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Socialism=Theft?

I hear something quite often which annoys me profoundly, all the more so because I used to find it persuasive. Nothing, it seems, is so irksome to the soul as the syllogism which, having once held one in awe, now seems empty and frivolous.

The claim goes something like this: Giving stuff to other people is good. But taking something from one person to give it to another person is by definition stealing, and that’s exactly what socialism is.

Now, of course, socialism can be that. Indeed, I daresay that all the forms of socialism with which we are familiar often look very much like a kind of theft—a third party using force to take money from one party and give it to another. But to claim that this is necessarily the case, that this is what the idea of socialism means, is absurdly to misunderstand what it means to be a society. Moreover, and more maddeningly, it requires allegiance to an ideal of absolute private property rights that has no basis whatsoever in Scripture.


The premise of this syllogism, of course, is that each individual (or perhaps family, though it is hard to see why we should allow community here when we forbid it elsewhere) is an entity unto itself, and has its own property over which it alone has absolute authority. Of course, this individual may transfer some of this property to another, but that decision rests solely with the individual as an individual, and if anyone else makes any claim as to how to dispose of his property, this is theft.

But, as my little parenthetical remark reveals, this premise is senseless—it ignores the fact that individuals must always function in communities of shared interest, working towards common goods. There is, you see, a possible option that is neither that of an autonomous individual choosing on his own to transfer property to another, or that of a third party seizing goods from that individual and transferring it to another. Both of these presume that there are no real ties that bind these separate individuals, and so only relationships of coercion can be forged between them. But a community of people bound together seeking the common good can decide that some of their resources should be shared, with the most-privileged sacrificing for the least-privileged, and in this decision, the givers are both free and constrained—they are not private decision-makers giving only when it suits their preferences, but neither are they under the compulsion of an alien agent. To reduce ourselves to just these two possibilities is to require that we choose between the social contract theory of Locke or Hobbes. I suggest we choose neither.

This syllogism also presupposes that only the autonomous property-owner has a claim on his property, and no one else can have a claim on it—not the poor, not the community as a whole, no one.

The questions here are important—must we always act as mere autonomous individuals, or can we act as communities working toward shared goods?
Do only I have a claim on my property, or do others have a claim on it as well?

I do not see how, if we answer “the former” to these questions, the Church makes sense. Because the Church is a socialist organization, a community which tells us that we do not have sole claim over our goods, but which demands that we each sacrifice our goods for a common good, that we give up some of our money for the Church to redistribute to the needy, and which threatens us with far worse punishment than imprisonment if we do not do so.

To be sure, socialism can become theft, but to criticize it as theft by definition is like being outraged that some women become whores and so considering all women whores—a solution that is likely to worsen the problem.

2 comments:

You also have the tricky issue of defining "socialism" that most people who make the theft argument take for granted. Socialism predates Marxism, though that seems often forgotten.

August 10, 2009 at 11:02 PM  

Did you become a socialistic immediately after you landed in Britain, or was it a longer process?

August 22, 2009 at 4:25 PM  

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