Tag Archives: Socialism

Jeane Kirkpatrick on socialism

Jeane Kirkpatrick (1926 – 2006) was an American diplomat and political scientist. An ardent anti-communist, she was a longtime Democrat who became a Republican in 1985. After serving as Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy adviser in his 1980 campaign, she became the first woman to serve as US Ambassador to the United Nations.

Kirkpatrick served on Reagan’s Cabinet on the National Security Council, Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Defense Policy Review Board, and chaired the Secretary of Defense Commission on Fail Safe and Risk reduction of the Nuclear Command and Control System.

She wrote a syndicated newspaper column after leaving government service in 1985, specializing in analysis of the activities of the United Nations. In 1986, Kirkpatrick published an article called The Myth of Moral Equivalence  in which sharply criticized those who she alleged were claiming that there was ‘no moral difference’ between the Soviet Union and democratic states.

“As I read the utopian socialists, the scientific socialists, the German Social Democrats and revolutionary socialists—whatever I could in either English or French—I came to the conclusion that almost all of them, including my grandfather, were engaged in an effort to change human nature. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this was not likely to be a successful effort. So I turned my attention more and more to political philosophy and less and less to socialist activism of any kind.”

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Farewell Fidel: Castro dies aged 90

The Conversation

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

20th-century political icons don’t get much bigger than Fidel Castro. His death will reignite many important and still-unresolved debates about his particular place in history, and about the revolutionary ideas he seemed to epitomise.

For many of my generation, he retained a special place in our collective imagination, however undeserved it may have been in reality. The hopelessly corrupt regime that he, and his even more glamorous co-conspirator Che Guevara, overthrew was the quintessential banana republic. Causes don’t get much more worthy either, it seemed.

The parasitic regime of Fulgencio Batista provided a convenient playground for dissolute Americans escaping the cloying morality of the United States in the 1950s. From the little we knew about Cuba then, Fidel looked to be unambiguously on the right side of history. But this is not the way he will be remembered.

Unlike Che, Fidel lived long enough to see his legacy tarnished, his model overturned, and even relations with his arch-enemy normalised. In such circumstances, the very real achievements of the Castro regime are likely to be forgotten.

The reality is, though, that a dirt-poor third-world country managed to create a very credible medical and education system. True, there may have been some doubts about the curriculum, but key social indicators compared well with other states in the region. As iconoclastic film director Michael Moore took delight in pointing out, Cuba’s medical system was in many ways better than that of the US itself.

Not bad for a country that has laboured under American economic sanctions for more than half a century. Australia might have struggled under such circumstances, too, and we’re the other side of the planet with some formidable domestic advantages. How much more remarkable that the Cubans actually did as well as they have.

It’s not hard to see why the US loathed Castro and mounted a – at times, comical – series of efforts to assassinate or overthrow him. The abortive, CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, which ended in humiliation for the US, only reinforced Castro’s position and aura among his own people and some of his more starry-eyed foreign admirers.

Even the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in which the US and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war over the latter’s attempts to place ballistic missiles on Cuban soil, did not dislodge Fidel. It did cement his reputation as the most irritating and enduring affront to American hegemony in the region the US considered its own, however.

In what may prove to have been the last gasp of revolutionary idealism in Latin America, and possibly the world, the so-called Pink Tide that swept through the region in the 1990s and 2000s looked as if it might present yet another challenge to American dominance and the political and economic order it represented.

A succession of leftist leaders in Latin America have come, gone or – in the case of Hugo Chavez’s successor in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro – look to be on their way out. Even in Brazil, former president Lula da Silva’s legacy has been fatally undermined by a major corruption scandal and the dismal performance of the Brazilian economy of late.

Paradoxically enough, however, Cuba’s future might actually be brighter than some of its counterparts in South America. No-one can predict what the incoming Trump regime may do in this context (or any other), but if Fidel’s brother Raul continues to liberalise the economy and improve relations with Cuba’s giant neighbour, it may benefit from much needed inflows of investment and tourists.

Given that we would be pretty much back where we started before Fidel launched the revolution this would be another historical irony. It also begs questions about the ability of “great men of history” to make an enduring difference, and about their long-term legacies.

We now know Mao Zedong was a megalomaniacal monster, despite the popularity of his little Red Book in the heady era of the 1960s. There aren’t too many communists in China these days either, and no-one is planning a return to central planning.

Fidel Castro is consequently an anachronism and symbol of a particular time and place. Socialism remains a dazzlingly attractive idea in theory. Even its biggest admirers would have to concede that the practice hasn’t worked out quite as well.

