Acton Institute Powerblog

PBR: What is Wrong with Socialism?

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

This week we introduce a new regular feature we’re calling “PowerBlog Ramblings” (PBR). The concept is simple: we’ll post a question along with some background for why that question has been selected, and various PowerBlog contributors and guests will respond to that question.

We’ve named this feature “PowerBlog Ramblings” in part as an allusion to the publication with which the institute’s namesake Lord Acton was closely associated for a time, The Rambler, which was in part aimed “to provide a medium for the expression of independent opinion on subjects of the day” on topics including “home and foreign literature, politics, science and art.”

But “ramblings” are also more informal and occasional than other sorts of discursive expression, and in that spirit we’re looking to start conversations and dialogue on questions of the day with the mix of moral, theological, and economic insight you’re used to getting from the PowerBlog. That’s why these questions and answers will sometimes be more polished and sometimes not.

We’ll have a sidebar on the blog main page where we’ll post the main PBR along with all of the posted responses. Old questions and ramblings will be accessible via an archive. As always, we welcome and value your responses. If you’ve got suggestions for questions you’d like to see us tackle, email the PowerBlog staff.

The inspiration for this week’s question is a brief exchange on Fox News Channel, which includes Bob Beckel asking, “What is wrong with some form of socialism in certain areas?” The context of the quote is a discussion about the desirability of lowering domestic economic production out of concern for environmental impact.

Others are making the argument that we ought to “shrink our economy” not out of environmental but rather cultural concerns.

So the PBR question for this week is, “What is wrong with socialism?”

Ramble on…


Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • I engage quite often with the socialist-leaning members of my evangelical church, and almost always come back to Milton Friedman’s argument that private interest is better at meeting needs and providing for the public good, than some sort of socialized policy to try and decide how to do the same. I like to use the example that because of capitalism and the marketplace we have heart valves, artificial limbs, defibrillators, and all sorts of advances in medicine. All because someone was trying to make a buck, *not* because they were primarily concerned with any humanistic value.

  • Ken

    Consider two men. Providing that neither man offers to initiate force against the other, or to take the fruit of the other’s labor via fraud, on what basis can it be said that one man’s will should prevail over the other man’s?

  • Neal Lang

    “I like to use the example that because of capitalism and the marketplace we have heart valves, artificial limbs, defibrillators, and all sorts of advances in medicine. All because someone was trying to make a buck, not because they were primarily concerned with any humanistic value.”

    While the market and profit motive may be the driving factor for the “mass distribution” of these and other medical miracles, the actual inventor or discoverer may have actually been driven more by altruistic motives than merely attempting to “make a buck”. Of course, being a capitalist does not necessitate that one must first hand-in their heart anymore than the socialists “prime directive” is the good of mankind.

  • John

    Let history speak for itself in this regard. All theoretical arguments aside: if socialism was implementable in our species, it wouldn’t have collapsed under the guise of Marxism in 1991.

  • Augie

    The inherent problem with Socialism is that ultimately, the final decision on many things lies upon someone other than yourself. Socialism takes away the concept of personal responsibility and puts it upon a community or a group of people. In that same way, the “community” is more important than “me”. Although this may be the case in some instances, you don’t have the ability to choose for yourself. The concept of free agency (freedom given to us by our creator, not government) is then removed and the freedoms upon which this great country was built on disappear. If my explanation is correct, the comment made by the commentator as Socialism being “un American” is true.

  • Blue

    Socialism and Communism are different. Socialism does not necessitate infringing on someone’s freedoms as a person, even though the fox news reporters framed it that way in the clip. Taking Norway as an example of a Democratic nation with a Socialist economy, you can very easily have a Socialist economy where the only downfall is that a doctor only has about 50% more income than the fishmonger down the street. Whether that takes away the initiative to invent, like Mark said above, is an interesting question. Not getting paid a ton of money wouldn’t deter me from curiosity or a desire to discover something, but that’s me. Either way, if you have a few capitalist economies filled with greedy inventors and a few socialist economies with people who don’t invent things that often then they don’t hurt the other economies. As far as the Constitution goes, there _is_ the First Amendment, granting Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Socialism doesn’t mean denying people jobs, but it does take away the incentive of higher paying jobs. And as far as the Pursuit of Happiness, if to you that means having a bunch of money so you can have 5 really nice houses instead of one, then you should reevaluate what makes you happy. Sorry these reasons aren’t that good, I’ve kind of been up for the last 20 hours.

