Ideological purity is easier to grasp, and dichotomous thinking is natural to our tribal instincts, but reality is complex, and a failure to acknowledge that dumps us into poor thinking.
First published in January 2019.
The No True Scotsman fallacy is a tricky attempt to define one’s argument into validity. Person A claims that no Scotsman would do a particular act — add an e to whisky, for example — and then Person B says, “I’m a Scotsman, and I do that.” Person A counters by asserting, “well, you’re no true Scotsman.” It would be convenient if we could always alter definitions as needed to declare ourselves the winner of a debate, but an honest conversation requires an agreement on what terms mean in advance, and like a game of Monopoly, if we wish to modify the rules in the midst of the game, we have to earn the consent of all the players.
Understanding this fallacy is important whenever we are trying to define what does or does not belong in a school of thought. I am told, for example, by fundamentalists that no true Christian accepts the science of evolution. In political debates, I see the claim, from some on the right and some on the left alike, that no true progressive can support gun rights or that no true Republican would oppose Trump. Ideological purity is easier to grasp, and dichotomous thinking is natural to our tribal instincts, but reality is complex, and a failure to acknowledge that dumps us into poor thinking.
I raise this point as the government of Venezuela is searching out new depths of chaos. The right wing looks at what has become of Chavez’s supposedly Bolivarian Revolution as the definitive example of what socialism is and why we must never go down that road.
To which I say that, of course, we do not want to base our economic survival on a single commodity with an authoritarian leader running things on personal whims. At least the millions of us who did not vote for Donald Trump do not want that. But one of the main flaws in the Clinton campaign of 2016 was the reliance on “I’m not him,” and being satisfied to say that Venezuela is not what any of us on the left mean will not be sufficient.
Socialism can be forced into a simplistic dictionary entry: public ownership of the means of production. This implies central planning of the economy, and the Soviet Union is the classic case of how this definition of unmixed socialism is a bad idea. When markets work, buyers let manufacturers know what should be on sale and what will not be a success.
But there is an alternative to the false dichotomy of government ownership of the entire economy and possession of corporations being in the hands of the few. Companies owned by their employees are more stable, especially during recessions, and offer a way to reduce the disparities of income between the top and bottom of the pay scales when employees have a say in how things will be run. Note that this approach would get us out of the constant bickering over regulation or deregulation in this area. Government could offer financing guarantees to get employee-owned companies through any suspicions over such an organization, and making it possible for workers to decide for themselves how wide the spread of salaries will be without mandating rates from on high.
What about healthcare? This is the easiest case to make about times when markets fail. We pay far more in the United States to cover a much lower percentage of our population than other developed nations. And we suffer as a result. Would government ownership of the industry be a good response?
The British National Health Service says yes, as does that country’s healthcare outcomes. The notion of government running our healthcare is not likely to fly here. But we are used to insurance companies, so having the government perform that function is not all that foreign to our way of doing things. And Medicare, the program that we progressives want to expand, remains popular.
The point of this softer kind of Socialism — in other words, the mixed economies that I keep citing as illustrations of what I want, instead of Venezuela’s model — is to guarantee equality of opportunity. I do not mind that a billionaire can buy a yacht, but I do object if he and his family have access to medical services that millions of ordinary Americans cannot get. I also object when his children can attend better schools. Germany’s experiment in making higher education paid for by taxes so as to remove the individual burden on students is still in progress, and how it will go is anyone’s guess, and our perennial fear of deficits is legitimate, but if we can afford wars on the credit card, we surely can find some money to educate our people. As the political cartoon once said, it would be a great day for our country if schools had all the funds they need, while the Air Force had to hold a bake sale to buy another bomber.
And then there is that seventy percent marginal tax rate that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drew such heat for supporting. As I have discussed in the past, wealth is not created on an island of personal disconnection from the rest of society. And over the last hundred years, economic growth has been the strongest in periods when the top rate was much higher than it is now, allowing the government to move money into more hands.
All of this is to say that the continual insistence on the part of right wingers that Venezuela is the sum total of Socialism is, as with so much of the right wing’s ideology, a logical fallacy. The Socialism that I want is the democratic variety that is mixed into a market economy to make the lives of people in northern and western Europe, Canada, Australia, and even, yes, the United States better.🔷
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