Freedom and Socialism

“How can the freedom of citizens be secured in a socialist state?” asked political theorist William Connolly. In Free to Choose, Milton Friedman makes an automatic connection between the economic freedom and political freedom, implying that socialism by its very existence denies freedom to its citizens. Economic freedom, as defined by Friedman, is laissez—faire capitalism or market activity with very minimal government assistance or regulation. Political freedom, as defined by Friedman, includes the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and the right to vote. As a liberal egalitarian, I do not disagree with the basic definition of political freedom which Friedman advocates. However, Friedman asserts that socialist economic systems, whether they are Soviet-style system, social democratic systems, or even liberal welfare states, undermine political freedom. I find this assertion problematic not only because it does not follow logically, but also because it is a commonly held assumption

The common connection between economic socialism and political authoritarianism is a remnant of the Cold War. Our main point of reference is the Soviet Union (though this may be short-sighted), where one could admit that political freedom was heavily repressed. But it does not follow that the lack of freedom (particularly civil and political freedom) in the Soviet Union was due to its economic system. Instead, it was likely its authoritarian single party political structure. While I may be myself oversimplifying, this fear of socialism in the name of civil and political freedom is a major part of the American ideological narrative.

However, this is not to say that we should not be worried about the structure of socialism. As with capitalism (democracy, liberalism, etc.) some forms are better than others. Likewise, certain precautions need to be taken against all forms of government in order to ensure civil and political liberty. The fact that many socialist regimes have been authoritarian is clearly something which socialists should be worried about, as is Connolly – though this does not mean that they should necessarily give up on socialism.

William Connolly makes four recommendations about how socialist states can secure freedom while maintaining a commitment to socialism. First, schools and other institutions of learning “must be subject less to state control and more to the control of local communities and teachers.” He argues that by diffusing educational authority, there will be a greater amount of diverse and critical thought. It also prevents the state from using the educational system as merely a propaganda tool.

Second, it is important that “publishing houses, the press, and other media retain some independence from state control.” Such protections are needed to keep the state from manipulating the public for the states-sake. State-control of media outlets is not a socialist program, but rather a program utilized by authoritarian governments to undermine dissent.

Third, an independent judiciary is “imperative” for a socialist state, in the way that it is vital in any regime. Connelly says that a significant difference between Richard Nixon and Joseph Stalin was the existence in the United States of a judiciary which “was relatively immune from direct executive control.” Now, courts are still imperfect (there is no shortage of examples from American history), however Connelly could more generally have said that what is needed is a meaningful system of checks and balances. A strong and independent judiciary would be an important element of a significant checks and balances scheme, which would also require a strong legislature with the ability to represent the will of the people apart from the disposition of the executive.

The forth recommendation that Connelly makes is that the right of workers to strike should be maintained. The right to strike would ensure that the interests of worker are not ignored by a regime the is supposedly organized to benefit the workers.
In many ways, Connelly is calling for a socialist state with republican protections. In many ways, Marxist theory provides an economic critique which touches on politics but lacks a theory of regime types. This may not be fatal to Marxist theory, but is has complicated effort to establish socialist states.

The separation of powers, the division of powers, the protection of individual rights against government intrusion, and the rule of law are in no way capitalist ideas. One could argue that capitalist regimes have equally undermined such principles. The failure of socialist regimes in the late 20th century has cast doubt upon the prospect for socialism. However, we should not fall for the analysis of Friedman and other libertarians who blame the negatives of socialism upon its economic theory; rather we should look at the failure to establish sound political principles. These principles are under attack today in many places (Russia, Pakistan, and even the United States) where socialism does not exist is a serious way.

By claiming that capitalism produces political freedom ignores the important role of constitutional democratic government, which I would claim is the root of American freedom, despite capitalism, not because of it. We are willing to ignore those protections in the name of capitalism, much in the way that we are willing to ignore them in the pursuit of empire. John Rawls argues against laissez-faire capitalism and welfare-state capitalism largely on the grounds that the inequalities resulting from it undermine the basis for equal citizenship.

In 1977, Connelly asked “is it possible, possible even at the level of theoretical speculation, to institutionalize such a synthesis of socialist and liberal ideals?” He is less than optimistic about the possibility. While I am hesitant to place hope in this as a political reality, theoretically such a synthesis may be the direction that I am heading in. Both liberal egalitarians and proponents of market socialism seem to also be heading along a similar course.

