Democratic socialism may be all the rage.
But its most famous proponent is no sage.

The art of defining a term can be undertaken in good faith or bad faith. I am fascinated by this art. I am tempted to call the good faith version The Dialectic, but that, alas, would be a designation rather peculiar to me — it being my takeaway of what is wrong and right in Plato’s dialogues, and what I remember after reading Aristotle’s dreadful* book, The Topics. The bad faith version is vulgar propaganda, I suppose, but isn’t the p-word too nice for it?

Definitional arguments underlie so much substantive argument, so my interest in distinguishing proffered good-faith from bad-faith definitions is ongoing, persistent. Take the problem of defining “socialism.”

An important topic. There are a few plausible definitions for the term, and quite distinct ones at that. There are also some technical characterizations that can unify a few of those different approaches, which I have advanced here and elsewhere.

But a definition of socialism you often hear among rather bright people online is not correct, and it is worth showing why. That definition?

“worker ownership of the means of production”

How is socialism as worker ownership of the means of production not a good faith definition?

There exist, today, many economies** that qualify under that definition, but which no socialist I have ever encountered promotes, and which most of the leading socialist theoreticians and proponents look upon with utter disdain, even wishing to squelch. And what are these economies? Sole proprietorships and partnerships that have no employees. These professionals provide goods and services to others by contract. They most certainly labor at their work and thus qualify as “workers” and “laborers” under any commonsense definition of the terms. But these are not what socialists have historically meant by worker and laborer.

Indeed, actual socialists in the past have organized by the thousands to murder millions of workers precisely like this: think of the kulaks’ fate under Stalin.

Further, one can imagine a whole vast catallaxy of market institutions in which all of the businesses are owned and operated by workers democratically — yet no living, breathing socialist I have encountered has any interest in it, despite its near-term viability. What is this astounding institution? Corporations with majority stockholders made up of worker pension funds and other saved funds invested by individual laborers. Robert Nozick suggested this as a possibility; Peter Drucker was its prophet. When Gene Epstein offered this as a decent alternative to state socialism in a recent debate, his socialist interlocutor was just flummoxed. This isn’t political; no force and bullying required — where’s the fun in that?

And there we see why the worker-ownership definition of socialism is a bad-faith definition: it is a lie that masks what socialists really want.

They want power, especially to expropriate the rich and bully people they disagree with. So, though I usually trot out technical definitions of the s-word that make a lot of sense, a nastier definition serves, and it is, despite its nastiness, not in bad faith:

Socialism is the ideology promoting systems of total state power as wielded by people who call themselves socialists.

A bit circular? Well, there are crucial non-circular elements to it, and, besides, there is nothing quite so taut as a tautology.

And it leads to a working definition of a competitive ideology:

Fascism is any ideology promoting systems of total state power wielded by people whom socialists call fascist.

Leftists’ habit of calling nearly everyone they disagree with “fascist” is no more worthy of emulation than is their raising aloft the banner of “democratic socialism.” If they actually wanted a truly democratic socialism, they would defend and advance the liberal, minimal state order — maybe going so far as libertarianism — while working in the voluntary sector, in business, to bring about a worker-owned order.

But what, if you are a socialist, would be the fun of that?

Integral to socialist agitation is the politics of opposition to private property and free markets along with the promotion of state power. Both of these corrupt even the most earnest souls. Whatever good, charitable thoughts that may begin their political quest, and nudge them to prefix socialism with that eulogistic term democratic, erode quickly, replaced by a terrifying changeling: tyranny.

*Oh, and I do mean really, really badly written and mostly unconvincing. Aristotle was a great thinker but not a great writer, and The Topics is one of his very worst treatises.
** I am using “economy” in the manner suggested by F. A. Hayek, in contradistinction to “catallaxy” that I use in the next paragraph. I do not remember where Hayek suggests these two terms of art. I am reshelving my economics section of my library this week, so maybe I will dip into the Hayek volumes mid-course, and come back here to give the proper citation. Until then. . . .