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Socialism as a Reaction to State Corruption

Politics / Social Issues Sep 09, 2010 - 12:49 PM GMT



Diamond Rated - Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleAnders Mikkelsen writes: Ambrose Bierce defined politics as a "strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage." In the past many famous thinkers have noticed contemporary and historical examples of state corruption matching this definition, and these examples in turn were the inspiration for many a socialist thought.

Imagine, if you will, an idealistic young man in a Greek or Italian city-state, a European court of the ancien régime, or a 19th-century republic?[1] He wishes for justice; he believes in principles over interests and public advantage above private. He believes, like Lord Acton, that it is right to do right. Like Rothbard, he believes there are absolute values. What does he see when he looks around his society? The powerful live in the splendor of shining stone houses, surrounded by the opulence of gleaming bronzes, white marbles, red carpets, and bright paintings, while the masses suffer in hovels and slums.

The best lack all conviction; they are unprincipled and expedient, while the worst are full of intense passion for gain. Politics consists of schemes to fend off or plunder one's neighbors at home or abroad. An idealist is naturally struck by the wealth and greed of the ruling class of his republic or kingdom.

Our young man considers the situation. There is corruption — the powerful are using their power to line their own pockets. He asks, what is the root cause of this state of affairs? Why do the rulers not occupy themselves with justice and right? He notes that the powerful conducting affairs to private advantage are obviously distracted by accumulating wealth. The wealthy on the other hand use their wealth to gain power. His conclusion is to remove the source of corruption — the accumulation of wealth and private property.

Once individuals in the ruling class are stripped of the desire and opportunity for wealth, he believes, they will have nothing else to do but devote themselves to the well-being of the state.[2] Efficient administration of the laws will no longer be corrupted by the quest for gain. To rework Beirce's definition, if one cannot pursue one's private advantage and interests, then politics will be about principle and public spirit.

By definition, if a dirty shirt is no longer dirty, it will be clean. Similarly if a corrupt government is no longer corrupt, it will be good government. The solution is making sure good honest men untouched by greed are in power.

As Chesterton noted,

Many imaginative English writers, including Carlyle, seem quite unable to imagine how it was that men like Robespierre and Marat were ardently admired. The best answer is that they were admired for being poor — poor when they might have been rich.[3]

There is certainly an element of envy in socialism — many would like to bring down the successful. Many revolutionaries wish they were dictators. Certainly those in power are often unimpressive. Giulio Andreotti, the key figure in corrupt Italian politics from the 1970s to 1990s, famously said "I may be an average man, but I don't see any giants around here."[4]

Disgust with state corruption and cynical politics may still be a primary impetus toward socialism. The history of socialist thought, as will be shown, contains many examples of ideas that are a reaction to state corruption.[5] Socialism can be defined fundamentally as an attack on private property and on the current illegitimate state of affairs. Specifically, the power of the attack often stems from an attack on illegitimately attained wealth and from the corollary, illogical assumption that the origin of all wealth is corrupt and that all wealth is corrupting.[6]

Libertarian Critique

Before illustrating this strain of socialist thought, we will first provide the libertarian and classical-liberal critique of state corruption and socialism. While viewing socialism as incoherent and contrary to economics and logic, classical liberalism does agree that there are very real problems with state corruption. In fact classical liberalism rose in opposition to mercantilism — private property and state privilege. However, the liberals advocated eliminating the state privilege and keeping private property.

The libertarian critique is fundamentally that Bierce's definition of politics as a masquerade describes the reality of state politics. The "corrupt" state is in fact operating as designed. Wealth originates in the productive activity of the people. The social function of the state is to transfer wealth from one set of pockets to another. The state was designed to benefit the king or the city's ruling class, and it succeeds in benefiting the ruling class even when it has disposed of the king himself.

Liberal class analysis agrees that the corrupt state engages in plunder, and makes the additional point that all states plunder by definition. One could not object to current power and privilege on the one hand, and support power and privilege on the other. Principles are no respecters of persons. Therefore it seeks to remove opportunities for plunder by limiting and dismantling state power on principle. A limited state with limited power would have limited corruption and would pose a limited burden on society.[7]

"The idealist … sees the state as a neutral tool. If it can be used for the benefit of the rulers, it can be used for the benefit of the people, as if a slaughterhouse for the benefit of the farmer could be used for the benefit of the animals."

