After Socialism

By Postrel, Virginia | Reason, November 1999 | Go to article overview

After Socialism


Postrel, Virginia, Reason


Now the greatest threats to freedom come from those seeking stability and the "one best way."

In 1947, small group of classical liberal intellectuals gathered in the Swiss Alps to form an international society whose purpose was "to work out the principles which would secure the preservation of a free society." Named for their meeting place, the Mont Pelerin Society was the brainchild of Friedrich Hayek, the economist and social philosopher whose popular book The Road to Serfdom had been a sensation only a few years earlier. The 39 founding members included future Nobel laureate economists Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Maurice Allais (and Hayek himself) as well as such luminaries as philosophers Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi and Hayek's mentor Ludwig von Mises. Through intellectual camaraderie and rigorous discussion, they sought to achieve "the rebirth of a liberal movement in Europe" and, by implication, the rest of the world.

Fifty-two years later, both the society and the world have changed. Liberal ideals of free minds and free markets have indeed enjoyed a rebirth, not only in Europe but throughout the world. And Mont Pelerin now boasts a membership of nearly 500, including scholars, journalists, think tank researchers, and business people. In late August, those from the Americas met in Vancouver to take up the question, "Are we experiencing 'creeping socialism?'" In 1947, socialism's growth was obvious. In 1999, it was a matter of much debate. In one of the opening talks, REASON Editor Virginia Postrel argued that "socialism" is no longer the major challenge to markets and economic freedom and that classical liberal ideals face opponents with new arguments and different values. The following is a slightly adapted version of her speech.

The theme of this conference is "Are we experiencing 'creeping socialism,'" and I am supposed to provide the optimistic answer to that question. The format presumes, however, that it is the right question, which I don't believe it is.

But I'll start with the official question. It immediately raises the issue of what we mean by socialism, creeping or otherwise. As a good journalist, I'll begin with an anecdote: The week of our graduation from college in 1982, my husband (who was then my boyfriend) participated in a debate between two teams of graduating seniors. The resolution was something like, "Resolved: Socialism is better than capitalism," and Steve, not surprisingly, was on the anti-socialism side.

One of the critical terms of that debate was the definition of socialism. Steve's team argued that socialism was the Soviet Union, and therefore guilty of the terrors of the Soviet system, while the opposing side argued that socialism was Sweden, and therefore innocent of eroding political freedom. Seventeen years later, we are gathered to examine whether socialism is expanding - and I would argue that the terms of that debate suggest quite clearly that it is not. Neither the Soviet system nor the Swedish system is on the march.

That does not mean we don't have to worry about threats to liberty. It just means we don't have to worry very much about socialism. The issues that define our political, intellectual, and cultural coalitions are changing, and we ignore those changes to our peril.

Socialism is not simply a synonym for a large state or for government regulation of the economy. In both the nasty Soviet model and the nice Swedish one, it is particularly concerned with some issues and less concerned with others. It may be a fuzzy term, but, like an electron's quantum field, the fuzz forms around some places and not around others. The goal of socialism is a fairer allocation of economic resources, which its advocates often claim will also be a less wasteful one. Socialism is about who gets the goods and how. Socialism objects to markets because markets allocate resources in ways socialists believe to be unfair on both counts: both the who and the how.

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