The Dog We Feed

The most eloquently stated argument against the centrally planned economies of socialism that I’ve come across is expressed by Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. 

In The Fatal Conceit: Errors in Socialism, Hayek lays out the case that the journey from small tribal life to that of the extended relationships of states and global trade played out over the millennia of human history while our cultural norms, traditions and institutions evolved to support it. And while our own internal tendencies, dictated by a biology designed for tribal life, remained the same, these external evolutions, formed in response to our changing environment, are what is truly essential to the order required for us to support such a broad and complex domain.

More-over, these evolutions were not consciously constructed by an authority of reason. But instead they evolved, as evolution does, as a collection of emergent properties.

One of these cultural evolutions was property. Along with others like money, trade, the state and organized militaries, property and the laws that protected it and instilled value in the pursuit of it were the precursors to the growth that lifted mankind out of subsistence living through the function of capitalism.

Socialism, on the other hand, represents a base tribal instinct to distribute property evenly amongst the tribe that simply won’t scale. Our vast and complex populations and diverse regional characteristics make the centrally planned distribution of resources impossible as no top down entity can ever match the information sharing capability of free market functions. And while it may feel intellectually satisfying to insist on equality of outcomes, it doesn’t work. And history, data and first-person experience support this. While no historical instances, data or experience support the idea of sustainable socialism, at scale.

Hayek wrote this in 1988. He saw a popular culture intoxicated by the ideas of socialism. And he warned that it was a sort of hubris, a fatal conceit actually, to believe that we could reason and plan our way beyond the norms and institutions that were developed through human experience since the dawn of our existence.

Hayek’s argument is brilliantly stated. I do it little justice in the few paragraphs above. And though there’s clearly room to debate Hayek in a world that transmits and processes information beyond anything Hayek may have anticipated when he claimed that the critical gap that central planned economies suffered from was a lack of information, I don’t intend to. Instead, I aim to seed another discussion with the sort of complex and intelligent thinking Hayek modeled to defend capitalism against our strong biological tendency for equal distributions.

There are two dogs in the fight for the soul of any conservative movement. The first fights for liberty, self-determination and the preservation of the norms and institutions that serve as a check against the tides of socialism. The second is a type of nativist rot that rails against the horrors of those beyond our tribe that are coming to take our blood and soil. As the adage goes, the one that wins the fight, is the one you feed.

The Trump campaign was launched with a nativist rant against Mexico that lost him corporate sponsorships and his role on the Apprentice. He campaigned on chants to build a wall. And last week he tweeted to congresswomen “who came from countries whose governments are a mess” to “go back” to where they came from.

The latter dog has been well fed. That dog, as it also taps deeply into our tribal tendencies, grows strong quickly and easily. And it does not play well with the types of intelligent nuanced discussions required to defend capitalism, free markets or anything else that sustains a complex and integrated world.

We’ve spent a few hundred years evolving as a culture in America to be able to see people of different race, religion, origins, gender and sexual orientation as equal before the law and imbued with the same inalienable rights as the white male landowners who made the original promise. And as Hayek states in his argument against centrally planned economies, these changes did not come through planning. They came because a diverse society, built on the ideals of equality and inalienable rights cannot exist if those rights are unevenly distributed. Either the principles fall or the inequality in the eyes of the state does. And we have and presumably will be willing to fight our bloodiest of wars to decide which survives.

My strongest condemnation of the Trump campaign and now the Trump administration is that it’s fed the dog that’s easy to feed. The one we’ve dared not feed for a long time because a disciplined, service driven leader sees that it has no long term end because it takes us back to our base, tribal origins that are incompatible with a modern, diverse society of integrated culture, justice, trade and competition.

There is no end game that serves our nativist tendencies. We are centuries beyond where that could be remotely possible. And even then, it was just a dot on the arc towards an eventual end with harder, more complex but plentiful outcomes.

In the wake of the firestorm over the President’s weekend tweet’s, some members of the party have attempted to shift the discussion away from the overtly racist message and  towards that of capitalism vs. socialism. And while I applaud the notion that perhaps, they may have found their way back to their party’s best purpose, they’re going to find out how hard it is to change dogs in the middle of the fight.

Especially when you’ve starved the right one. And fed the wrong one so well.

Categories: Politics

Tagged as: ,

3 replies »

  1. We could probably go around and around on this, as others have for over a century.

    I think my truest objection to capitalism and so-called free markets arises from an issue you allude to in a different context, that of scalability. Briefly, when corporations like Facebook can shrug off a 5 billion dollar fine as “cost of doing business” how can law be enforced? Or, similarly, when companies (or municipalities) can pollute on a scale endangering the planet, what recourse does the private citizen have?

    I don’t know and won’t argue that “socialism” is the answer to these ills. But perhaps an argument could be made that when corporations grow beyond a certain point terms like “socialism” and “capitalism” suffer shifts in meaning that must necessarily change the argument.



  2. I have no issue with property. Where I lean toward socialism is food, water, shelter and healthcare. We have a responsibility individually and collectively to care for the poor and less fortunate that is rooted in love, abundance and generosity rather than fear, scarcity and selfishness. These are places where legislating morality is beneficial, in my opinion.

    Your fan,


  3. “Socialism, on the other hand, represents a base tribal instinct to distribute property evenly amongst the tribe that simply won’t scale.”

    No. Just… no!

    That is a description of communism– not socialism. Communism– not socialism– is the opposite of capitalism, and its theoretical value evaporates in the real world. It chafes me to see yet another otherwise cogent argument conflate the two terms.

    All of those criticisms above are spot-on… if the terminology is right. They are superbly crafted arguments against communism.

    Socialism does not rely on a command economy. Sure, it does rely on significant taxation, but that’s a different argument entirely. Communism does rely on a command economy, and it does (theoretically) seek to distribute property evenly among the populace. Socialism’s aim is to provide a minimum standard, to ensure that basic needs are fulfilled. It does not seek to destroy the rights of private property or to satisfy, as you put it, “our strong biological tendency for equal distributions.” Capitalism is easily defended against that tendency.

    But that tendency does not illustrate the motivation behind socialism, and capitalism doesn’t need defense against socialism– they can work hand-in-hand. The true argument there is a matter of *degree*, both in terms of how far we want to go in providing a basic life for our fellow human beings, and in terms of the proper balance of managing a capitalistic economy.