What Robert Michels famously described as the “iron law of oligarchy” looks more apposite and persuasive than ever, and not just in putative banana republics. The rise of nationalism north of the border provides a sobering illustration of the difficulty of even talking about progressive change in a way that actually resonates with “the masses”, as we used to know them.

As Fidel’s life and times reminds us, actually doing anything transformative about repression and inequality looks as difficult and unlikely as it has ever been.

The ConversationMark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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We are all liberals now

Although it is difficult to define, liberalism is now the dominant political philosophy.

 By James Fodor

 In this piece I want to discuss the political philosophy of liberalism, outlining its key tenets, the historical context in which it has arisen and developed, and discuss its relationship to various rival ideologies in the political landscape.

     Although I consider myself to be a liberal, and therefore cannot claim to be unbiased, my purpose here is not to convince others to adopt liberal ideology, but rather to explain and clarify a number of terms and concepts which are endemic to our political discourse, but which are nevertheless widely misunderstood or misused.

     To begin, I must first address the thorny question of terminology. In this essay I will use ideological terms in a manner which I think is most consistent with insightful political theory, and which best facilitates the purpose of historical analysis and comparison of competing positions.

     This means that the way I use terms will not always align with how those terms are used in the political discourse, where terms are frequently appropriated, discarded, or projected upon others for the purpose of point-scoring rather than conceptual clarity.

     Perhaps no word has more commonly been subject to this misuse and confusion as the term liberal, which can mean anything from left-wing, to centrist, to right-wing, depending on the context.

     In Australia, a “Liberal” is generally understood to be a member or supporter of the Liberal Party of Australia. This is emphatically not how I am using the term liberal in this piece.

     In the United States, by contrast, the term liberal is used to refer to what in Australia we might call progressives, or even socialists. This is also not how I use the word.

     The British usage of the term, for example with reference to their Liberal Democrats, is closest to the traditional meaning of the term in political philosophy, and thus most closely aligns with my usage in this essay.

     Modern liberalism arose, roughly, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries primarily as a challenge to the existing autocratic, traditional monarchies in Europe. Liberals challenged these political institutions on a number of fronts, generally appealing to Enlightenment ideals of reason and the possibility for human progress. Outlining the key tenets of liberalism is always a problematic endeavour, because the ideology has been deeply contested and divided almost since its inception. Nevertheless, several key ideals and perspectives lie at the core of liberalism, all of which have been widely supported by prominent proponents of liberalism over the centuries:

●  Individualism: liberals regard the individual as being the primary social and political actor. It is individuals who make decisions, take actions, have preferences, possess rights, and exercise freedoms. While not denying the power and importance of social groupings, liberals hold that the most basic and important political relationship is that between a state and its individual citizens. The state exists to protect the rights of individuals, to promote equality between individuals, and to promote individual freedom.

●  Freedom: central to liberalism is the notion that people should be free. Freedom takes many forms, including political freedom, religious freedom, economic freedom, and freedom of speech. Liberals often express this support of freedom in the form of the no-harm principle: people should be free to do whatever they wish, so long as this does not harm others. Of course, what constitutes “harming others” is deeply contested, but nonetheless this overarching principle is central to liberal thought.

●  Equality: liberals have always affirmed two key beliefs about equality. First, that all people everywhere are born fundamentally equal; second, that the state should treat all its citizens, equally. Exactly what these two statements mean has been subject to constant and bitter dispute amongst liberals for centuries. Today differing notions of what constitutes “equality”, some focusing on “quality of treatment” and others on “quality of outcome”, continue to form the fault lines along which political boundaries are often drawn. Nevertheless, the deep commitment to equality is distinctive of and fundamental to liberal ideology.

●  Rule of law: this principle is derived from the commitments to equality and individualism. By it, liberals affirm that the state should establish transparent, just laws that apply equally to everyone. Law and politics should be conducted in accordance with these rules, not according to the whims of individuals or arbitrary traditions. Regular, free democratic elections are one of the most important manifestations of this commitment in a liberal state.

 Liberalism’s Dominance and its Critics

Some readers may perhaps be thinking that the positions I have outlined above are mostly a matter of common sense. After all, who could disagree with freedom, equality, and the rule of law?