The idealist attacking corruption but not the state confuses the state with society, and believes society would fall apart without the state or ruling superstructure. He typically fails to understand that the power of the state is corrupting in and of itself. He has faith in the state. He believes the propaganda legitimizing the state and he wants the state to live up to it. He sees the state as a neutral tool. If it can be used for the benefit of the rulers, it can be used for the benefit of the people, as if a slaughterhouse for the benefit of the farmer could be used for the benefit of the animals.[8]

As many have noted, the true believers provide ideological cover for the cynics seeking private gain. Without private interest and private advantage, one would be hard pressed to conduct "public affairs." As John Taylor Gatto noted with schools and other ideological enterprises, the true believers also need the cynics to help impose their utopian vision and keep the whole operation running.[9]

Examples from the History of Thought

To illustrate how socialist thought is a reaction to corruption, we will use a few famous examples — Plato's Republic, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's objections to the status quo, Thomas More's Utopia, and the thought of George Bernard Shaw and a few less-famous writers — Tommaso Campanella, William Godwin, Gabriel Bonnet de Mably, and Robert Southey. Alexander Gray's The Socialist Tradition was the source for many of these examples. It all begins, as usual, with a Greek.


Plato's Republic is famous for recommending communism and the abolition of private property. This recommendation was a cure for state corruption, one arguably worse than the disease.

Frances Neilson says Solon commented on his fellow Athenians' desire for plunder:

The ambition of the rich knows no bounds; the most wealthy wish to grow yet more so. Who may be able to assuage this insatiable greed! They respect neither sacred property nor public treasure; they plunder all, in defiance of the sacred laws of justice.[10]

This is a good description of the Athenians that Socrates encounters in the dialogue, especially the key character Glaucon. Benjamin Constant said, "Among the ancients, a successful war increased both private and public wealth in slaves, tributes and lands shared out."[11] Greek city-states were essentially buccaneer states. The citizens, like a pirate crew, often had nominally equal shares in the running of an enterprise that had little concern for personal liberties and whose main concern was war and plunder.[12] Those protesting a lack of equality beg the question of whether they're objecting to the ill-gotten gains of the wealthy or merely to their own incompetence at gaining a larger share in the booty.

The Republic is a dialogue about justice and its value. As in many dialogues, Socrates's fellow Greeks have difficulty defining justice, nor do they see it as particularly valuable. Glaucon sees justice as a compromise position, the highest good is to commit injustice with impunity, and the worst fate is to suffer it. Like any good pirate, he does not love justice but plunder.

To illustrate the value of justice on a large scale, Socrates creates an ideal just city. This first city is famous for being the first illustration of the division of labor.[13] It makes no mention of guardians, philosopher-kings or slaves. Glaucon objects that the city is fit for pigs, not men, as there are no luxuries. Socrates calls Glaucon's desired city a feverish city. He says the feverish city can illustrate the nature of justice (implying that this example is not a good, healthy city and therefore he is using an example of injustice to illustrate justice).

Socrates proposes that, because the best way to provide luxuries is through plunder, the city will have to take its neighbor's land. Glaucon agrees. Socrates says, "now we have discovered war to be derived from causes [desire for gain] which are also the causes of almost all the evils in States, private as well as public."[14] Socrates then points out that in order to successfully plunder, one will need guardians (a class of trained soldiers). Socrates asks, who will guard against the guardians? There is potential for class conflict: the guardians could plunder the city itself.

"Greek city-states were essentially buccaneer states."

In order to escape this conundrum, Socrates suggests communism for the guardians. If the guardians can't have property, they'll have no opportunities to use their power for gain. All sorts of safeguards are imagined to make this possible. The city described is very similar to Sparta — ironically suggesting Athens become like its enemy. The Spartans outlawed money, fearing its corrupting effects.

At the end of the dialogue Socrates defines justice: "Are suits decided on any other ground, but that a man may neither take what is another's, nor be deprived of what is his own?" This is the opposite of plunder. When Socrates finds his just society rejected, he offers communism as the only solution for the problem of state corruption — using power to line one's own pockets.

An important objection is that Plato's Republic and Laws seem to prescribe a strict, unfree social order. One explanation is that, while Plato did believe this arrangement was more desirable than the current state of affairs, he did not think it was as desirable as a community of people who love justice. Plato may have believed that, human nature being what it is, a city without guardians and philosopher-kings would be wrenched apart by the strife of people like Glaucon trying to get wealth by any means necessary. This is similar to Hobbes's argument that the Leviathan is necessary because we must keep powerful forces or faction-like noble families from tearing apart the country for their own gain. Plato deals with the elaborate safeguards necessary to stave off corruption and political disorder.

