Robert Heilbroner on socialism’s mandatory labor

Robert Heilbroner was perhaps the most famous American socialist intellectual of the 20th century. His The Worldly Philosophers sold millions, making it the second-best-selling economics textbook of all time. In my Business and Economic Ethics course, we read and discuss one of his articles.

Here is a new-to-me quotation by Heilbroner, writing in 1980, about who owns what under socialism:

heilbroner“[T]he creation of socialism as a new mode of production can properly be compared to the moral equivalent of war — war against the old order, in this case — and will need to amass and apply the power commensurate with the requirements of a massive war. This need not entail the exercise of command in an arbitrary or dictatorial fashion, but certainly it requires the curtailment of the central economic freedom of bourgeois society, namely the right of individuals to own, and therefore to withhold if they wish, the means of production, including their own labor.”[1]

So: Under socialism, you do not have the right to withhold your labor. Your labor belongs to society. So compulsion may be used to ensure that individuals work for society. In other words, socialism is a kind of slavery.

Note Heilbroner’s “moral equivalent of war” phrase and that nations often use war as a rationale for conscription. The more general point for socialism is that, whether at war or not, individuals belong to society. They are seen as a product of society, as constituting society, and as the means of society’s continuance.

Twelve years later, Heilbroner did concede that as a matter of practical results, freedom has been superior to compulsion: “capitalism has been as unmistakable a success as socialism has been a failure.”[2] But I do not know that he ever changed his mind about the collectivized, altruistic ethic that underlay his commitment to socialism.

That, I think, is the more important issue of our generation. Socialism is widely recognized to have been a practical failure, but we still have a huge number of socialist-friendly individuals. Free-market capitalism, by contrast, is widely recognized to have been a practical success, but we still have a huge number of hostile-to-capitalism individuals. That indicates to me that beliefs about morality are driving the debate more than are beliefs about practicality.

[1] Robert Heilbroner, Marxism: For and Against (W.W. Norton, 1980), p. 157. Also quoted in David R. Henderson, The Joy of Freedom, p. 47.
[2] Heilbroner, quoted by David Boaz in “The Man Who Told the Truth: Robert Heilbroner fessed up to the failure of socialism”, Reason, January 21, 2005.

John McCrae and Veterans Day

I like David Henderson’s approach to this solemn day of focusing on the individuals involved in wars rather than the often-gestural generalities. Henderson highlights the moving second stanza of John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields:in_flanders_fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

How much of life they missed.

Side note: John McCrae and I attended the same high school, the Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute, and I remember playing baseball as a kid on a field across the street from his birthplace. Another GCVI grad was J.J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway.

Bleeding-heart libertarianism?

Jumping into the debate about “bleeding-heart libertarianism” (Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi, Bryan Caplan and again, David Friedman, David Henderson, and others), which seeks to integrate libertarianism with social justice. bhlbanner-150px“Social justice” is one of those vaguely-specified, usually suspect phrases, defined by one defender of BHL as the position that “the moral justification of our institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged.”

Thus stated, BHL accepts the basic Rawlsian line about the morality of politics, and its advocates seek either (a) to wrest the “social justice” label away from the lefties who use it most by showing that ends of social justice are best achieved by free-market liberalism, as Edmund Phelps tries to do, or (b) to find common ground with lefties on moral issues.

Five quick points against BHL:

1. As a political-philosophical method: BHL says we should start politics by dividing people into groups and granting one group special prior ethical status. In this case, BHL divides people into poor and non-poor and holds the poor to have a special moral position in politics-making. That is not the way to ground politics, for two reasons: (a) Politics should start with individuals, not individuals-as-members-of-a-sub-group; and (b) politics should initially treat all individuals as having equal moral status — in my view, as self-responsible, free agents — not as having preferred status by belonging to a sub-group.

2. As a moral justification of liberty: BHL says your liberty and mine are justified only if and to the extent that it serves or benefits the interests of others, especially poor others. This means that its moral principle is serving or benefiting others. This is not the way to do the ethics of politics: Liberty as a basic principle means that each individual’s life is his or her own, whether or not the individual’s choices serve or benefit others. Individuals’ political freedom is justified because they need it in order to think and act independently to produce the values their lives need. My liberty to be a philosopher or a poet or an explorer is not morally contingent upon my doing so’s demonstrably serving the interests of others.

