“Socialism Always Fails”?

“Socialism Always Fails”? March 29, 2019

[This is a guest post from J Enigma – enjoy].

The other week I was engaged with an individual on Facebook arguing the merits of employing a universal healthcare system (why yes, I am American. How did you guess?) Normally this is a waste of time, but I wasn’t doing anything else and so I figured I would engage. However, a particular exchange stuck with me.

 “Name one successful country with universal healthcare system,” he commanded.

ow, my response is as automatic as it is researched; I know how this trap card is set, so I studiously avoided listing the usual suspects in Europe and Canada and went for more a more diverse range: “Israel, South Korea, and Taiwan.”

“Those aren’t successful,” he told me. In hindsight it makes perfect sense that this would be his response, but at the time it left me gaping in shock. After all, I was reasonably sure this fool couldn’t find Taiwan on a map, leave off have any detailed economic knowledge of the country. What was more, as far as I knew, the right-wing media didn’t drone on at length about the horrors of the South Korean or Taiwanese systems like they did the Canadian, French, or U.K. ones. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, when this well-informed individual also went on later to declare that “socialism always fails,” and that “no socialist country has ever been successful,” two lines I’m sure every left-winger has heard at some point from some self-proclaimed expert in historical economics.

In retrospect, it’s obvious his response was as rehearsed as mine but not nearly as researched or thought out. After all, like all everyone left or right, he had an emotional need to be right, and this emotional need trumped everything else. One of my favorite aphorisms is “too busy being right to be correct,” and that was never more obvious than it was here. This is also why right-wingers rarely seem to ask questions, and if they do, it’s not because they’re curious and want to learn but as a launching off point so they can lecture you on what they know or how wrong you are. This is also why it can seem like arguing with one of these folks is like beating your head against a wall: since they often have little to no interest in learning or changing their position, they’re functionally the human equivalent of one. And before the inevitable “whataboutism” in the comments, know I’m fully aware the extreme left can be just as bad in terms of blindness to being wrong and unwillingness to revise one’s position on issues. I’m not talking about the extreme left right now, since the extreme left is not nearly as common or well-organized in the United States as the extreme right is.

However, that exchange — “they aren’t successful” — stuck with me and it got me wondering: Just how “successful” are socialist countries?

Not Falling Apart

Right-wingers love to bang on about the “failures of socialism,” and one of their current bugbears is what happened in Finland. As near as I can tell, this “failure of socialism” in Finland was the right-wing prime minister and his cabinet handing in their walking papers after trying to push through wildly unpopular healthcare reforms. So this is apparently what a failure of socialism on the right-wing looks like: other right-wingers failing to destroy social programs and getting booted out because of it.

The much larger elephant in the room is Venezuela, and while it’s true that Venezuela is an absolute trainwreck right now, it’s the result of mismanagement, falling oil prices, a brain drain, and eventually, Maduro turning himself into a dictator. Some of the policies that Chavez had in place before he died were probably sustainable — it’s 2016 GDP was over $400 billion dollars, so it was not a small country. Simply blaming Venezuela’s current status on “socialism” is as overly simplistic as it is wrong. But then, what do you expect from an attempt to score cheap political points in an argument rather than an actual attempt to understand what went wrong so we can keep that from happening elsewhere?

And what about these other so-called “socialist” countries, especially the Nordic countries? A quick jog over to the World Bank demonstrates that the Nordic countries are not turning into Mad Max hellscapes. Norway, one of those “socialist” countries, had a GDP of $398.8 billion dollars in 2017. Sweden was even larger, with a GDP of $538 billion. Both Denmark and Finland had a GDP over $200 billion, and while that’s near literal peanuts when compared to the $19.93 trillion of the United States, South Korea, one of the examples I gave, has a GDP of $1.53 trillion, so it’s at least a percentage. Even more telling is GDP per capita PPP, or purchasing power parity. If we compare GDP per capita in PPP dollars, Norway has a higher GDP per capita PPP than the United States: 63,530 PPP dollars to 60,200 PPP dollars. And since it’s adjusted for purchasing power parity, Norway’s otherwise small population isn’t the only reason it’s larger. Digging deeper reveals that Norway doesn’t even have the highest GDP per capita PPP in the world: Singapore’s is three times Norway’s, and Singapore is another “socialist” nation with universal healthcare and extensive government services.

Let’s compare other metrics: according to the Human Development Report, Norway has a life expectancy of 82.3 years, while the United States has one of 79.5 years — a number that has actually fallen. Norway tops the United States in quality of life, as well, according to OECD.  Now, there are problems with these metrics, just like there are problems with any metric: Norway has a smaller population, and there’s only so much that can be done to mitigate that when crunching population statistics. Furthermore, the United States ranks relatively high in some of these charts even though there are holes — very big ones — in our system. For instance the United States ranks highest in income according to OECD metrics, but I’m willing to bet that’s because we have 41% of the world millionaire population, and that’s bending the income results. One would expect similar gaps in Norway’s numbers, as well, simply by sheer dint of the incomplete picture statistics like GDP paint.

