Sep 182009

I’m often challenged in political arguments with progressives, particularly on Twitter, to define socialism. My opponents claim that I’m abusing the term. I’m inclined to see such a claim as an example of conversational terrorism, but it happens often enough and I care enough about productive dialog that I’ve decided to relent and offer a definition. I might not have done so entirely to my satisfaction had I not been listening to an audiobook version of Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law” this morning. I offer here his laudably simple and clear definition.

“Sometimes the law defends plunder and participates in it. Thus the beneficiaries are spared the shame, danger, and scruple which their acts would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim — when he defends himself — as a criminal…

“This legal plunder may be only an isolated stain among the legislative measures of the people. If so, it is best to wipe it out with a minimum of speeches and denunciations — and in spite of the uproar of the vested interests.

“But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

“Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils because it invites reprisals. If such a law — which may be an isolated case — is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.

“The person who profits from this law will complain bitterly, defending his acquired rights. He will claim that the state is obligated to protect and encourage his particular industry; that this procedure enriches the state because the protected industry is thus able to spend more and to pay higher wages to the poor workingmen.

“Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The acceptance of these arguments will build legal plunder into a whole system. In fact, this has already occurred. The present-day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it.

“Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways. Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on. All these plans as a whole — with their common aim of legal plunder — constitute socialism.

Addendum: Commenters may find the full text of “The Law” handy for contextual responses.

  • Jose B.

    Have you forgotten the Political Compass ( This definition applies to a authoritarian socialism, but I think it does not describe all socialism altogether (there’s libertarian socialism after all).

  • Philip

    Eric, yes, you are abusing the term, probably because you misunderstand it. An encyclopedia is a good place to find a definition and explanations. No, libertarian socialism is not at all a contradiction in terms, if you understand the terms as they are intended. But you can call it libertarianism if you like – libertarian socialists were the first to use that term for themselves.

    Until the last paragraph, your quote quite well describes capitalism in its various incarnations. The law to a large extent protects the rich against the poor rabble. The thieves are systemically politicians, CEOs, bankers, lawyers, and other professionals to various degrees. So if this is what you understand as socialism — let’s call it Eric’ socialism — I wholly reject it, and so do socialists.

    Now “state socialism” is also unjust and repressive, in slightly different ways than capitalism.

    Where we disagree is what rightly belongs to whom. This is obviously a moral judgment, not a legal one, because we are challenging the existing laws. Tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, are all ways to try to patch up the broken system, to keep things where they belong. And, yes, they are methods advocated by socialists.

    But the whole argument from property is silly. Remember that property was also used to justify slavery. Now property is used to justify wage slavery, systemic lack of education and health care, environmental destruction etc. Property is just a means to an end, and we should not forget our larger values.

  • Private Property, was aquired in the early days, by the conquering of weaker tribes and grabbing their land Those that profited from owning land profited because of the exploitation of chattel slaves, share croppers and feudal serfs. …
    After the industrial revolution owners of factorys, mines and mills, got rich profiting from the exploitation of cheap labor.
    People that own for a living, have only land, factories, mines, mills and stores. None of these investments by owners is creating new value, until a decision is made, to create new value. New value is only created by the purchase of people that are willing to work for a wage. The worker creates value, and that value is measured by the amount of necessary time that is spent by that worker in the creation of that thing of value. That value could be exchanged for value that has an equal amount of socially necessary time attached to it.
    Because the worker that created a thing of value, receives value in the form of a wage, that is much less than the value that he or she created as a worker.
    The amount of value produced by the worker and not received by the worker is the amount that was stolen by the owner from the worker.
    The evidence of this grand theft is the fact that due to this exploitation of labor power all over the world, the workers had and have been encouraged to organize as a class, so as to receive more of that pie known as the gross national product.
    This thievery by the private sector is a form of stealing that overshadows every other kind of massive stealing!
    Taxes is not thievery, as some ignorant individuals would have you believe!
    The Government that has the responsability of maintaining social order so that the society can run without disruption, must collect taxes to pay for what is necessary to maintain order and promote the general good!

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  • @Colin Dean

    “The key here is that all of this interaction is willing. If at any point any person is wholly unwilling, it becomes slavery.”

    The free will labor argument is a sham. When money is a necessity of life, you are not free, and no better than an indentured servant. Wholly unwilling? Resistance is Futile.

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