Ben Shapiro and the morality of Socialism

I came across this video clip of Ben Shapiro criticising Socialism. Shapiro is an American conservative political commentator, columnist and talk radio host. It is only a 2-minute clip and I am sure it is part of a wider argument, but he lays out his case quite forcefully.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t like it. A quick glance at the ‘about’ page of this blog or a bit of basic browsing will lead you to conclude where I sit politically with relative ease. You can also see some earlier comments on this very issue contra Wayne Grudem and John Stevens here, John Piper here, and Rick Phillips here.

In those previous articles, Stevens, Piper and Phillips were all advancing the case that Socialism is anti-scripture. There was either an implicit or explicit statement that Socialism was incompatible with the biblical data and thus an inconsistent position for a godly believer. If you think I am too insignificant or unintelligent to heed on this issue (and you may well be correct in your assessment), David Robertson (The Wee Flea), former moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and associate director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, made similar arguments here, here and here. He is much brighter and more intelligent than me.

Unlike those earlier posts, Ben Shapiro is not making any case against Socialism from scripture. Shapiro has no concern for whatever the Bible says about the matter. His concern is simply that Socialism appears to have become popular amongst ‘young people’ and he is offering his appraisal as to why they shouldn’t give Socialism a second thought. It bears saying that he has every right to do so and to advance his case. But here is why I think he is wrong.

Shapiro begins by arguing that Socialism has become popular because those who advocate it have declared it to be ‘moral’. He goes on to make the case that it is not moral because, he states, ‘in a free country, wealth and the capacity to gain it is largely contingent on the decisions you make. It doesn’t just fall upon you, most wealth… is not inherited… it is created over the course of lifetimes by people who engage in economic activity in commerce’. He finally argues:

The statement of Socialism is that your labour is owed to society. The notion of Socialism is that you do not own your own freedom, you do not own your own time, you do not own your own labour, you do not own your own work, you do not own the products of your own work… Socialism is selfishness. The notion that I have to somehow supply you the money so that you can sit in your basement and paint with watercolours. Socialism, the idea that I am supposed to fulfil all your dreams by paying you for something I don’t want and have no need for.

He argues this is in contrast to Capitalism which he simply states, ‘is not selfishness’.

I want to disagree with the two premises of his argument. First, he argues that in a free country wealth is almost always contingent on the choices you make. Second, he argues that Socialism is selfish while Capitalism is not. Neither premise stands up to scrutiny.

When Cathy Newman raised the issue of the gender pay gap in her now infamous Channel 4 interview with Jordan Peterson, the professor noted the importance of multivaried analysis. In that instance, Peterson suggested that the apparent existence of a pay gap is readily explained according to other data. Shapiro argues that in a free society most wealth is contingent on the decisions you make, basing that argument solely on the suggestion that, in America, most wealth is not inherited.

The suggestion is palpable nonsense. Even if it is true that most American wealth is not directly inherited (naturally not in the case of one of their richest men, their current President), it is hard to deny the correlation between privilege, education and future earnings. This video does a helpful job of explaining how privilege works:

Even if it is true that most wealth is created by those who have not inherited it, there can be no denying that many of those in positions of power and in receipt of high earnings often have it because of inherited privilege. Socialism is in the business of seeking to redress that privilege. Capitalism simply pays no heed to inherited privilege and happily encourages the myth of the self-made man. It is apparent, contra Shapiro, that there are people who have had their earning potential inhibited by a whole host of issues that are entirely outside of their control and are not contingent on their decision-making.

Does Shapiro really believe that poorer citizens of nations in the developing world are living in those conditions predominantly because of poor decisions they have made? Even within the West, does he really believe that those who have been denied access to various services and people have not become CEOs and the like because of their own decisions? Is it not at least possible that there are some circumstances beyond the control of the individual that might impede the possibility of wealth creation?

Second, Shapiro’s argument that Capitalism is not selfish seems to me to be entirely self-defeating. In the US and UK, the triumph of Capitalism was seen in Reaganism and Thatcherism respectively. Both, but particularly Thatcher, insisted that the individual is über alles. Mrs Thatcher famously averred, ‘there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first’. This is the triumph of the individualistic, me-first attitude propagated by Capitalism.

It is hard to maintain an argument that says Capitalism is not selfish when it is predicated on the individual above all, namely my needs first. Socialism, by contrast, does not deny the reality of individual freedom. However, it also considers the impact of an individual upon collective society and suggests this matters. Shapiro’s very argument that Capitalism is not selfish was stated in the most selfish terms. He essentially asks, ‘why should I pay you for something I don’t want and have no need for?’ This, dear friends, is the very essence of the argument against any support for the very poorest and neediest in society. Why should I support the poor and needy when it doesn’t help me? It beggars belief that Shapiro can claim, with a straight face, that this is not selfish.

Unlike the essence of Capitalism, scripture itself teaches that how my behaviour affects my neighbour genuinely matters. Throughout scripture we see the idea of redistributed wealth in jubilee years and, similarly, the concept of collective, national guilt. The concepts of collective responsibilities and duties clearly exist and the argument that ‘greed is good’ or that only the individual is of any import are not upheld anywhere in the Bible. Like that, Socialism similarly argues that the societal collective matters. The essence of Socialism is that how our actions affect society matters. We cannot simply do whatever works in the interest of me and my family but we must have an eye on the good of our neighbour too. The moral terms in which the case for Socialism is made seems entirely justified even on Shapiro’s own argument.

I can agree with Shapiro’s underlying subtext that there is nothing good about telling people we will support them for no reason and encouraging them not to work. But as I noted here, there is nothing inherently ‘anti-work’ about Socialism. The statistics actually bear out slightly better employment figures for those countries with wide-spread social provision compared to the American system.

So, here is the question: is it morally good to encourage selfishness and the supremity of the individual above all else? Is it morally good to actively encourage greed? Is it morally good to deny the significance of our actions on wider society? Alternatively, is it good to suggest that our individual actions should be considered in light of how they affect our neighbour? Is it good to support those who, through various circumstances entirely beyond their own control, do not have the same opportunities as others? Is it right to insist that we alone are islands and self-made individuals or is it better to acknowledge that we are a product of collective circumstances and influences upon us?

I have said before, Socialism is not inherently evil. It is not anti-work. It is not selfish. The arguments that advocate for Capitalism are predicated on selfishness, greed, a denial of community and our impact upon it. You may believe Socialism, in any form, is entirely unworkable and that Capitalism is a pragmatic ‘best option’. You are certainly welcome to advance that argument such as you believe it. But please, let’s not try to claim that Capitalism is somehow morally virtuous and Socialism is necessarily immoral. That argument simply will not stand.