Are there degrees of ‘socialism’?

I had a brief query from a friend the other day:

This is probably a red-herring but I did wonder if there are degrees of ‘socialism’ in which some degree of government ownership and control of the means of production is acceptable but with private sector ownership and incentives the dominant force. I’m thinking of the so-called ‘mixed’ economy concept.

Here in NZ we are having a debate about how we should frame objectives for the economy, with a shift away from a predominant focus on growth (in GDP) towards a ‘well-being’ framework (currently being developed by the NZ Treasury. I don’t think most economists are persuaded by this but it’s politically appealing because it appears to offer more emphasis on distributional fairness and the environment.

Well, I do go on a bit, but the question is an interesting one and important. My reply, off the top of my head, but more consideration still needed.

Interesting issue since everyone who now declares themselves a socialist doesn’t define socialism in the same way. There are plenty of “socialists” who think socialism is a heavy duty form of the welfare state. It’s fantastically costly, and in rich economies like ours, we typically allow plenty of free riding which will eventually have to be paid for one way or another. We are ruining ourselves because we think we are richer than we are, to subsidise plenty of people who ought to be contributing to their own upkeep. But once you get into the various forms of attempting to create greater equality, you are in an endless spiral since you can never create enough of it since there are always going to be income differences, many of which have no cosmic justification but just are what they are.

We already do an incredible amount of redistribution from those with high incomes to those with lower incomes. But if you take from some who earn high incomes they will provide less output to the common pool. And funny enough, if you give to people with lower incomes, they too will provide less to the common pool. Very destructive of an economy based on personal incomes related to one’s own contribution to the total. In a bygone era, most individuals felt a responsibility to remain as productive as possible for as long as possible, so we invented a system of welfare to assist those who fell by the wayside. Now there are so many who sit by the wayside picking up whatever they can, and this is now made much much worse by the increasing numbers who never intend to contribute anything but intend to be subsidised merely for existing. You can call that socialism if you like. It is immensely destructive, but since we have so much productive capital to run through it may take a while before we really notice. By then, alas, it will be too late. An inbred lack of industriousness in the midst of a crumbling economic structure is what you have right now in California which has more people on welfare proportionately than any other American state. And as rich as they are, it will not survive another decade before some kind of collapse overtakes them. Already the productive are escaping to other states. Unfortunately they are taking their welfare mentality with them.

As for the more traditional forms of socialism, virtually no government now seeks to take over the commanding heights of the economy, other than idiots like in Venezuela. There it took around a decade for the full horror to manifest itself, but now that it has, everyone has backed off from that version, at least for the time being. The version we are in the midst of is what I think of as the “crony capitalist” version, which is based on governments squeezing the last dollar of tax revenue, plus whatever they can extort from their central bank money creation process, to direct spending in a politically advantageous direction. Australia is at the start of a fall in living standards that is in large part based on the notion that all public spending adds to demand and therefore is positive. Which is augmented here by a superstitious belief that bringing in many many migrants makes the economy rich because we have to build infrastructure and housing for them to live in. Quite insane, but if you really think economies are driven by C+I+G, you cannot see the problem until the economy finally does fall apart and even then won’t understand the problem although it will be right before their eyes. The RBA and Treasury keep expecting the economy to turn around, and are ever-amazed when it does not.

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