In the Valley Between Libertarianism and Communism

It seems that only extreme libertarianism and extreme communism are studied and expounded. This is an error, as there are many alternatives other than these two polar extremes.


Both libertarianism and communism have supporters and detractors, and all of these fine people have reasons for their opinions. But there does not seem to be many who think half and half of these makes a good combination. The two poles attract interest because of their implicit simplicity, and the ease with which they can be explained and justified.

Libertarianism, as we use it here, means there is minimal government interaction and individuals make agreements with one another to enable sharing of work, trade, and everything else. Communism, as we use it here, means there is maximal government interaction, and the government makes rules by which work, trade and everything else is conducted. Furthermore, libertarianism allows inequity in the extreme to exist, and communism does not allow inequity to a great degree.

Decision-making is decentralized in libertarianism, as each individual makes all the decisions involving himself. Decision-making is hierarchical in communism, as rules are made by whoever is doing governance, and then are implemented down the levels of a hierarchy. There are thousands of details in a society and this is no place to make long lists of what those details might be and how the two polar opposite social systems differ in each of them, but instead, something of a big picture needs to be obtained.

Two of the features of a socio-economic system that make a difference in its feasibility are motivation and disparity. Libertarianism tries to maximize motivation, so that each individual is responsible for his/her own future, and goes out trying to be maximally productive, thereby securing the most of society’s benefits for him/herself as possible. Communism tries to minimize disparity, so that those without much capability to fend for themselves, temporarily or permanently, are not deprived of society’s benefits. Strict libertarianism has the less capable being taken care of by the choices of the productive. Strict communism motivates the productive by training people to work hard to support the society as a whole and by exhorting individuals to be as productive as they can.

All societies from the earliest human hunter-gatherers to now have this dichotomy between self-interest and altruism, and somehow have to integrate these two impulses. All successful societies have a solution for this, and it might be a complicated one, as opposed to the simple ones included with the two polar extremes of libertarianism and communism. One solution is to have moral strictures taught to the young, with the expectation that the majority will follow them. The two categories of these moral strictures involve working hard, the motivation category, and taking care of the less capable, the compassion category. Different arrangements of these moral strictures are certainly possible and different ways of teaching them and enforcing them are possible.

One way societies enforce these moral strictures is by shaming and ostracising violators, another is by having specialists for enforcement who seek to locate those violators and pressure them or punish them. The point is not that there is only one way to have these two contrary impulses balanced in a society, but that there are many and choices can be made. There is no best way, only multiple options.

If you think of pure libertarianism and pure communism as unobtainable mountaintops, then in between these two peaks is a huge valley of possible ways of organizing a society, and all of existing and past societies are somewhere in the valley. Extremism in favor of either peak is amusing and entertaining, but doesn’t really work to solve any of a society’s problems. What needs to be done is the development of the means by which these two human impulses of self-interest, and pariochial interest, and altruism, widespread or narrowcast, can be integrated.

There is no best solution to amalgamating the two impulses, as the definition of best depends on personal preference, and that varies with the person and even with the experience of the person and even further with how the questions eliciting a preference are couched. Beyond that, the definition of best depends on what you do with the answers you get. If there is a headman, do you simply ask him/her? If there is an elite, do you simply ask them and average over the responses as much as possible. Do you ask all the adults, and define the adults as those over 30 or 40 or 50? There is simply no single answer.

Those whose thinking revolves around anecdotes can certainly find competing anecdotes to justify almost any point of view. Trying to extract some truth from anecdotes is chancy, as the anecdotes one hears is a tiny subset of possible ones, and the selection is subject to the biases of those who spread them. There is simply no simple solution to the design of a society.

Suppose you try to think of some metric to use. Perhaps persistence is a possible metric, and you want to come up with a social arrangement that will last for decades, or even centuries. You would need to consider the environment that the society lives in. Is it marginal, meaning that life-sustaining substances are in short supply, and you need to maximize the incentives for those who have the capability to obtain or produce them? Is it affluent, meaning that there is abundant life-sustaining substances, and the difficulties that arise come from the monopolization of them by those who figure out how to do that within the social arrangements that exist? You would want to find a choice nearer the peak of libertarianism for the first, marginal society, and one nearer the peak of communism for the second, affluent society. If the society drifts from marginal to affluent and back again, depending on the vicissitudes of weather, international relations, wars, external trade or what-have-you, you might need to make a flexible society.

If the society is extremely marginal, meaning there is much early death and disability due to shortages of critical substances such as food or water or shelter, the interactions of the society would have to be designed to preserve those who can obtain the most of these substances in the worst of the times, and to maintain their capability to obtain these substances both via provisioning them and by maintaining their spirits in a situation of great adversity. If the society is extremely affluent, it would be necessary to design in the moral strictures to prevent too much decadence and dissolution, which would lead to a self-limitation and social collapse. If the fluctuations were extreme, and the time scale of the fluctuations was within a human lifetime or even a fraction of it, the ability to adapt itself would have to be built in.

The design of a social arrangement can not be based in the fantasy of someone as to what they think they would like to live in. People’s specific preferences are largely conditioned by their experiences, or even what stories they were told as little children, or the preferences of those who raised them and taught them. While a person who has developed such a fantasy is not harmful, if they have the ability to influence others through persuasive writing, they could be quite misleading and if extremely persuasive, could cause social change that was not in the best interests, however that might be defined, of the society as a whole. The alternative is a careful, widely based discussion of social arrangements.

Besides persistence, living standards is often used as a metric for societies. One can define it in many ways, and many very different ways. Living standards could be the access to life-sustaining substances and activities of the majority, perhaps 90%, of the population. Living standards as a metric could be some number, denominated somehow, of the median individual or household or other living group. In defining living standards, there is a clear distinction between measuring life-sustaining substances, also known as necessities, and anything else. A society which has a huge amount of trinkets can be compared to one which has a robust inventory of food; which is the most desirable, or ‘best’, one?

Someone who is psychologically prone to altruism might seek to define living standards as the amount of life-sustaining substance received by the lowest 10% of the society, however this percentage might be defined. Someone who is psychologically prone to self-interest might seek to define living standards as the amount of trinkets, plus some measure of services if needed, of the highest 10% of the society. Neither is particularly dominating, and some middle ground can be found, but what?

People who grew up, having been deeply inculcated with some strong moral strictures, can use these moral strictures to help them define what would constitute the best possible social arrangements, and those who grew up to think of everything abstractly can continue to think of metrics and environments in which to evaluate them. This is the condition in the valley between the two extreme points of social arrangements. Once the simplicity of these unobtainable ideals is abandoned, the huge valley of options presents itself, without any clue as to where a definition of best might be found. Perhaps the first thing to do is to recognize this situation, and to realize that the deafening discussions of social arrangements can not lead to any results, as there are none. A huge number of possibilities can be utilized and comparisons are very, very difficult to find bases for.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s