     In fact, many people have and still do disagree with various aspects of these liberal positions, rejecting them in whole or in part. The reason they may perhaps seem so self-evident and unchallengeable is because liberalism has become the dominant ideology of our time. Most people living in Western countries today are liberals, even if they would not describe themselves as such. Similarly, nearly all major political parties in democratic countries today have substantively (though not completely) liberal ideologies. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this even applies to most political parties that describe themselves as conservative or socialist. In large part this is because the very political system which we inhabit in today’s world is built substantively upon a liberal framework, and parties which reject this framework typically aim to overturn the current political order. Under normal conditions, such parties are marginalised and have limited electoral appeal.

     However dominant liberalism may now be, there nevertheless exist major competing ideologies which, at different times in history, have provided very substantial opposition to liberalism. In particular, both socialism and fascism (discussed below) were widely popular alternatives to liberalism during the crisis period of the Great Depression. As is the case for liberalism itself, much diversity exists within each of these ideological traditions, and generalisations can only be made with caution. Furthermore, many attempts have been made to synthesise various aspects of these traditions, and other political approaches exist outside the four main ones which I discuss. Nevertheless, I do think it is still helpful to talk about these traditions as each possessing a core set of beliefs which are distinctive and generally consist across their various incarnations. I think that an understanding of these approaches to politics, and where they differ, can cast considerable light on political discourse, and clarify many disputes which may otherwise remain mysterious.


The oldest opponent to liberalism I loosely call “conservatism”, a term that is nearly as confusing as the word liberal. Conservatives are typically defined by their desire to preserve some existing status quo, but what exactly that status quo consists of can vary dramatically depending on the context.

     For example, in August of 1991 a group of hard-line communists attempted to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev and halt his liberalising reforms of the Soviet Union. In any other context these conspirators would most probably be described as elements of the far left, but because they were attempting to preserve the existing set of political institutions, they were characterised as “conservative”.

     Likewise, much of the language of American conservatism, with its veneration of the United States constitution, the Bill of Rights, individual liberty, and freedom of speech, is conservative only in the sense that it wishes to preserve what are nevertheless fundamentally liberal institutions.

     Notwithstanding their usage in current political discourse, the American founding fathers were by no means considered conservatives during their lifetimes; in fact many of them were vital early contributors to the liberal intellectual tradition. In my use of the term conservative, therefore, I do not simply mean anyone trying to preserve the political status quo. Rather, I am referring to adherents to a certain set of conservative ideological positions, as developed by European intellectuals during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in reaction to perceived excesses of liberals, which was thought to offer a partial defence of existing social and political institutions against liberal calls for widespread reform.

     Conservative ideology differs from liberalism in a number of key ways. Critically important is that conservatives are much less likely to accept the individualist approach to politics taken by liberals. Instead, conservatives typically emphasise the importance of social institutions, particularly the family and the church, as vital social and political actors in their own right. Individualism is replaced by communitarianism, which holds that society is not merely an aggregate of isolated individuals, but consists of overlapping communities in which persons are inextricably embedded.

     Conservatives are likely to see the role of the state as supporting and promoting these institutions, as well as in upholding traditional social values, all of which they see as important for promoting social harmony and continuity. Conservatives typically value tradition and social stability, arguing that any reforms should be slow and cautious so as to avoid misguided attempts to overturn longstanding social customs that have proved their value by standing the test of time.

     This emphasis on tradition often brings conservatives into conflict with liberals who argue that such policies can inhibit efforts to promote freedom and equality. Conservatives, for their part, are likely to reject various aspects of the liberal notion of the equality of all persons. Traditionally, this was manifested in a very explicit belief that nobles were in some real sense “better people” than common folk; it was reflected in the widespread pre-modern practice of applying different laws and penalties according to one’s social rank.

     Modern-day conservatives are unlikely to explicitly endorse such practices; however, they are typically more suspicious of what they see as the overly idealistic liberal notion that all individuals are fundamentally equal, or should be treated as such in all contexts. Conservatives are more likely to think that individuals vary greatly in abilities, temperament, and disposition, and that as a result hierarchy is, at least to some degree, a natural and necessary component of human societies.

     In emphasising social stability and tradition, conservatives are more likely to favour rule by accepted customary practice rather than by explicitly defined, rationally developed, and universally applied laws favoured by liberals. Conservatives often regard such overly rationalistic legal frameworks as doomed to failure if they ignore the accumulated wisdom of customary legal traditions.


While conservatism was the primary opponent of liberalism in the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century a new, very different ideological opponent developed. For my purposes here I will refer to this broad set of ideologies as “socialism”, though others might argue that communism or even anarchism would be more appropriate.

