Socialism Can Help Contain Humanity’s Worst Impulses and Encourage Our Best

Many critics of socialism claim that our nature as humans is too flawed and selfish for socialism to work. They’re getting things exactly backward. We need socialism to protect against human cruelty and encourage human kindness.

If we were angels, replacing capitalist institutions with socialist ones would be unnecessary. (Pornyot Palilai / Getty Images)

Capitalism leads to tremendous amounts of poverty, economic inequality, and financial stress. It disempowers the vast majority of the working-age population, who have no realistic choice except to spend half of their waking hours at workplaces where they take orders from unelected bosses. Outside of the workplace, decisions with major impact on society as a whole are made by CEOs only accountable to shareholders. And wild divergences in wealth turn the idea that all citizens will exert the same level of influence on the political process into a bad joke.

Surely we can do better. Why can’t we collectively own society’s productive resources, meet everyone’s material needs, and create a more meaningful kind of democracy? In other words, as the late Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen once put it, “Why not socialism?”

A popular answer is that it would go against human nature. It’s so popular, in fact, that many people unthinkingly accept this idea as “common sense.” On closer inspection, though, the Human Nature Objection gets things exactly backward.

We’re Not Angels

Some critics of socialism think that redistributing the private property owned by wealthy capitalists would be theft — let’s call this the Moral Objection. Others raise technical concerns about whether society-wide economic planning would be feasible. How would planners gather enough information to know what to produce to meet the preferences of consumers? Let’s call this the Technical Objection.

Socialists counter the Moral Objection with an obvious argument about the comparative immorality of allowing wealthy capitalists to continue exploiting the vast majority of the global population. The Technical Objection is taken under more serious consideration, leading some socialists, for example, to leave room for markets in their vision of socialism. Perhaps we could nationalize the “commanding heights” of the economy while retaining a market sector of competing worker cooperatives.

But whatever you make of these debates, the objection that seems to give some people otherwise sympathetic to left politics the most pause is neither moral nor technical but psychological.

Socialism might be fine if we were angels, these critics think, but we aren’t. Our nature isn’t altruistic and cooperative. It’s selfish and cruel. Trying to make us what we would need to be for a cooperative economy to work is like trying to keep a tiger in your house and feed it a vegan diet. It won’t end well.

The Human Nature Objection has more rhetorical force than the Moral Objection or the Technical Objection. Rather than screeching that the rich have a right to their hoarded wealth or raising logistical problems that socialists think we can solve, critics who press the psychological case against socialism can posture as would-be socialists who’ve outgrown their naivete. “Hey,” they can say, “I wish we could have socialism too. It’s tragic that we can’t. But that’s life.”

It doesn’t help that many socialists have seemed unsure about how to respond to this objection. Some spend a lot of time insisting that humans really are kind and cooperative by their nature. There’s surely some truth to this. The problem is that it’s implausible that it’s the whole truth.

Human psychology is far too messy and complicated for simple generalizations to capture the complete picture. The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume objected to the idea that everyone goes to either heaven or hell when they die, on the grounds that most of us “float between vice and virtue”:

Suppose you went all over the place with the intention of giving a good supper to the righteous, and a thorough beating to the wicked: you would often be at a loss how to choose, finding that the merits and the demerits of most men and women scarcely add up to righteousness or to wickedness.

Some socialists have thought that the balance of selfishness or altruism in our nature is historically contingent — that what comes to the fore is largely a result of what social circumstances we find ourselves in. Create better social circumstances, and you’ll get a better version of human nature.

There’s probably something to this idea. People fighting over a small number of lifeboats might be willing to treat each other better in happier circumstances. It’s plausible that meeting everyone’s material needs and giving everyone an equal say will lead to better results than a world of dog-eat-dog competition.

But how far does this stretch? The Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, for example, confidently predicted that a “new socialist man” would emerge as society transformed. That’s not what happened in Cuba or other state socialist experiments in the twentieth century. Maybe a better version of socialism would produce better results. But what if it doesn’t?

As socialists, we’re trying to convince people to take a leap into a new set of social arrangements — as different from capitalism as capitalism is from feudalism. That can be a scary proposition. It’s harder to make our case if we’re asking people to bet the farm on hypothetical changes to human psychology that we can’t prove will happen.

Fortunately, we don’t have to.

Angels Wouldn’t Need Socialism

The exact degree to which human nature is inherently selfish or selfless, and how much that depends on our circumstances, is a complicated empirical question that touches on fields ranging from sociology to evolutionary psychology. It can’t be answered from the armchair.

But whatever our degree of selfishness, it’s not a reason to throw up our hands and accept capitalism as the best humanity can do. Instead, it’s a reason to oppose capitalism and strive for collective and democratic institutions that can limit the damage that cruel people are in a position to do to one another.

The core of socialism is economic democracy. Whether we’re talking about decision-making in an individual workplace or bigger decisions with a broad impact on the course of society, socialists think that everyone who’s impacted should have a say.

One of the reasons that’s so important is precisely that giving anyone too much power over their fellow human beings creates the danger that their power will be abused. No system is perfect, of course, but the best recipe for minimizing the possibility of abuse as much as possible is to spread around power — political and economic — as much as possible.

That’s part of why democratic socialists reject the idea that an authoritarian one-party state can be trusted to act on behalf of the people. And it’s an excellent reason to reject capitalism — a system where there’s no pretense that economic power is in the hands of the people rather than whoever happens to have enough money to buy up the means of production.

If humans were all selfless angels, we wouldn’t need to worry about them treating each other the way Jeff Bezos treats the workers at his warehouses or the way Harvey Weinstein treated aspiring actresses. We wouldn’t need to worry about what will become of families who fall into poverty, because we’d trust that people who have more will always act individually to offer a helping hand. We wouldn’t need to worry about the wealthy abusing their political influence, because we’d trust them to take everyone’s interests into account.

If we were angels, in other words, replacing capitalist institutions with socialist ones would be unnecessary. But we’re deeply flawed human beings — capable of moral greatness, to be sure, but also capable of all kinds of cruelty. And that’s exactly why we need socialism.