Connolly, W. E. (1977). A note on freedom under socialism. Political Theory, 5(4), 461-472.

Friedman, M., & Friedman, R. D. (1990). Free to choose : A personal statement (1st Harvest/HBJ ed.). San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Rawls, J., & Kelly, E. (2001). Justice as fairness : A restatement. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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Charity Vs. Justice

It is often said that social justice is about forcing others to be charitable. I should let you in on a secret: I do not give a crap about whether you are charitable or not. If I was trying to force you to be charitable, I would be doing it to force you to be righteous, but social justice is not about whether you are just but whether our society is just (sorry, not everything is about you).

Now saying that I am trying to force you to be charitable, is a clever (though repeating the same stupid arguments over and over againn sort of undermines the whole clever thing) rhetorical trick. If I am forcing you to be righteous, I am forcing you to be saved…I am carrying out Satan’s plan. But, I am in not all that interested in the afterlife. I am hoping to make this world a better place to live.

Now, the prospect of a just world scares many religious people. I cannot be sure the reason for this, since the prospect of peace and equality does not contradict my religion. However, I think many worry that if we do not have inequality and misery people will not have a reason to seek out religion. Look at Europe, the well-being of social democracy has led to a people generally uninteresting in religion (though I think this mostly has to do with the history of religion on the continent). Yet, if your religion can only sustain itself through human suffering, this seems to be a religion that I should oppose rather than embrace.

One reason that I am generally uninterested in discussions about private donations versus government effort is that private donations are more about the giver than they are about
the needy. The change you put into the red kettle outside of WalMart this holiday season was more about the warm fuzzy it gave you or the sense of guilt it delayed than it was about those it will help. It will only help a small few and only for a short period of time. This is not to say that it is bad to give to charitable organizations. In fact such organizations do much good, particularly when we consider the rather pathetic and meager effort we make as a society.

The aim of social justice is not to “help poor people” (something we all think is good) but to minimize inequality and poverty. Private donations may well help poor people, but they cannot and do not address the deeper problems of poverty and inequality. Now the political structure of the United States has largely undermined the effectiveness of most government efforts to address poverty and inequality, so this is not a defense of government programs as they now exist, but only collective efforts can address the issues of poverty and inequality.

Many will say that my approach is inconsistent with Mormon approaches to these issues. That may be the case. This has led me to a recent epiphany. I may belong to the same Church as those who think that there Social Darwinism is rooted in some interpretation of the pre-existence, but I do not share the same religion.

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Care and Obedience (Mormonism and Feminist Theory)

The care perspective was first identified by Carol Gilligan who argued that there are two moral voices: justice and care. Justice, the masculine approach to morality, focuses on universal abstract principles such as equality, impartiality, and universality. Within a Mormon context, I think the principle of agency, as well as obedience would be added to this list.

The classic justice perspective is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. The categorical imperative asserts that we should act according to principles that we would want to be followed as universal laws. In other words, when I identify the principle of a given act, I must ask whether I would want all people to follow that principle in all cases. If the answer is in the affirmative, then that is a morally justified act. If the answer is negative, then I should not act upon such principles.

The categorical imperative in not particularly sexist (sexism violates the “humanity as an ends” principle of the categorical imperative), but it represents a type of abstraction which removes moral judgments from real world relationships and conditions. This is of interest to feminists because women not only value relationships but also because they often are burden with responsibilities which do not allow them to ignore those relationships. These are primarily dependency relationships where some children, the disabled, and other rely on the other for survival.

Additionally, and most problematic for feminists, Kant views actions driven by feelings or inclination as insufficient. In order for actions to be considered moral, they must be based on abstract principle. Yet, in dependency relationships, whether it is caring for a child or an elderly parent, the obligation to care is often driven by emotional sentiment such as love or even pity and not so much “out of principle.”

This marginalization of emotion in moral decision making is picked up by Lawrence Kohlberg in his psychological analysis of moral decision making. In his hierarchy of moral approaches, Kohlberg favors those that fit the Kantian model of impartiality and places decisions that take relationships and emotions into account lower on the hierarchy. Gilligan responds to Kohlberg, and indirectly to Kant, by claiming that the care perspective is a different (and equally valid) approach to morality. Care is not a lesser approach to morality.

