Our latest edition is out in print and online this month. Subscribe today and start reading.

Yes, Power Corrupts. That’s Why Socialists Want to Democratize Society

It’s a common refrain that socialists are naïve, unrealistic dreamers. But precisely the opposite is true: we know that power corrupts, so we want to democratize all spheres of society.

Daniel Celentano, Festival, 1934. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Recently, I debated the far-right Canadian YouTuber and self-described libertarian Stefan Molyneux. While Molyneux holds some distinctly un-libertarian positions on Donald Trump and restricting immigration, and he spent much of the debate trying to wiggle out of that obvious contradiction, he does make all the standard libertarian arguments against socialism.

One of those has to do with the corrupting effect of political power. In his opening statement, Molyneux argued:

Human beings cannot in any way, shape, or form handle power. Power is very bad for us. Y’know, when I was a kid we had to put coins in the heading device and sometimes we had to put actual pennies in the fuse box because . . . it was a huge fire hazard and so on but . . . human beings cannot handle huge voltages of political power any more than the pennies when I was a kid could handle electrical power — they regularly melted and sort of dripped out. Humans get overwhelmed and blown out and corrupted by power.

I entirely agree. But as I pointed out in my response, Molyneux’s concerns don’t give us a reason to oppose socialism. They give us a powerful reason to support it.

The Human Nature Argument

It might be useful to start with a related argument: human nature, we’re often told, is selfish and cruel. Trying to force humans into a cooperative and altruistic mode is dangerously utopian — like attempting to make tigers into vegetarians. Some socialists push back by saying either that human nature is cooperative and altruistic, or that humans simply have no fixed nature.

Determining which of these three positions is right is a complicated and messy question. David Hume says in his essay on heaven and hell that most of us “float between vice and virtue.” That’s probably as close to a good answer as you can get without doing a deep dive into empirical psychology, anthropology, sociology, and even evolutionary biology. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, though, you don’t need to be committed to any particular answer to these questions to see that the anti-socialist argument for human nature is unconvincing.

Why? Because if we’re worried about human beings acting with undue cruelty or selfishness, we have to design an economic order that doesn’t encourage and reward those impulses. This doesn’t have anything to do with a utopian drive to stamp out the negative features of human psychology. Socialists aren’t interested in trying to change hearts. We’re interested in changing political and economic institutions. Believing that some people will always have an impulse to drive too fast isn’t a reason not to have speed limits.

Economic Power Corrupts

The same basic response applies to Molyneux’s point about how the temptations of political power can overwhelm our inhibitions about abusing that power. The best version of the “power corrupts” argument against socialism might go something like this:

Premise One: Under socialism, all political and economic power will be concentrated in the hands of government bureaucrats.

Premise Two: If bureaucrats are entrusted with enormous power, they will abuse it.

Premise Three: Any form of social organization that predictably leads to such abuses of power is unacceptable.

Conclusion: Socialism is unacceptable.

Horrors like Stalin’s purges and Mao’s Great Leap Forward vividly demonstrate the truth of Premise Two. That’s why democratic socialists think we need to limit the power of government bureaucrats through democratic political institutions and constitutional constraints to protect important rights like free speech.

But if used as an argument against socialism in general, including the kind of society democratic socialists advocate for, all of this collapses flat. We don’t want to hand power to a new ruling class of state bureaucrats. As I’ve written before, we want to expand democracy to the economic realm.

One of the primary motivations for democratic-socialist politics is the recognition that Premise Two is just as true if we swap out “capitalists” for “bureaucrats.” Concentrating economic power in the hands of wealthy individuals and capitalist firms generates horrors ranging from Harvey Weinstein’s predatory treatment of actresses to the backbreaking labor in Jeff Bezos’s warehouses.

Labor unions and the regulatory state can check some of these depredations, but concentrations of economic power always find a way to amass political power. Business interests capture regulatory agencies and weaken, co-opt, or even crush organized labor.

In truth, democratic socialists are the realistic ones: we think the best guarantee against fallible human beings abusing their power over others is to spread power fairly equally between individuals. And because we don’t think anyone can be trusted with the kind of power a corporate CEO has over ordinary workers, we fight to empower the many and abolish the privileges of the few.