Sir Thomas More

Gray's commentary on and quotes from Sir Thomas More's Utopia illustrate that socialism is a reaction to state corruption. Gray states, "If Utopia survives as a living force, it is … because of its comments on the social evils of the times in which it was written."[15] More's character Hythloday, a traveling philosopher, notes that princes are "generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms, right or wrong, than on governing well those they possess."[16]

Hythloday sees the problem as one of exploitation:

There is a great number of noblemen among you, that are themselves as idle as drones, that subsist on other men's labour, on the labour of their tenants, whom, to raise their revenues, they pare to the quick.[17]

The historical context was one in which kings and nobles held power. In most places the nobles were essentially the descendents of the old military commanders of the empire. While supposedly similar to Plato's guardians, defending the poor and providing security, in reality they lived in relative luxury supported by the peasantry whose families were the original owners of the land.

Gray notes that the solution to exploitation "is of course, a communistic island, where private property has ceased to exist."[18] While Gray believes More is noted for his irony,

there is little irony in what are for us the essential passages, where Raphael Hythloday, with a sombre eloquence, advances a passionate demand for justice, and laments the iniquities, the fruits of selfishness, that spring from man's lust for wealth and power; and argues, in consequence, for the necessity of communism.[19]

Hythloday explains that property and money corrupt good government:

Though to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own, that so long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even those are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable. …

In all other places it is visible, that while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth; but there, where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public: and indeed, it is no wonder to see men act so differently; for in other commonwealths, every man knows that unless he provides for himself, how flourishing soever the commonwealth may be, he must die of hunger: so that he sees the necessity of preferring his own concerns to the public; but in Utopia, where every man has a right to everything; they all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full, no private man can want anything; for among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity; and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich; for what can make a man so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties; neither apprehending want himself, nor vexed with the endless complaints of his wife? [20]

He also sees substantial wealth as illegitimately gained.

for what justice is there in this, that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or at best is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour, upon what is so ill acquired.[21]

Hythloday states that the state is a "conspiracy of the rich, who on pretence of managing the public only pursue their private ends."[22]

Gray notes that "it is such passages as these (all of them, be it noted for what it is worth, spoken by Hythloday) that have made Utopia a living Book for four hundred years."[23] More's book is a reaction to the unjust state of affairs in 16th-century Europe, and contains the main traditional socialist diagnoses and cures for the body politic.[24]

Tommaso Campanella

Our next example from Gray is Tommaso Campanella, who emphasizes the conflict between, as Gray says, "the individualistic and the social instincts, and he realises that these individualistic instincts are not mere selfishness, but are rooted in the family."[25]

As Campanella says,

They say that all private property is acquired and improved for the reason that each one of us by himself has his own home and wife and children. From this self-love springs. For when we raise a son to riches and dignities, and leave an heir to much wealth, we become either ready to grasp at the property of the state, if in any case fear should be removed from the power which belongs to riches and rank; or avaricious, crafty and hypocritical, if anyone is of slender purse, little strength, and mean ancestry. But when we have taken away self-love, there remains only love for the state![26]

Campanella directly states the origin of the attack of the private property — desire for gain corrupts the state; remove the ability to gain by state activity and people will act not out of self-love but love for the state. It has been noted that even today, members of many African tribes are expected to use their official position to benefit their own tribe. This is often considered a primary cause of state corruption in Africa. However, given the immorality of not helping one's relations, it isn't surprising power is used to benefit one's tribe and family.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's strenuous objections to the status quo struck a chord in 18th-century Europe. As Gray notes, "the theme closest to Rousseau's heart is that of inequality and the loss of freedom."[27] As Rousseau says,

In a word, competition and rivalry on the one hand, and on the other conflict of interests, and always the concealed desire to make a profit at the expense of others: all these evils are the first effect of property and the inseparable accompaniment of rising inequality.[28]

Rousseau asks, would it not be better if a person thought "only of the duties of man and the needs of nature, had time only for the fatherland, for the unfortunate and for his friends?"[29]

Rousseau is a little different than our other writers in that he objects to society in general. He objects to inequality and defines inequality as any real or perceived difference between people, be it so minor as one person being a better dancer than another. He correctly observes that society creates opportunities for distinction — it breeds inequality. He ends up concluding that we should essentially abolish all opportunity for improvement ,because that would introduce inequality. Because people have desire for goods, that means we should abolish goods. Goods therefore aren't good; they are evil. Values are reversed.

