I remember once when I was driving across the fields of Kansas in the middle of the night. A pair of headlights came up behind me in extreme haste, quickly pulling close to my bumper and then veering into the oncoming lane to pass. Their significant speed was enough to make my eighty-five mph seem dwarfed and lethargic. Their car, an expensive sport coupe, made me feel equally inadequate. However, miles down the road I rejoiced and cheered to see them pulled over. Their misfortune had made my day.
The Germans call this ‘schadenfreude:” a malicious satisfaction derived from the misfortune of others. Although my personal situation had not changed positively or negatively, I was still cruising down the interstate listening to music, I was enlivened by the negative situation of another. Undoubtedly, this is some form of selfishness, being only concerned with what I receive and indifferent to the condition of another. My emotion–however deplorable–only existed in me and only affected me for a short period of time. But if I, or others, attempted to turn this emotion into wide-ranging political or economic policy it would be truly despicable. Unfortunately I do not see socialism, or even other more moderate forms of egalitarianism, as being wildly different from an institutionalized “schadenfreude.”
Amongst popular thoughts, in the panoply of heartless and uncompassionate theories, capitalism is often said to be near the top. Socialism, however, is thought to be the philosophy of compassion and care. Put simply, capitalism is the philosophy of the selfish and socialism is the philosophy of the altruistic. I wish to dispel and reverse this basic and facile distinction.
Capitalism may “allow” people to be poor, but socialism doesnÔø?t allow people to be rich. The reader may notice a subtle variance in the previous sentence–with “allow” being placed in quotes in reference to capitalism and not in reference to socialism. This is not a mistake. Capitalism, or the promotion of capitalism, is often personified with the use of certain action verbs such as “allow,” “permit,” or “promote.” However, this personification is just as fallacious as similar personifications of evolution–claims that evolution “seeks,” “plans,” or “desires.” Using such words, and thus assigning an impersonal system moral responsibility, makes such a system much easier to condemn and attack on moral grounds. However, the state of the distribution of wealth amongst members of a market society, each acting in their own interest–much like the distribution of height or skin color–has no moral responsibility behind it.
Socialism, however, is not free from such moral condemnation. On the contrary, socialism and all centrally planned and regulated economies, behave in a manner precisely opposite from capitalism. In all such economies there exists a person, or a group of people, who decide how the economy should behave–who gets what, how much, and when. Here a case for moral responsibility–for the justified use of terms like “allow,” “permit,” and “promote”–clearly exists. Thus, saying that “capitalism allows people to be poor” or “socialism doesn’t allow people to be rich” creates a clear dichotomy of responsibility, both moral and practical. In the former no such responsibility exists, in the latter responsibility is present in both moral (the justice of the situation) and practical (the causal reason for the situation) forms. Therefore, a moral description of socialism as Ôø?selfishÔø? is justified whereas a similar description of capitalism is not.
Schadenfreude and envy are the driving force behind egalitarian thought. There can be no other motivation behind egalitarian motivated (equality of outcome) economic and political philosophies. How else can one explain the motivation of a philosophy that attempts to curtail the success of someone even when their success does not alter the condition of either an individual or a group people? The only wrench that can be thrown in this argument is a counter-argument dependent upon zero-sum economic reasoning–the belief that the wealth gained by someone is wealth lost by another. Here a reason for not believing in a “schadenfreude” interpretation of socialism. Now the argument can center on the reality of zero-sum economics.
This is, however, socialism’s only crutch. If zero-sum economics can be disproved, and I believe it can (as my colleague Aaron Powell has attempted to do and I may attempt at a later date), then socialists and egalitarians must accept the “selfish” moniker and perhaps simply argue for a “desirable form of selfishness.”
The desire not to see another succeed, even when one’s own condition is unaltered, is selfish. Socialism clearly falls into this behavior pattern and is therefore selfish.