Marilyn Friedman argues that Gilligan makes a mistake in accepting the care/justice dichotomy. For Friedman, care and justice are essentially the same things. They are not expressing different moral perspectives, but instead they both are expressing a deep commitment to other individuals. While they may at times be expressed in different vocabularies and styles, they represent the same moral perspective. While I feel that there may be a distinct concepts of justice and care, I agree with Friedman that Gilligan mistakenly sets the two concepts up as opposing forces. Instead they should be viewed as going hand in hand because they are both key to social cooperation at any number of levels.

Nel Noddings is among the first to introduce care as a “feminine” approach to moral theory. For Noddings, care involves two aspects: caring for others and being cared for. Not only should we care for others (a deontological obligation) but we need to be cared for. In this way, care is a central, rather than peripheral, component of moral life. Noddings, a philosopher of education, uses the idea of care to place focus on caring relationships between adults (parents and teachers) and young children. Joan Tronto is critical of Noddings for placing too much emphasis on the family as the site of care by ignoring institutional forms of care and the need for rights protections within both familial and institutional care relationships.

Both Virginia Held and Michael Slote advance the ethic of care as a viable stand alone alternative to deontology, utilitarianism, and social contract theory. In both of their approaches, they take a rather Aristotelian direction. In many ways the ethic of care has a certain affinity for Aristotelian virtue ethics because both value emotional feeling and life experience. Held and Slote diverge from both Gilligan and Noddings by rejecting the gender-based usage of the care concept. Where Gilligan and Noddings treat the concept of care as a predominantly feminine attribute. While traditionally women have been viewed as the caring and the care-givers, Slote tries to break care from this secondary role by arguing that the ethic of care is actually preferable to the other approaches. Tronto’s political conception of care likewise argues that care is a sound basis for egalitarian politics and not just a feminist approach to ethics.


Noddings highlights the story of Abraham and Isaac as an example of how the justice perspective, particularly the emphasis on obedience to abstract rules, can blind us to lived morality. In this case, Abraham obeys an unseen and abstracted God and places said god above his son and wife. Isn’t great that Abraham loved God so much that he would even sacrifice his son? Well, from the ethic of care the answer would be: heck no.

Now one may say that I am unfairly condemning Abraham, but keep in mind that I do not think the story actually took place. It is a figurative story meant to teach obedience…a rather problematic conception of obedience.

Continue reading

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No Merit Before God

“There is no merit before God. Nor should there be merit before Him. True community does not count the merits of its members. Merit is a concept rooted in sin, and well disposed of”. 

I posted part of the above quote as my Facebook status a few Sundays ago. This is the trouble I cause when my wife is called to substitute in Primary.

The status and the responses resulted in a response by Eric Nielsen at Small and Simple.

I wanted to follow up on the idea of merit.

This quote is from the 1942 senior thesis of the philosopher John Rawls. It is a theology thesis. His original career plan had been to go into the clergy. Over the next four years, while serving in World War II, he would lose his faith and turn to secular moral philosophy. I am grateful for that turn. His thesis, along with some related essays has recently been published by Harvard University Press.

The thesis is still a senior thesis and no necessarily a great work of theology or philosophy. Yet, it fascinates me because it shows the theological roots of what will later become one of the greatest works in secular moral and political philosophy…A Theory of Justice.

I have long found similarities between Rawls’ treatment of desert (whether deserve and therefore have moral claim on social status) and Hugh Nibley’s view that the lunch is always free because we are not responsible for having lunch…God is. Nibley condemned the dominance of Social Darwinism in our thought and Rawls did the same thing.

For Rawls, the problem mostly arises when we view ourselves as having merit.

“The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit . . . . The more he examines his life, the more he looks into himself with complete honesty, the more clearly he perceives that what he has is a gift. Suppose he was an upright man in the eyes of society, then he will now say to himself: “So you were an educated man, yes, but who paid for your education; so you were a good man and upright, yes, but who taught you your good manners and so provided you with good fortune that you did not need to steal; so you were a man of a loving disposition and not like the hard-hearted, yes, but who raised you in a good family, who showed you care and affection when you were young so that you would grow up to appreciate kindness – must you not admit that what you have, you have received? Then be thankful and cease your boasting”.”

Let’s compare this take on merit with that expresses by Lehi in 2 Nephi Chapter 2:

8. Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.
While we may need to take upon ourselves certain covenants and ordinances, none of this leads to us having merit unto salvation. It is only through the merits of Jesus Christ.

Yet, we want to be deemed with merit ourselves. I must be doing better than others. I am working so hard. I must, therefore, be a more valiant servant.