  • Theodore Roosevelt

    I understand _both_ men! The initial and most serious problem is not with the concept of Constitution or America versus socialism. The problem they skip over in their zeal to defend their political ideologies is to provide a _definition_ of socialism.

    It’s fair to say that what one means by socialism is “good things” and what the other means by socialism is “political and economic relationships based on marxist-engel and possibly leninist dogma, manifested via a political process at variance with that expressed in the Constitution as explained and defended in the Federalist Papers.”

    Granted, “socialism” and “Constitution” are easier to say and more facily embraced.

    Americans can root for socialism today because the government – presidents and senators primarily, as well as state governments – slacked off and allowed public schools to slack off from teaching the founding principles and founding ideas of our nation. Instead of defining our great moments, teachers began to berate America for her lapses, presenting those atypical lapses as typical.

    American socialism will be like all other socialisms. The little guy will still be little, will struggle and not have much money. Meanwhile the “leaders” – president, Treasury Secretary, Secretary of State, senators, and so on – will accumulate more and more wealth from institutions that oppress the people with ever greater “fees” and “contributions” not to support programs, but to funnel _through_ the programs to those same political elite and corrupt politicians.

    Congress has now reached the stage where it is as a whole a nest of treasonous traitors begging to be rooted out and replaced by better people who will voluntarily reduce the perks, privileges, pensions, and pay of our present ugly, avaricious, corrupt life-long can’t-do-anything-else politicians – congressional slum-lords.

  • Troy Bowles

    I’m curious. Marx made some good points when he talked about alienation. God knows I’ve felt that. I’ve had more than a few jobs that left me feeling alienated. Socialism is very bad, but Marx knew what the working man despised…the master.

  • Neal Lang

    “Socialism does not necessitate infringing on someone’s freedoms as a person, even though the fox news reporters framed it that way in the clip. Taking Norway as an example of a Democratic nation with a Socialist economy, you can very easily have a Socialist economy where the only downfall is that a doctor only has about 50% more income than the fishmonger down the street.”

    Your position is then that the government dictating what Norwegian doctor may charge for the fruits of the sweat of his brow is not an infringement on his unalienable right to his pursuit of happiness. Interesting take.

    BTW, you will not find the government granting mankind their Creator endowed, unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in our Constitution. These rights were instead recognized in the creating document of the our country, the Declaration of Indepenedence of the United States of America. Our Constitution merely formed a government (a “more perfect union”) in order to secure these Creator endowed rights. Therefore, it would be totally unconstitutional for the government of the United States to infringe a doctors unalienable right to charge as he so fit for the “sweat of his brow”.

  • Eleanor Roosevelt

    Socialist countries have free schools, free medical care, freedom of speech, freedom of choice and the ability to get rich. They study capitalism – they study us. They are egalitarian societies and are not perfect. If socialism and the practice of socialism were taught in this country, we would be having a more enlightened conversation.

  • Neal Lang

    “Socialism is very bad, but Marx knew what the working man despised…the master.”

    Class Warfare starts with that “green-eyed monster”, Greed and soon becomes Envy. Marx was very clever in manipulating these “deadly sins” by appealing to man’s bases motivations. Of course, in the US if you dread being a worker, it extremely easy for anyone to take and risk their accumulated capital on starting their own venture and being their own boss. Socialism merely impedes the workers ability to be his own “master” by placing artificial governmental barriers to the accumulation and the utilitization of personal wealth.

  • Neal Lang

    “Socialist countries have free schools, free medical care, freedom of speech, freedom of choice and the ability to get rich.”

    There is no such thing as “free schools” and “free medical care”. Whatever gave you the idea that such exists?

    As for indoctrinating our children into the benefits of sociaism, that is all our supposed “free” public school system does. In order to improve the debate on this subject, I suggest some serious reading would be beneificial, perhaps starting with some of the works of Ludwig von Mises, who demonstrates the REAL COSTS of Socialism on the human soul.

  • Pingback: PBR: Aristotle on What is Wrong with Socialism « Acton Institute PowerBlog()

  • Troy Bowles

    I suppose that I should admit to being a socialist, and to clarify my earlier remarks, I don’t actually despise it. But I do despise totalitarianism. I think a socialistic style of society is inevitable in today’s global world. I am hard-pressed to think of a better way to protect our planet.

