Some fellow at The Economist has taken me to task for my description of socialism and communism: “The difference between communism and socialism: Under communism, politics begins with a gun in your face; under socialism, politics ends with a gun in your face.”
Writes “M.S.” (am I supposed to know who this is? must confess I do not):
I have lived or spent time in several of the northern European social-democratic countries that are often described by American conservatives as “socialist”, and I don’t remember seeing anything like this going on. Let’s see, the Netherlands, Denmark, France . . . nope, don’t remember seeing The Man coming to anyone’s house with a gun to tell them to go serve the community.
Well, bully for northern Europe and journalists with anecdotes! It’s not as though gunpoint politics has no history in Europe: Wait for the next all-European war and let me know how the Dutch and the Danes do.
I, too, have lived in a socialist country, one of the hot and messy ones, and I saw plenty of gunpoint politics. Different kinds of states draw the line on violence in different places.
Never mind, for now, that there is a world of difference between having a large and expensive welfare state, such as Sweden’s, and having a socialist state, such as Venezuela’s or North Korea’s or pre-reform India’s; it’s fair enough to write that some American conservatives would call France “socialist.” They would be wrong, but they would do so. (Hey, I have some thoughts on that!) Socialist or otherwise, all states finally rest on force: You decline to participate in whatever is the Netherlands’ version of serving the community through the instrument of the state long enough, they send a guy to your house with a gun to seize your stuff or haul you off to jail; resist and there will be violence. That’s what states do, and it is not necessarily illegitimate.
The resort to violence is what makes the question of what kind of things it is legitimate for states to do an important moral concern. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to stop him murdering, raping, or robbing. It seems to me entirely unreasonable to shove a gun in somebody’s face to extort from him money to fund a project to get monkeys high on cocaine. Those seem to me fairly reasonable distinctions. It is illegitimate for government to use force or the threat of force for projects that are not inherently public in character.
The question of how much illegitimacy a state may perpetrate before becoming generally illegitimate itself is of real interest and has been, of late, the subject of some spirited discussion between some of my colleagues here and me. (You probably can guess on which side of the fault line I stand.)
But I would like to make it clear that I am not indulging in a figure of speech: I think it’s a pretty useful heuristic: If you’re not willing to have somebody hauled off at gunpoint over the project, then it’s probably not a legitimate concern of the state.
This is the sort of talk that gives the (always well informed, excruciatingly sober, generally sensible) folks at The Economist the howling fantods, inasmuch as they seem to operate under a kind of distributed version of the divine right of kings — always asking whether the rulers rule wisely, seldom asking whether they have the right to rule at all, and never asking whether and how much we actually need them. That’s why The Economist is the in-house newsletter of The Establishment. That and those great classifieds.
UPDATE: William Saletan tosses off another response on the masturbation = socialism debate. He is having a hard time distinguishing between that which one does out of shame or pressure and that which one does out of fear of government violence. It is all social control, he argues, as though a tut-tut were a tank. In other words, he is either morally and politically sophomoric or he is being intentionally thick.
– Kevin D. Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, to be published in January.