My previous blog on socialism argued for a broader, more up-to-date understanding of socialism that couldn’t be so easily confused with communism or some of socialism’s more historically traditional strategies that emerged during the early 20th century. Consider that blog an excavation exercise allowing for more constructive, practical ideas.
This blog will attempt to make good on this constructive aim by negotiating the two poles defining the contention around socialism—namely, private vs. public ownership.
Ownership is itself a broad (and vague) concept that pulls on certain historically entrenched ideas arising during the modern natural law tradition of the 17th century. John Locke, perhaps the most well-known of this tradition, is often cited for his thesis on how private ownership obtains as a natural right due to the fruits of one’s labor. I will return to this.
For now, let us ask in view of socialism: Is there a way to balance what I called socialism’s motivating aim to correct inequality by means of central oversight of its people, on the one hand, with individual freedom, on the other?
What Can Be Privately Owned?
There are many complexities to what ownership might mean; nonetheless, basic to the idea of ownership is how an individual can claim a thing or entity to be his or her own. “Private” can be understood as something that belongs to a particular person; and it can also be understood in terms of privation. “Privation” here means that by virtue of one person claiming ownership of a thing, it deprives another person or persons from owning or using that same thing.
Locke offered the famous thesis that what makes something naturally one’s own is how one’s labor mixes with and improves something. A classic example of this is the improvement of land (e.g. fences, irrigation canals, etc.). Land is a rather controversial example in my mind, so let’s consider fashioning a tree into a chair.
On Locke’s view, the labor expended in order to make the chair means that the chair is one’s own. It is due to one’s labor that wood has been transformed into a useable or exchangeable item. In economic terms, the chair is one’s wage; it is because one labored to make a chair that one is entitled to the chair or its value when exchanged.
To sum up this account, I’ll refer to these goods of use and exchange as the goods of production. These goods are the things we produce by our labor in order to obtain the things we desire or need.
To recall, a typical criticism of socialism is that its commitment to central oversight compromises or violates the entitlement to one’s produce, which is claimed in the name of the state or the public good. This can occur directly through seizure of property or indirectly through taxation.
But perhaps there is a moderate way of understanding how central oversight can operate for socialism?
Should Some Goods Be Publicly Owned?
Another way of thinking about the goods of production is that they relate to and intimately inform our respective conceptions of personal space and time—our preferences, our desires, our plans.
Yet in order for this personal sphere to be viable in any sense, it assumes that the person is in some sense capable of doing what he or she desires. To be capable means that a person has access to those things that are required to produce the goods of production.
Making a chair from a tree will involve tools (assuming one cannot make them for oneself), access to the land on which the tree grows, roads, transportation, and a marketplace. Depending on the context, the pre-requisites for production could be quite lengthy.
But perhaps we can identify a short list of things that are essential to any kind of production. Such goods are those to which we would expect each and every member of society to have access in order to pursue what they want.
These kinds of goods can be thought of as enabling the basic capabilities of a person which no individual can provide for him- or herself.
Can you imagine being able to pursue what you want without adequate health? Without adequate knowledge or imagination? Can you picture being your own doctor or nurse? Or educating yourself alone, from scratch?
Access to health care and education seem to be things we would hope that each member of society has in sufficient degree and is not left to his or her own to sort out. So these kinds of goods presuppose the goods of production in the sense that we would want these goods to be available so that each of us could live according to our best potential.
Let’s call these public goods since it is in the best interest of the public—as a whole made up of individuals—to have sufficient means and opportunity to exercise and develop their capabilities.
Where socialism will differ from other political views is that public goods are best maintained and operated by central oversight, or public ownership. There are several reasons for this, but one of the most compelling has to do with integrity.
Goods that are for the benefit of the public are not goods to be exchange like the goods of production. They are not for the aim of making money but for the ends of enabling each of us so we can earn a living and flourish. When such goods are offered for profit, the end of making money tends to compromise and transform what is being offered.
If the institutions that provide these goods no longer have the public as its sole interest, then public goods can easily reduce to a means for making profit. In education, to take a well-known example, students are no longer those whose education is first, but those customers whose education comes “first” as a means to making money.
If the distinction between the goods of production—or what we can own privately—and public goods—or what is best owned publicly—is convincing, then where does that leave us with respect to socialism?
On my view: There can be a form of socialism that takes seriously the aim of minimizing inequality through public ownership (or central oversight) of those goods that each one of us requires in order to be free to pursue our individual ends.
There may be many more goods that qualify as public on this account. I am happy to leave this list incomplete and up for discussion. But a good place to start is by thinking about what essential capabilities are. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the economist Amartya Sen have done a lot of work on this front in view of what they call the Capabilities Approach.
I am a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. I was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, I am also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, I can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.