How Socialism Fails
The End of Socialism, James R. Otteson
By BRADLEY J. BIRZER
James R. Otteson, the Thomas W. Smith Presidential Chair in Business Ethics at Wake Forest University, possesses one of the greatest minds in defense of classical liberalism in the modern era. I say that as a friend but even more as an admirer. He has authored two definitive works on Adam Smith, a clear rebuttal of the ethics of Peter Singer, and now a crucial attack on the “near-socialist” theories so pervasive throughout the world today.
Socialism not only fails to work in reality, notes Otteson, it is also malicious in its ethics and morality—even if most of its current adherents believe themselves humane and well-intentioned. At its core, “socialism is a difficult and costly system of political economy that the specific conceptions of its moral values do not justify.” This, he continues, “constitutes the end of socialism, then, in both senses of the word end: an attempt to implement it will inevitably end in heavy costs to its community, and the philosophical case for socialism ends in failure.”
Otteson cites the historical examples of the USSR, Cuba, North Korea, and China. Following the horrors of 20th-century socialism in its various communist and fascistic forms, very few respectable politicians in the West today fully embrace the title “socialist.” Yet whatever the problems of socialism, many of its ideals linger, often taking weird, bizarre, and unpredictable forms. As the ex-socialist James Burnham predicted in the 1940s, we can no longer separate the capitalist from the socialist, the labor union from the corporation, the business sector from the political one. Rather we have become, to varying degrees, subjects of the managerial state. Though Otteson does not cite Burnham directly, the man’s ghost haunts this book.
Recognizing the nuances of a post-Berlin Wall world, Otteson labels the two predominant positions in the Western world “socialist-inclined” and “capitalist-inclined.” Socialist-inclined persons not only see centralization as economically effective and morally just, they also tend to “distrust granting local people or communities a wide scope to organize themselves according to their own lights.” While they might not despise individual liberty, they prefer centralized decision-making and, critically, they prize equality as the highest good.
One of this book’s greatest strengths is its author’s unwillingness to counter ideology with ideology. Otteson cites his own authorities, but he takes those with whom he disagrees very seriously. So, on the one hand, he borrows liberally from the ideas of Aristotle, the Scottish philosophers Adam Ferguson and David Hume, American radical individualist Albert Jay Nock, and the German free-market social thinker Wilhelm Röpke. On the other hand, he treats the theories of progressive and socialist philosophers such as John Rawls, Cass Sunstein, Martha Nussbaum, G.A. Cohen, and Peter Singer with the utmost respect.
In his writing style, Otteson carries the reader through his own way of thinking. We see not just his propositions and conclusions; the reader actually travels along with the author on his own intellectual journey. Otteson has too much respect for the intellectual process, his craft, and the human person to manipulate any of it. He offers everything he has—and it is considerable—for his art.
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Is socialism morally superior to other systems of political economy, even if it faces practical difficulties?
In The End of Socialism, James R. Otteson explores socialism as a system of political economy – that is, from the perspectives of both moral philosophy and economic theory.
He examines the exact nature of the practical difficulties socialism faces, which turn out to be greater than one might initially suppose, and then asks whether the moral ideals it champions – equality, fairness, and community – are important enough to warrant attempts to overcome these difficulties nonetheless, especially in light of the alleged moral failings of capitalism.
The result is an examination of the “end of socialism,” both in the sense of the moral goals it proposes and in the results of its unfolding logic.
- Ideal for classroom use in courses on political philosophy, political economy, and the history and philosophy of economics
- Fuses moral philosophy and economics, utilizing both in assessing socialism
- A reassessment of capitalism and socialism that is particularly timely after the recent economic downturn