It’s fine to argue the general point that free-market liberalism leads to win-win results for everyone involved, and it’s a worthy effort to show how free markets are beneficial to various sub-groups — women, immigrants, the poor, and so on — but all of that is a consequent sub-topic to the basic moral point that individuals have a right to live their own lives freely.

3. As a conception of life’s core values: By focusing on the poor, BHL seems to make politics essentially or primarily about economics. If political institutions are to be designed by reference to their relative economic impact on the poor and non-poor, then economic wealth is the critical factor. But that is much too narrow a conception of liberty’s scope and the proper purpose of politics. Family, art, sports, religion, and so on, as well as economic pursuits, are parts of life, and the principles of politics should cover them all generally. A narrow conception of BHL would seem to imply that one is free to engage in art, religion, or whatever only if that can be shown to be to serve the interests of the poor.

Or perhaps the BHLs intend for poor to be taken more metaphorically to refer to anyone in a weaker position in any sphere of human life. The final phrase in the above definition adds the “least advantaged.” But then BHL implies that the political rules governing family, religion, and so on, should be crafted to serve the interests of the least advantaged participants. For example, in basketball, short people are less likely to be successful. Does the BHL principle imply that the rules of basketball should be devised and justified by reference to their ability to improve the basketball outcomes of the short? Or religion: Who would the least-advantaged members of religious groups be, and what would it mean to craft political rules about religion to serve their interests? Not a perfect analogy, but: Politicians should not care about the poor any more than they do about men who can’t get a woman to start a family with them — or any more than referees care about short basketball players.

4. As a marketing strategy: This is only speculation, but I know a number of libertarians who complain that their position comes across as too rational and coldly analytic. So to gain broader appeal, they argue, libertarians need to go out of their way to show that they have feelings and care. So perhaps the BHL strategy is to lead with their emotions by emphasizing their empathy.

Well, certainly reason and passion should be integrated, and a morally normal person feels for those who are in poverty through no fault of their own. This takes us into the fascinating territory of the moral emotions, and for BHL our question should be: Why should exhibiting those particular feelings be primary in making the case for a free society? Other passions are part of the morally-healthy package: Admiration for those who have achieved a lot. Anger at those who violate rights. Respect for those who exhibit independence and integrity. And of course empathy for those who are struggling with poverty. But empathy for the poor is not more morally special than respect for integrity or anger at bullies and tyrants, and it is a mistake to single it out for special foundational political status. Instead, political theorists concerned with the moral foundations of liberal society should be concerned with general principles of moral character that enable individuals to live freely.

(Side note: I think a case can be made that admiration for achievement is a more important moral emotion than empathy for the poor is, but that is another post.)

5. As a rhetorical strategy to get the lefties who dominate academic life to talk to us: Again a speculation, but perhaps BHL is partly an internal-to-academics strategy to make nice with the social justice crowd in order to get a seat at the table. Maybe there is some merit to this strategy, and I am all for seeking common ground when possible. But our problem with “social justice” academics is not that they just didn’t realize that we care about the poor too. The modern history of the social-justice movement from Rousseau to Marx to the 20th century is not a story of people with an unworkable theory but whose hearts are in the right place. Of course, social-justice academics come in a variety of degrees, and it may be that some of the moderate and open-minded ones will listen to our case if they are first convinced that we genuinely care about the poor. Fine. But that is at most a tactic within the overall strategy of making the case for the free society, which requires hard-nosed economics, plenty of empirical history, and vigorous and passionately-argued ethics of individualism.

[Update: Further commentaries on BHL: Jason Kuznicki, Jacob Levy, Andrew Cohen, Will Wilkinson, Jason Brennan, John McCaskey.]

I too was an exploited worker

china-flagPiggybacking on David Henderson’s fun-with-a-point post, “I Was a Chinese Laborer,” about new rules designed to limit how much overtime Chinese workers can put in at Apple’s and other companies’ factories. The goal is “to bring its factories within China’s legal limits of 40 hours of work per week and 36 hours maximum overtime per month by July 2013.” Achieving that goal is thought to by activists to be humane.

When I was just out of high school, I worked on several oil rigs in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, and I have just learned how oppressed I was.

oil-rigThe deal was that oil riggers worked 12 hours a day for two weeks and then had a week off. Then another two weeks of 12-hour days before another week off. For each workday, 8 hours were regular pay and 4 hours were overtime.