     The many distinctions that have been made between socialism, communism, anarchism, and the many variants of each do not interest me here. Instead, what I want to focus on are the core commonalities that characterise this approach to politics and how they challenge and contrast with liberalism.

     Socialism developed as a distinctive and self-conscious opposition to liberalism. While joining liberals in opposing traditional forms of political oppression and hierarchy, socialists argue that liberals fail to recognise the overwhelming social harms wrought by the economic system of capitalism. Socialists believe that a wide range of social ills are caused directly or indirectly by exploitation of the working class by profit-seeking capitalists, and as a result they argue that, in order to truly achieve the ends of human equality and empowerment, capitalism must be abolished and replaced with a fundamentally different economic system.

     Although they differ in exactly how they wish to bring this about, and what such a system would look like, socialists are united in the core belief that the means of production (factories, land, etc.) should be collectively owned, and that many or all forms of private properly abolished.

     This key distinguishing feature of socialism is very important to understand, because many people who describe themselves as socialists do not, in fact, count as socialists under this definition. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, for example, while describing himself as a socialist, does not support socialisation of the means of production, and therefore is more properly classified as a social democrat.

     In championing the socialisation of the means of production and abolition of private property, socialists adopt quite a strong understanding of equality, in which persons cannot be said to be equal unless they have access to comparable material resources. Thus, legal equality and social welfare programs championed by many liberals are judged as insufficient to achieve what socialists regard as true equality between people.

     Similarly, socialists reject the liberal notion of freedom, with its focus on being free from being harmed by others or the state, and instead champion a more positive conception of liberty, which emphasises the importance of empowering people with the ability to achieve their desired ends.

     Socialists also oppose the individualist focus of liberals, arguing similarly to conservatives that humans are not atomic individuals, but are fundamentally socially embedded. Unlike conservatives, however, they tend to emphasise as paramount the position of individuals within a particular socio-economic class, and consider the interactions between these classes as fundamental to political developments.

     This collectivist approach to social and political relations is often extended by anti-racist, postcolonial, feminist, and other critical theory approaches, which focus on group solidity and identity in political interactions, arguing that the excessive individualism of liberalism is both mistaken and, insomuch as it facilitates the perpetuation of unjust social systems, oppressive.


The final class of political ideologies that I want to discuss in this piece arose in the early twentieth century in simultaneous reaction opposition to conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. I will use the termfascism to describe this broad collection of anti-Communist, anti-Liberal, far-right authoritarian movements, although the label is especially problematic because few people openly identity as fascists, and as such the word should be used with considerable caution.

     Fascism also tends towards anti-intellectualism, and therefore does not have nearly as well developed philosophical justifications as the three ideologies discussed so far.

     Despite these difficulties, several broad generalisations can be made about fascism and related political ideologies.

     First and foremost, fascism is authoritarian, rejecting the egalitarianism of liberalism and socialism in favour of the belief in the inherent superiority of some people or groups over others, and adopting the view that strong, decisive leadership is of vital importance for a nation to succeed. As a result of this belief, fascists reject parliamentary institutions and the rule of law as being harmful impediments to the orderly and efficient management of public affairs. In contrast with conservatives, fascists generally do not regard social stability or tradition as necessarily valuable, but instead often campaign for a revolutionary reshaping of social and political life in accord with some idealised end.

     Fascists unite with socialists in rejecting individualism, but while socialists regard class as paramount, fascists generally consider nationality, ethnicity, or race to be the primary social groupings along which social and political life is managed. Related to this is the adoption by most fascist movements of some extreme form of nationalism, which usually involves imbuing their nation or ethnic group with a mythical origin story and grand destiny.

     Fascist movements typically see their nation or people as under dire threat by internal or external opponents, and regard themselves as leading a revival movement of borderline mystical or spiritual significance. Often, but not always, this ultra-nationalism is accompanied by racism, especially anti-Semitism.

     Finally, fascist movements are populist in nature, meaning that they appeal frequently to the popular will and the sentiments and fears of everyday people, while generally eschewing more academic forms of intellectual justification or appeals to complex argumentation.

     One manifestation of this emphasis on popular appeal is the widespread provision of social welfare programs by fascist movements, something that was instrument to their popularity in Italy and Germany. Whilst sometimes leading to those movements being described as socialist, these programs are typically not motivated by socialist egalitarianism ideals, but primarily by a sense of national communal solidarity and unity of purpose.

 Why Ideology Matters

Having an understanding of the key foundational principles of liberalism and its major ideological competitors is invaluable for being able to understand both historic and contemporary political disputes. The core foundational institutions of our current economic and political system, including electoral democracy with one vote per person, a system of laws equally applicable to all, and a largely capitalist economy with significant state intervention to promote social equality, all only really make sense within the framework of liberal ideology.

