Socialism as Elitism

Machan’s Archives: A Note on Socialism as Elitism*

Tibor R. Machan

Since ancient times some people have considered the market place an unruly forum in which to determine whose work and what commodities are worth how much. With Marxism this view acquired a pseudo-scientific status. The complaint that when free individuals and groups exchange goods and services some will get more for their contributions than they deserve reaches the level of a total ideology.

Before this complaint and its ideological expression are dismissed, it is important to understand their appeal. It isn’t very difficult to empathize with the complaint when we restrict it to individual instances. Most people have experienced a feeling of dismay with what certain producers in the market receive for their work. The pop music groups make millions of dollars for grinding out a few pleasant but clearly not phenomenal songs. A boxer gets millions of dollars for going eight or so rounds before knocking out his opponent. A television commentator collects some $200,000 a year for uttering two minutes worth of banalities twice or three times a week for about half the season. A New York Times columnist makes a bundle from writing flawed economic commentaries! Surely these folks are not worth all that money – or so the thought occurs to some of us. Especially when others, who make far more worthy contributions, receive far more modest remunerations for their efforts.

These sorts of considerations are natural, even if not fully justified in the total context. We cannot deny that monetarily speaking the worth of many a product and producer is in some sense over or under estimated. Out of this impression, natural enough in individual instances, grows a very dangerous ideological perspective. But one must appreciate that some of the individual instances make sense.

Now really—what foolishness prompts people to pay that kind of money for such frivolous results or charge so little for the same? And it is not unreasonable, now and then, to question the wisdom of various people when they do shell out enormous sums of money for goods or services while other, quite objectively more worthwhile products (even to them individually) could have been purchased for a more sensible price and some sell something quite worthwhile for but a nominal price.

From these impressions the jump is made, by Marxists and other statists that something must be done to stop such alleged miscalculations. And then, very quickly, the suggestion is made that if only some wise folks could make sure that the objective value of work and products is identified, matters could be remedied in a jiffy.

Since, however, persuasion does not guarantee results—people can ignore the advice of the wisest of men – the appeal to coercion is readily welcome. The conclusion to this effect is highly questionable—indeed, an out and out non-sequitor—admittedly. But as with all questionable hypotheses, the ground from which they stem is usually firm enough. Otherwise generally sensible human beings would never pick up on the broader theory advanced. It helps to recall this when we want to understand why so many people are sympathetic toward socialist/egalitarian political measures and doctrine.

Yet understanding the ground for the sympathy does not lead a rational person to accepting the broader inferences drawn. There is one particularly odious implication that follows from what is inferred from these understandable impressions. Others may be found as well, but this one will pinpoint a clear-cut inconsistency in the broader picture advanced by socialists.

The complaint begins by noting that free people tend at times to overrate the work and products of their fellows. True enough, they do. (There are advocates of the free market who would deny this on grounds that no objective values exist. But this is self-defeating, since they also hold that the free market is of objective value to us.) The suggestion advanced in turn is that we should have a central governing body of people who will make certain that such mistakes do not happen—even if it takes the use of firing squads to accomplish this noble result. Yet if the premise is true—that people make mistakes by over and underrating others’ work and products—then the conclusion cannot follow—that people will make certain that such mistakes do not happen. This is because what people will do is tied to what they can do. The body of select people is no less a body of people than the body of people that makes up the free market place!

Here is where the odious implications of the broader picture emerge. We are asked to believe that some people are inherently different from the rest of us. We are told that the select group—the leaders of socialist/egalitarian governments via their schemes of distribution and equalization—is immune from the errors of the rest of us. That the likes of Ralph Nader, Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, et al., are really inherently better and wiser folk than are we all is what the citizenry is supposed to accept!

The conclusion is interesting. Because starting from a desire for equality—fair pricing, lessening the frequency of over- and underestimation of work, etc. – we are led to the establishment of public policies that grant some people the legalized position of institutionalizing their (elitist) errors. It is this conclusion that is never justified. It is the view that this select group of individuals can and will do better than free people in voluntary association at determining what is good or bad within the realm of production and exchange.

The simple fact is—known since the time of Thomas Aquinas—that we are best off taking the risk with the free market. The “utopian vision” of perfect judgments needs to be abandoned. We should all try to implement the best judgments we can make, at least within our own market activities, and maybe even in cases where our help is asked for or freely accepted.

It is futile to argue that market decisions could not be better than they are. But it is far sillier to hold that institutionalizing the will of some of us can produce a guaranteed utopia. In that path lies disaster—and we are now tasting its beginnings in our own land.

*Published in The Intercollegiate Review, Fall, 1975, pp. 33-34.

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