Now, many are doing good. Many of you are the most loving people I know of. However, we all must rely on His merits for salvation. To recognize this is an important step. The humility which comes from recognizing our nothingness also allows us to follow Him.

Some people equate the nothingness of man with the idea that humans are evil. We can be, that is for sure. But we are naturally good. Yet, we live in a world that entices us to be carnal and greedy. Let us reject that world and seek after Him who is good.

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The Holy Ghost of Tom Joad

Author’s note: I would like to dedicate this post to Stephen George, a great teacher and Steinbeck scholar at BYU-Idaho. I co-taught an Ethics course with Stephen at BYU-I. It was the first class I taught in Rexburg. It was his last. His cancer had returned after going into remission. He passed away in November 2006.

I love The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. When I taught American Heritage at BYU and BYU-Idaho, I enjoyed showing the movie version along with A More Perfect Union and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The Grapes of Wrath is a very important work of literature within the American social justice tradition. The film strongly portrays the devastating impact of poverty on the family. It also masterfully depicts the concepts of alienation and exploitation.

Near the end of the film, Tom Joad gives a famous speech as he bids farewell to his mother.

I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

This message inspired Bruce Springsteen to invoke the image of Tom Joad in a song about the struggle for social justice.

While Springsteen’s folk hymn provides a reflective tone, Rage Against The Machine reworked his song into a battle cry.

We often talk about the prompting s of the “still small voice” when it comes to the Holy Ghost. I think the Holy Ghost of Tom Joad comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the reverent tones of Bruce Springsteen. Other times, it is the screams of RATM. Either way, let us follow those promptings by looking out for the hungry and the oppressed.

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Ezra Taft Benson Conservatism

I am developing a number of models of Mormon political conservatism. The first model that I am looking to describe in Ezra Taft Benson conservatism. This is not just the political conservatism of President/Elder Ezra Taft Benson, but a broader type of conservatism that is symbolize by the thought of Benson.
Below is the start of the description. I am trying come up with a brief and concise definition of this model. My hope is to have a basic description and not to paint it as good or bad. What am I missing? What aspects have I worded in a misleading way? I fully recognize that I have a bias here.

Ezra Taft Benson conservatism follows a strand of Constitutionalism which associates the U.S. Constitution with small government. All federal programs are suspect, if not some sort of communism. The American Project is a Christian one. There is also a “camel’s nose in the tent” approach to welfare programs and regulation. All programs are the start towards communism.
While federal intrusion is looked down up, a return to practices such as school prayer, are seen as highly desirable. In this sense, it is not libertarian, but arch-conservative. Abortion, gay rights, and other aspect of social liberalism would heavily opposed.

Some elements of ETB conservatism are rather distant from current debates. In particular, ETB was heavily connected to anti-Communism. As a result, Benson heavily favored the military annihilation of the Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and China. While, John Birch Society conservatism has long loathes international organizations like the United Nation. This loathing is partially rooted in a concern about the loss of national sovereignty, but also rooted in a concern that international cooperation might weaken anti-communistic resolve.

More recent versions of John Birch Society conservatism, both the society itself and the Ron Paul “revolution,” have reverted back to more isolationist conceptions of foreign policy. This form of isolationism was more prominent amongst conservatives prior to WWII. ETB conservatism takes a very serious interest in the idea of the “Constitution hanging by a thread.” Likewise, American Exceptionalism takes a very nationalistic form amongst ETB conservatives.

ETB conservatism can be found in a number of segments. Of course, there is the political and religious writings of Elder Benson and President Benson. These range from his speeches on the 1960s conservative circuit to his talks in General Conference. The works of Cleon Skousen also fall within this model . The Naked Communist, The Naked Capitalist, and The 5000 Year Leap would be primary examples, though Skousens lectures and articles are plentiful.

Today, Glenn Beck, who is very much directly inspired by Skousen (by his own admission), is the most active element of ETB conservatism. Now, Beck brings a rather lively performance to this style of conservatism, but the content of it is clearly with ETB conservatism.

I really am approaching this with my political scientist hat on. All comments are welcome. I will likely have questions for you as well.

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I have recently read two posts on testimony the I have loved:

Ronan’s beautiful “On these three thing hangs my testimony.”

And Enoch’s thought provoking post on sharing “nuancimony.”

In honor of these posts (and the addition of Enoch as a permablogger to FPR), I share with you this testimony:

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