The issue with metrics aside, however, there’s a deeper problem here.

You Keep Using That Word

Now, keen eyed observers have noted by now there’s two very big problems with the question I posed in my thesis: what do you mean by “socialism,” and what do you mean by “successful?”

This is something I assure you the right-wingers who ask this question have never thought of, because they don’t care about your answer — unless your answer agrees with them, it will always be wrong, and their answer is “zero.” But without defining these terms, any answer you come up with doesn’t matter.

I simply assumed that “success” could be measured using GDP and other economic statistics, but that’s a very materialistic definition of success; GDP doesn’t measure happiness, it only measures the total value of all the goods produced in that country over that year (and it doesn’t even measure what those goods were or how sustainable the production method is; we could produce a trillion pencils to spike our GDP, cutting down every tree in the country to do it. I guarantee we won’t pull that stunt the following year and as a result, our GDP would fall). There are other ways to measure success, especially if you start with the second definition: “the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.”

If we use overall reputation concerning altruism and happiness, then Sweden is at the top of the list, with Finland at number two, Switzerland at number three, Norway at number four, and New Zealand at number five. Where is the United States? 34th place, just under Brazil but just above India.

Or we can assume trustworthiness — what countries in the world are considered most trustworthy? Here again we find the “socialist” Nordics dominating this list: Norway is number two, Denmark number three, and Sweden is number five. The United States? Trails in the top 20 with a very poor showing on healthcare, reputation, and safety.

What about that healthcare? Right-wingers love to crow about the number of people who come to the United States to get surgery because of how great our healthcare system is, but according to the Medical Tourism Index, the top five are, in order: Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Singapore, and India. Only India lacks a universal healthcare system. In comparison to U.S. costs, visitors to Canada can save 30% to 60%. In 2008, there were more medical tourists from the U.S. than ones to the U.S. I’m sure the U.S. is likely in the top 10, but that’s probably almost exclusively due to how quickly one can get elective surgeries scheduled here, a problem in some other nations with a UHC because of resources.

Let’s look at quality of life. I’m sure it’ll shock everyone, but according to the World Economic Forum, the Nordics dominate here, too. Finland is in first place this time, with Denmark in third, Sweden in sixth, and Norway in seventh. The United Kingdom edges into ninth on this list because of their NHS, so keep that in mind when talking about universal healthcare system.

So there’s a number of ways to measure success and by almost all of them, the Nordics are doing very well for themselves, as well as other countries too. But this just ties into a bigger questions: how are we defining “socialist?” Is New Zealand socialist? What about Switzerland, or the United Kingdom? Are the Nordics even socialist?

If you take a quick walk over to Wikipedia, you quickly learn that trying to get a handle on the basic definition of socialism is not easy. There’s around 50 different types of socialism, from market to non-market, from the French dirigisme to the Germanic Rhine Capitalism/Social Market Economy to the state capitalist model that makes China, Singapore, and the Nordic countries run. It includes everything from the libertarian socialist/anarcho-syndicalist Revolutionary Catalonia to and Makhnovia to, yes, the hairbrained and ill-conceived economic policies of the Third Reich. This term covers the violent (the revolutionary socialism of Lenin), the beneficent (the welfare policies of Alva Myrdal), and the absurd (Fourier’s infamous oceans of lemonade). I’ve simply been assuming that the Nordic countries are socialist but I’m sure plenty of Nordic folk would very much disagree with my assessment, and that’s the problem: there isn’t one unified definition of socialism. At its most basic, socialism concerns social ownership, be it public, collective, cooperative, and the like, but how we get there and where “there” even is has been debated since the 1800s, if not earlier.

So if we can’t even agree on a unified definition of socialism, how are supposed to know if it can succeed?

Well, see, that’s the thing: it doesn’t matter.

Given the vagueness of the words in question, the question shouldn’t be “does socialism work”, and statements like “socialism always fails” are not helpful. They distract from the actual debate, which should be over policy, not labels. Labels are arbitrary, and they change over time. “Socialism” is one such polymorphic label. Given this, I’d argue that statements like “socialism always fails.” are utterly meaningless, and even if supplied context and definition, little more than red herrings to distract from the much more important policy debate. Labels don’t fix broken economic systems, or lift the poor out of poverty, or feed, cloth, and shelter the homeless. Policy does. And we need to stop letting red herring label wars get in the way of that, otherwise we’ll never get anywhere.

[J Enigma – amateur philosopher, political scientist, economist, and linguist.]

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