefully spelled-out version of the argument that centrally planned economies suppress important political rights. In essence, Hayek argues that central planning requires treating people as resources. They are assigned jobs according to the dictates of the plan, and this assignment is inconsistent with the rule of law, according to which legal coercion is confined to general rules that don’t single out particular individuals. For example, a law may say that “theft is forbidden” but won’t say, “You, John Smith, are drafted to work on a collective farm.” Moreover, central economic plans operate for several years, as in the Soviet “five-year plans” of blessed memory. If opponents are allowed to attack political liberties and, as a result of this, take power, they will dismantle the plan. The planners will not allow this. Hayek supports this point by citing a large number of defenders of central planning who say just that.

Hayek raises an additional consideration that is highly relevant to civil liberties under socialism. In a centrally planned economy, the government owns all the printing presses and other media of communication. Opponents of the government are entirely dependent on it for access to these media. How likely is it that they would get this access?

To his credit, Sehon does consider an argument raised by Matthew Harwood, a writer for Reason magazine. Harwood maintains that socialist politicians will restrict speech because they want to remain in power at all costs. Sehon asks why the same point doesn’t apply to capitalist politicians as well.

If you confine the argument to central planning, a disanalogy is apparent. The capitalist politicians lack the means to suppress all opposition; they don’t control all the printing presses. Certainly, as we see in the United States, an economy that isn’t centrally planned but allows very substantial government control of the economy permits the government to act against its opponents. Fortunately, the lack of complete control makes a difference.

In one of his reconstructions of Harwood’s argument, Sehon is guilty of a mistake. Harwood needs to find a point of difference between socialist and capitalist politicians. Why will the socialists do anything they can to remain in power in a way that the capitalists won’t? Sehon suggests that Harwood might try to confine his arguments to “truly awful” systems. His reconstruction includes the premises “(3a) For proponents of a truly awful system to stay in power, it is necessary that they restrict the speech of opponents” and “(3b) Socialists are proponents of an awful system.” With these premises, the argument can be used to show that socialists will restrict speech; it is, Sehon says, a valid argument.

There is, however, a problem with it, according to Sehon. “But the argument nonetheless has a glaring flaw; it simply assumes in (3b) that socialism is an awful system. . . . But if we can simply assume that socialism is an awful system, then we don’t need the rest of the argument. . . . The argument is, again, question-begging” (emphasis in original).

Sehon is entirely right that if you want to show that socialism is an awful system, you can’t just assume that it is one as a premise. However, that doesn’t make the argument useless. If you do have grounds to think that socialism is an awful system, then this argument gives you reason to think it will suppress opposition—a conclusion that, depending on how “awful” is characterized, might not follow from the premise “socialism is an awful system” alone.

Once again, Sehon needs to do better.