    One thing I do detest is simple Libertarianism. Liberty itself is one of our greatest gifts, but I believe that government is ideally a tool of the people, not an oppressor of the people. On the other hand, some control of public behavior is unedeniably necessary. Additionally, a refusal to provide public education is completely self-destructive and unrealistic. Are we better off forgoing taxes at the expense of an illiterate society? I think not.

    The thought that keeping guns around the house in an effort to ward off government control is suicidal and most outdated. The idea of outgunning the government is extremely bizarre. Far better is the idea that citizens should become masters of the government. Ultimately, using firearms to defend oneself from the government will never become fruitful. Ordinary citizens can’t simply use tanks to defend themselves, but the government does have the means for this.

  • Troy Bowles

    I don’t think that the US Government can use a tank against a private citizen and claim any moral justification. But the reality is that they have the ability to do so. Private citizens do not have this ability, unless you are a billiomaire. But still, the wealthiest indivituals in the world don’t possess the resources to fight against the US Government in a military capacity.

    I am an ethicist by academic training, but I have to be a realist as well. I think we should just stop electing violence-oriented individuals to high positions. By that I mean right-oriented politicians who think bullets are the answer to the problem.

  • Pingback: ADF Alliance Alert » What is Wrong with Socialism?()

  • Joseph Randolph

    While some have advanced the Christian parent idea for socialism—that economic socialism has an ultimate Christian foundation—others have lamented how Christian features disappear or manifest small residual in socialist economies and states where material welfare trumps or manifestly ignores moral and spiritual components of the human person. Western Europe comes to mind instantly. In other words, while the historical seeds of socialism may be diverse, the eventual socialist product seems to uniformly evolve away from religious concerns enough to manifest an aggressive secularism. While socialism may be prompted by humanitarian ethical concern for material lack, it can easily atrophy into only a concern for the material person.
    However, the attempt to refocus attention on the spiritual as well as the material component of the human person will provoke hesitation and outright hostility from the secular socialist. In other words, any discussion of poverty, for example, as anything other than poverty of the material kind, will be of little concern to the secular socialist, but losing an aspect of the Christian message should prompt the Christian toying with socialism to notice the lack of spiritual concern within socialism.
    In a word, socialism is about materialism.

  • It doesn’t matter how socialism is colored, it is immoral.

    There are two ways, and only two ways, to come by wealth and money:  one can earn it, or one can plunder it.

    The pathetic thing about the apologists for socialism is that they do not even recognize the simple fact that whatever the government does on behalf of “the little guy” is ultimately paid for by the little guy.

    Businesses have only income and expenses.  Whatever the government mandates of business means that business must spend money on something it would not have otherwise done.  In other words, it increases a business’ cost of doing business – it could be labor costs or capital costs, or both.  As far as a business is concerned, government mandates are the same as if the business’ utility bill or insurance premium had gone up – the cost of business increases.  Costs are always passed on to customers, and there are lots more poor and middle-class customers than there are wealthy.

    With these mandates come bureaucracies.  Since the poor pay little in the way of direct taxes, the middle-class is most hard-hit by government growth because the middle-class must then pay a larger portion of their previously disposable income in taxes for the privilege of paying more at the cash register.

    If you really want to help the little guy, the very best thing that can be done for him is to reduce the size of government.

    Apart from the fact that socialism is not pragmatic, it is grossly immoral to engage in acts force against anyone that has not done so first.

    As Thomas Jefferson once said, it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there is no god, or twenty.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my.  It is, to put a very fine point on it, uncivilized, immoral, to use force against anyone that has neither fiscally nor physically injured anyone else. 

  • Nothing in life is free. In a perfect utopia everything would be free, people would love each other and work together. There would be no need for money. There would be no laws. There would be no hate, no fear, nothing. As we are only human, all of these things exist and with these things also comes laws to protect us from what can harm us. Socialism brings new, unethical laws into play because you can’t take other people’s money without making laws about how that money is used. This is why the healthcare “law” is huge. There will never ever ever be a utopia because you can never be free while taking advantage of another person. Socialism is unethical because it is the opposite of freedom.