Political Theory (Loosely Interpreted): October 2010 Archives

I received an email with the title, "How You Can Tell Obama is Not a Socialist". The basic argument is that President Obama didn't implement full-blown government ownership of the banks and industries relevant to the economic problems that it has been calling a crisis. A true socialist, so goes the argument, would have seized the opportunity to, you know, implement socialism or something. A few instances of the government seizing control of something that's belonging to the private sector, trying to control your media appearances, and painting the opposition media as illegitimate nevertheless don't amount to taking over industry and the media entirely. So President Obama isn't really a socialist.

There's certainly something to the argument in this email, but it's not as straightforward as that, and there are ways that I think it's fair to describe President Obama's views as socialist.

1. A committed socialist might think we should engage pragmatically in incremental steps to reach an eventual socialist goal. If President Obama has a socialist theory of justice (as I think he does) and a pragmatic and incrementalist approach to realizing it (as I also think he does), then he's picking his battles so he can do as much as he can to move in that direction without trying to accomplish too much in a way that will end up just frustrating his final goals too much. So this at most shows that he's at most a pragmatic, incrementalist socialist. But hardly anyone who is informed and honest is claiming that he's more than that, and lots of people are claiming exactly that.

2. There are also distinguishable components of socialism. President Obama might have a socialist theory of justice in terms of what counts as a just, equal world without having a socialist view of who should own property or the means of production. I'm not sure what his view is about the ideal government and ownership of the means of production. So I don't know if he's a socialist in that sense, although at most he'd be a pragmatist, incrementalist socialist about such matters. But he could be completely a capitalist about those issues and be a socialist about justice in thinking there's a moral imperative to equalize pay and benefits of employees to a point where complete equalization is an eventual goal. That's a socialist theory of justice, and the way he uses the term 'just' makes the most sense if he thinks merely unfair or unequal distribution is unjust (as opposed to saying that it's unjust to implement policies or practices that ensure such unequal distribution, which a much greater number of people would agree with). Since he does seem, to my mind, to hold such a view, I do think he's working from a socialist theory of justice.

Surely there's a sense in which Obama isn't a socialist, but there's also a sense in which he arguably might well be.

Peter Ludlow on Wikileaks

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Philosopher Peter Ludlow presents the motivation behind Wikileaks to show that ways to resist it won't work, because they assume things that aren't true about why people are doing this. It's basically absolutism about the availability of information. The principle is that if there's information, then we should all have access to it. It's not remotely about calling people toward being more accountable or trying to promote a particular political agenda (aside from the absolutism about freedom of information, anyway, which is a political agenda).

The argument reminds me an awful lot of the kind of mindset Michael Crichton was arguing against with Jurassic Park. It's absolutism about the dissemination of information, without regard to any moral principles about whether it's good to do so or even wrong to do so in particular cases. In that way, it's highly parallel to those who pursue scientific research merely because they can and regardless of any of the ethical objections to doing so.

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