     Without the belief that individuals are the fundamental political actors, that economic, political, and social freedoms are exceptionally valuable, and that all persons are fundamentally equal, these institutions would lack any justification and make little sense. Indeed, it is precisely because they reject or drastically reinterpret some or all of these core principles that some groups at the extreme ends of the political spectrum oppose liberal institutions and advocate for their abolition.

     Much more common for mainstream political parties is to combine their support for these fundamentally liberal principles with elements from other ideological traditions. Typically the “left-wing” party combines liberal thought with some elements of socialism (as in the Labour Party), while the “right-wing” party instead incorporates elements of conservatism (as in the Liberal Party). Given their common commitment to core liberal ideas, the difference between major political parties in Western nations is thus typically much smaller than political rhetoric alone would lead one to believe

     Many of the political debates that shape our contemporary political discourse are disputes largely internal to liberal politics. Often these relate to one of the critical tensions which is intrinsic to liberal thought: namely the tension between a desire to promote individual freedom on the one hand, and social equality on the other. Efforts to promote equality often require sacrificing freedom, while increasing freedoms can often result in increased inequality or social injustice. Different people manage this trade-­off differently, and also differ in their precise interpretations of such abstract notions as “freedom” and “equality”.

     Liberalism is thus not a recipe one follows to arrive at clearly defined policy positions, but rather a general ideological framework for conceptualising the proper role of the state, and its relationship to individuals in a just society.

     Whether you, like me, regard liberalism as immensely valuable and a great force for good in the world, or whether you regard it as naïvely optimistic, overly individualistic, intrinsically oppressive, or dangerously degenerate (as various critics have claimed), a proper understanding of liberal ideology is nevertheless essential for engaging in informed political discourse in today’s world.

 James Fodor is in his third year of a science degree at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of the blog The Godless Theist.
From the Australian Rationalist (Melbourne), v. 101, Winter [June] 2016: 32 – 35. Journal of the Rationalist Society of Australia, www.rationalist.com.au
(Posted here with permission of the author). 

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Reviewing an anachronism? Labor to debate future of socialist objective

The Conversation

Carol Johnson

The 2015 ALP national conference agreed that there will be a review of the Labor platform’s so-called “socialist objective”. The review follows calls from the likes of NSW Labor leader Luke Foley to revise the party’s objective, given that:

… no-one in the party today argues that state ownership is Labor’s central, defining purpose.

How the socialist objective has evolved

The socialist objective dates from a more radical time in the ALP’s history. When it was written in 1921, the Labor Party was responding to a period of industrial unrest and economic uncertainty following the first world war.

However, even then the party’s original 1921 commitment to “the nationalisation of banking and all principal industries” was quickly watered down to suggest that collective ownership was necessary only where such industries were being operated in an exploitative and socially harmful way.

That important proviso remains in the party platform’s current socialist objective, which reads:

The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.

These words already leave a convenient loophole for those modern Labor Party politicians who argue that a healthy private sector is essential for economic growth and employment; that capitalism is not inherently exploitative; and that some basic government regulation, good industrial relations legislation and active unions – rather than nationalisation – is all that is needed to prevent problems of exploitation.

It is well over half a century since a Labor government attempted to nationalise an industry. In 1947, the Chifley government unsuccessfully attempted to nationalise the banks – a move which was found to be unconstitutional. However, Ben Chifley only resorted to nationalisation after Labor’s previous attempts to bring in increased government powers over private banking had failed.

Far from being part of a radical socialist agenda, Chifley’s attempts to have more government control over banking arose from his belief that the private banks were resisting Keynesian-style financial stimulation policies and were not adequately funding the development of Australian manufacturing industry.

With the exception of the banks, Chifley was generally very supportive of private industry, particularly manufacturing.

So, while Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull may occasionally accuse the Labor Party of being fundamentally socialist, it is many years since Labor governments attempted any form of nationalisation.

Why the calls for reform?

The national conference decision is not the first attempt to remove or substantially water down Labor’s socialist objective. There was also a concerted attempt in the early 1980s, in which Gareth Evans played a leading role. He published key arguments critiquing the objective. Some of the 23 sub-paragraphs that modify and explain Labor’s current objective date from that time.

Consequently, the ALP’s socialist objective now has much less political significance than British Labour’s equivalent, Clause IV. Tony Blair argued that the:

… ideological refoundation of the party took place through the revision of Clause 1V.

