Socialism and Morality

Am I my brother's keeper? ............... Genesis 4:9

Socialism has been a big failure as a modern economic system. From a Darwinian point of view, the reason is obvious: free riding. Without the discipline of the marketplace, the system is entirely too vulnerable to those who would take without contributing. Perhaps even more important is the non-Darwinian fact that socialism does not seem to create incentives for innovation and efficiency. In fact only capitalism seems to be good at that.

Despite these facts, certain socialistic notions are very appealing to the human psyche, and most modern governments, including those of the most successful states, incorporate a lot of socialized elements. As the epigraph from Genesis suggests, such elements are fundamental to a number of religions. Christopher Boehm suggests that a socialized sharing of large kills developed early in human culture, probably between 250,000 BP and 45,000 BP, and that that practice was responsible for the development of the human moral sense.

The behavior of modern hunter-gatherers, as well as indirect prehistoric evidence, suggests that bullying and other forms of free riding are strongly suppressed in such societies by concerted social action, up to and including capital punishment. Modern socialist experiments also include important elements of compulsion, and the most socialistic societies have been oppressively totalitarian - another good reason they are suspect.

So far as I no modern government, and probably no society of any sort, lacks socialistic elements. Given that fact, the real question can never be socialism or not. Instead, as with many other things, the question we have to ask is how much is optimal? And that means trade-offs.


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