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Saturday, September 15, 2018

To Say Socialists ‘Mean Well’ Gives Them Too Much Credit

The desire to bring more and more of human life under the purview of political control is inhumane.

In discussions of illiberal ideologies, socialists are frequently praised for being at least well-intentioned, if naive or ignorant—unlike fascists, who mean to cause harm to certain groups of people. While it goes without saying that fascists have bad intentions, the comparison sets the bar too low for socialists. Conceding that socialists mean well gives them too much credit.

What is Socialism?

Before continuing, it’s necessary to clarify what I mean here by “socialism.” Socialism is any ideology that favors subjecting economic production to democratic control, whether through representative or more direct democracy. That is, rather than individual economic actors—with secure rights to their labor and their property—making decisions about what to produce and how, such decisions are made politically.

There are grey areas here. Most real-world economies are “mixed economies” that have both socialist and capitalist elements. If we must draw a bright-line, there are good reasons to follow Ludwig von Mises, who said “the key is whether the economy has a stock market.”1 Cuba, for example, has not had a stock exchange since the revolution. Venezuela’s exists but is at this point nearly vestigial, having only a few dozen listings, with low trade volume and the threat of nationalization always looming.2 

As I’m using the term here, though, I mean to include not only socialists in the narrowest sense of the word—those on the socialist side of Mises’ bright-line—but also people like Bernie Sanders who want to push things further toward the socialist end of the spectrum. The argument I’m offering applies even to relatively moderate people, like Elizabeth Warren, who hector us about the need for private enterprise to be held (legally) responsible to “the public interest” as they conceive it.

Socialists are not well-intentioned. This doesn’t mean they’re malevolent in the same way that fascists are, to be sure, but nevertheless, socialists are essentially malicious. That’s true even if they genuinely believe, contrary to all evidence, that socialism would make people materially better off. Because fascists have evil ends in mind, like ethnic cleansing, their malevolence is obvious. In the case of socialists, however, their ill intent is more insidious.

Socialism Is about Control

Socialists constantly point to their desired ends as evidence of their virtue, but as Jason Brennan put it in Why Not Capitalism?

Socialism is not love or kindness or generosity or oceans of delicious lemonade. Socialism is not equality or community. It’s just a way of distributing the control rights over objects.

Socialism is not ultimately an end but a means. And as a means, socialism is evil.

That’s because, at heart, democratic control is still political control, and politics makes us worse. One of the ways it makes us worse is by fostering the attitude that we’re entitled to boss others about, even if we’re only one of many engaged in the bossing. It’s an ugly, dehumanizing impulse that fails to respect the dignity and sovereignty of our fellows.

The exercise of political power is uniquely bad in this respect. When my boss at work gives me an instruction in the course of my employment, he’s not presuming to be my moral superior; rather, he’s expecting me to hold up my half of a bargain. By contrast, people who wield political power over me are thereby asserting something about my status as a person—that it’s lower than theirs.

In a wide-ranging speech delivered at Nilbo’s Saloon in New York City on March 15, 1837,3 nestled between a discussion of the annexation of Texas and the spoils system of bureaucratic appointments, Senator Daniel Webster spoke about executive overreach and whether such overreach could be defended on the grounds that people claiming political power had good intentions. Webster thought not:

Good motives may always be assumed, as bad motives may always be imputed. Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of power; but they cannot justify it, even if we were sure that they existed. It is hardly too strong to say, that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intention, real or pretended. … Human beings, we may be assured, will generally exercise power when they can get it; and they will exercise it most undoubtedly, in popular [i.e. democratic] governments, under pretences of public safety or high public interest. It may be very possible that good intentions do really sometimes exist when constitutional restraints are disregarded.

That much is a fairly standard argument in favor of denying to government actors any powers not expressly delegated—that the state ought not to have certain powers even if the people wielding those powers aim at good ends. But Webster went further. He pointed out that human beings are adept at rationalizing their desire for power, even to the point of self-deception:

Their notion of the public interest is apt to be quite closely connected with their own exercise of authority. They may not, indeed, always understand their own motives. The love of power may sink too deep in their own hearts even for their own scrutiny, and may pass with themselves for mere patriotism and benevolence.

This point is key. Tyrants convince themselves that they want to serve “the people” when what really drives them is accumulating power. That’s a good reason not to give people moral credit for having praiseworthy ends while espousing shameful means. Webster addressed the crux of the matter, denouncing the desire to exercise political power as in itself a bad intention. The desire to rule, to exercise one’s own will over others, even with prima facie good ends in mind, was inherently suspect:

There are men, in all ages, who mean to exercise power usefully; but who mean to exercise it. They mean to govern well; but they mean to govern. They promise to be kind masters; but they mean to be masters.

These three sentences are a dagger to the heart of every petty tyrant, every busybody, every officious do-gooder the world over.  It is odious and uncivilized even in the best of circumstances. This is not merely a matter of power corrupting the characters of those who hold it. People engaged in exercising political power, to whatever end, are doing something wrong. The desire to bring more and more of human life under the purview of political control is inhumane.

If I told you I wanted to end homelessness, you might say I had good intentions, all else equal. If I told you I wanted to end homelessness by conscripting the homeless into the army, you ought to change your evaluation. Not only should you say I have bad intentions, you shouldn’t give me any moral credit for saying I want to end homelessness. My proposed methods preclude it.

Socialists are in precisely this position. The methods they advocate for achieving their ends are such that they forfeit any claim to benevolence. Socialists do not “mean well.”

This article was reprinted with permission from


  1.  Murray Rothbard, “The End of Socialism and the Calculation Debate Revisited,” Review of Austrian Economics, Volume 5, Number 2. 
  2.  Urbi Garay and Maximiliano González, “CEO and Director Turnover in Venezuela,” Inter-American Development Bank Research Network Working paper #R-517, 2005, §2.1. 
  3.  Daniel Webster, “Reception at New York,” collected in “The Great Speeches and Orations of Daniel Webster,” ed. Edwin P. Whipple. 

  • Grant Babcock is Associate Editor of and a scholar of political philosophy. He is especially interested in nonviolent action, the epistemology of the social sciences, social contract theories and criticisms thereof, and finding libertarian-compatible responses to cultural problems.