Blair saw it as a central part of the modernisation process that separated “New Labour” from its socialist and, in his view, overly trade union past.

Years before Blair revised Clause IV and trumpeted New Labour’s arrival, the ALP under prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating had been moving in a similar direction. The ALP began placing an increased emphasis on the positive role of markets and private enterprise in achieving the party’s aims of economic growth, full employment and equality of opportunity.

Hawke and Keating had introduced their economic rationalist policies with the support of the trade union movement. They had even increased private profits by trading off real wage increases and some working conditions in return for providing superannuation, education and welfare benefits.

The Rudd government did not embrace such economic rationalism as enthusiastically as Hawke and Keating had. Nonetheless, both the Rudd and Gillard governments still saw a healthy private sector as having a crucial role to play in achieving Labor’s aims. Kevin Rudd and – contrary to popular opinion – Julia Gillard both saw the ALP as already being a modern social democratic party.

So, given that retaining the socialist objective hasn’t prevented Labor from developing pro-market policies, why is it still seen as such a significant issue? Why does it still generate passionate debate?

The objective’s opponents argue that it is time to make a definitive and symbolic break with Labor’s more radical socialist past. They claim Labor needs to reformulate its social democratic objectives given that nationalisation is no longer on the party’s agenda.

Since that clearly is the case, why are others still wanting to hold on to the objective? One reason is that the objective does reference a time when the ALP still had a critique of capitalist markets, even if a somewhat qualified one.

Also, vague references to “democratic socialisation” – and only when essential to prevent “exploitation” and “anti-social features” – can potentially include a variety of regulatory measures or forms of public sector provision, not just nationalisation. The sub-paragraphs explaining the objective make that clear. Many left-wing ALP members are concerned that Labor’s embrace of market-based solutions has gone too far.

After all, if there are no significant problems with relying on markets, why do we even need social democratic parties like the ALP? Consequently, Labor’s socialist objective has a much deeper significance than appears to be the case at first sight. Rather than just being an anachronism, it still raises issues about the ALP’s fundamental nature and political mission.

The ConversationCarol Johnson is Professor of Politics at University of Adelaide.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The Zero-Sum Fallacy

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this article was published in
“The Skeptic” Vol 32, No. 4, December 2012)

In game theory, ‘zero-sum’ describes a game where one player’s gain is a loss to other players; and the total amount of the available money or playing chips is fixed. A logical fallacy often occurs when this particular game theory is applied to economic or political discussions amongst non-economists – leading to false beliefs that the amount of wealth or jobs in the economy is fixed.

This mistaken view is illustrated by expressions such as ‘a larger slice of the pie’, which imply that ‘the pie’ has a fixed size and that net welfare cannot be improved by growing a bigger pie.  That is, that people can only become richer by making others poorer; or that increasing labour productivity or immigration causes unemployment.  In economics, this is known as the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ or more generally as the ‘zero sum fallacy’.

Many economic situations are not zero-sum, since valuable goods and services can be created, destroyed, or badly allocated in a number of ways, thus creating a net gain or loss of value to various stakeholders. For example, if your house increases in value, it does not follow that somebody else’s house has decreased in value. It is possible for all houses to increase in value.

Specifically, all trade is by definition positive sum, because when two parties agree to an exchange each party must consider the goods or money it is receiving to be more valuable than the goods it is delivering. In fact, all economic exchanges must benefit both parties to the point that each party can overcome its transaction costs  – or the transaction would simply not take place.

As P.J. O’Rourke has ironically put it:

In this zero-sum universe there is only so much happiness. The idea is that if we wipe the smile off the faces of people with prosperous businesses and successful careers, that will make the rest of us grin.

There is only so much money. The people who have money are hogging it. The way for the rest of us to get money is to turn the hogs into bacon.[1]

On an international scale, the zero sum fallacy manifests itself in the false belief that poor countries are poor because rich countries are rich; and that poverty can only be alleviated by redistributing wealth from rich countries to poor countries. More effective and enduring  alternatives, such as increased economic development and trade, or the elimination of bad governance and corruption, are not even considered.

In informal logic, the zero sum fallacy often takes the form of a false premise. In rhetoric it is usually a hidden premise, which makes the conclusion of one’s argument a non sequitur. That means that the zero sum fallacy is usually either a subtype of a false premise fallacy, a non-sequitur fallacy, or both.


[1] P.J. O’Rourke, The Wall Street Journal, 27 December 2012.

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