Over a year, that added up to 34 weeks of working 12 hours a day for 7 days a week. Doing the math means I worked 73.6 hours of overtime per month — over twice the Chinese legal limit of 36.

At the time I was ecstatic with my oil-rigs job, though I was dirty and tired for much of the year. But that year’s work paid for my undergraduate tuition, a trip to Europe, and (very important to the 19-year old kid I was) a motorcycle.

Yet according to concerned employee activists, I was a victim. And by implication their belief must be that the Canadian government of 30 years ago was less enlightened than the Chinese government of today. Hmmm …

Or we could agree with Henderson, as I do, that the humane position is to treat adults as self-responsible human beings who can make their own decisions. Good employee activism will think of Chinese workers as grown-ups rather than as semi-helpless, semi-adults who need paternalistic protection for their own good.

Profiles in Liberty: David R. Henderson


David R. Henderson is associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and research fellow with the Hoover Institution. He has written for the New York Times, Fortune, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Reason, as well as scholarly articles for the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, the Journal of Monetary Economics, Cato Journal, Energy Journal, and many others.

Why did you become a political economist? [00:18]
Does a free society need a political and economic theory? [3:33]
What are the key themes in your book Making Great Decisions in Business and Life? [6:03]
What was the key purpose of The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics and the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics? [7:25]

What were the key themes from The Joy of Freedom? [00:09]
What three historical economists/thinkers have you learned most from? [1:51]
What major historical economist/thinker do you most disagree with? [6:15]
What is the most interesting problem in political economy you are working on now? [7:50]

What is the most challenging criticism of your views? [00:09]
What is the state of liberal thought today among political economists? [2:16]
To bring about a more liberal society, what key practical steps can and should be taken? [8:04]

David Henderson’s web log at Econlog.
Stephen Hicks talks with David Henderson about seven myths about free markets.

Watch the next Profiles in Liberty with philosopher Tibor R. Machan.

Previously: Profiles in Liberty: philosopher Douglas Rasmussen.

Return to the Profiles in Liberty main page.

Profiles in Liberty: Douglas B. Rasmussen


In this extended interview, philosopher Douglas B. Rasmussen responds to a series of questions (listed below) about his life and work.

Dr. Rasmussen is a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University in New York. In addition to the books discussed in the interview, he is the author of articles in American Philosophical Quarterly, The Review of Metaphysics, International Philosophical Quarterly, and many scholarly anthologies.

questions1Why did you become a philosopher? [00:18]
Where did you go to college? [1:02]
Why does liberal society need a philosophical basis? [1:17 ]
You present those themes in some detail in your books Liberty and Nature, Liberalism Defended, and Norms of Liberty. What is your argument for liberty? [2:44]
questions2Previous question continued [00:09]
Which historical philosophers have you learned most from? [6:08]
How do those issues of metaphysics connect to liberalism? [8:15]
Which major historical philosophers do you most disagree with? [11:28]
questions3What is the hardest philosophical problem you are working on now? [00:08]
What is the most challenging criticism of your views? [2:43]
What is the state of liberal thought today among philosophers? [4:36]
To bring about a more liberal society, what key practical steps can and should be taken? [6:30]

Watch the next Profiles in Liberty with economist David R. Henderson.

Return to the Profiles in Liberty main page.

Related: Stephen Hicks interviews Douglas Rasmussen about Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness.

Kaizen 17 — the John Allison interview

The latest issue of Kaizen [pdf] features my interview with John Allison, recently retired CEO of BB&T bank. The theme of the interview is Entrepreneurial Banking, k17-cover-200px about which Allison is perfectly positioned to speak. During his 20-year tenure as CEO, BB&T’s assets grew from $4.5 billion to $152 billion and, almost more impressively, BB&T has weathered the financial storms of the last few years comfortably and remains healthy and one of the largest banks in the nation. A related post on Allison is here.

Also featured in this issue of Kaizen are the latest CEE student essay contest winners — Jennifer Harrolle, Alyssa Baggio, and Derek Garcia — the Philosophy Department’s Walhout Prize winner, Nathaniel Branch, and a report on guest speaker David R. Henderson, and other news from the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.

burpee-nightIf you would like to receive a complimentary issue of the print version of Kaizen, please email your name and postal address to CEE [at] Rockford [dot] edu.

More Kaizen interviews with leading entrepreneurs are at my site here or CEE’s site here.