Gray summarizes Rousseau's theme of the corruption of man as follows:

He defines three main stages in the descent. The first is the establishment of law and the right of property; the second is the institution of the magistrature; the third is the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power. In somewhat different language, these stages consecrate the distinction between rich and poor, between strong and weak, and between master and slave.[30]

As with others, Rousseau sees the combination of the state and private property as the root of current problems.

Gabriel Bonnet de Mably

Gabriel Bonnet de Mably was obsessed with the classics. According to Gray, Mably "worshipped Sparta and all its institutions, real or imagined; Lycurgus was his constant obsession."[31] He believed in equality and that private property was "the root-cause of all human misfortunes."[32] Benjamin Constant wrote of Mably that he believed "the individual should be enslaved for the people to be free."

Mably had two theories on private property. One is that it originated in the lazy not working, such that society fell back on private property (ensuring that those who don't work don't eat). The other is that it originated in state officials failing to distribute goods equally and instead keeping them for themselves or handing them to friends and relations.[33] There are of course two problems with this, as Gray points out:

Firstly, the indolence that ruined primitive communism would probably once again ruin communism, if re-established; … Secondly, it reveals an extraordinary confusion of thought and of argument to proclaim that communism is the only condition in which men may live virtuously and happily, and in the same breath explain that communism was abandoned because the ordinary citizen failed to play fairly by his fellows, or alternatively because the leaders of society were dishonest and given to nepotism. [Mably,] in spite of himself, is being forced back to acknowledge the reality of original sin.[34]

William Godwin

William Godwin, who lived from 1756 to 1836, was a highly influential figure in England. His book of 1793, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness entered, to great success, the lists in the debate over the French Revolution. His fame led to his being married to Mary Wollstonecraft and becoming father-in-law to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Malthus's work was acknowledged as a reaction to Godwin.

Godwin's great theme was that justice demands that we give our property and assistance to those in need, and he disparaged rights as a way to avoid doing justice to others. He also saw society as fundamentally unjust, and he denounced marriage. It is no surprise he was later considered a communist and fomenter of the socialist spirit. On the other hand, he emphasized that the individual was judge and jury in all matters pertaining to his property. As a peaceful anarchist, he had a strong libertarian side.[35]

Gray quotes Godwin,

The poor man will be induced to regard the state of society as a state of war, an unjust combination, not for protecting every man in his rights and securing to him the means of existence, but for engrossing all its advantages to a few favoured individuals, and reserving for the portion of the rest want, dependence and misery.[36]

Godwin sees the social structure as basically stacked against the common man in favor of the privileged. Gray says,

The rich also become insolent, and develop "a temper overbearing, dictatorial and tyrannical." The rich, moreover, are "directly or indirectly the legislators of the State; and of consequence are perpetually reducing oppression into a system." These evils are confirmed by the law, for "legislation is in almost every country grossly the favourer of the rich against the poor," and further "the administration of law is not less iniquitous than the spirit in which it is framed."[37]

"The social function of the state is to transfer wealth from one set of pockets to another."

Godwin is clear that the system of oppression is the state. The context of his revolt against society is the corrupt 18th-century British mercantile state with its system of privilege and oppression. Correctly seeing that the privileged in society benefited from the state at the expense of everyone else, Godwin condemned the entire social structure. Godwin, like many socialists, denounced rights and advocated those with property giving it away to others. But Godwin advocated a completely voluntary system, making him unlike socialists and like a lover of liberty.

George Bernard Shaw

Albert Jay Nock's article, "The Socialism of Mr. Shaw" shows another more modern example of socialism as an attack on corruption.[38]

Mr. Shaw is a Socialist. In his view the extreme of collectivist Statism is a cure for all ills, like the old grandmother's pennyroyal. In politics it will abolish the party system, simplify procedures, and ensure the keeping of good and capable men in office.

Again, Mr. Shaw's concern is primarily to abolish corruption and get good men in office.

Mr. Shaw's State will establish equality of income, provide the right kind of education for children, settle the land-question, control production and distribution, keep everybody at work, and so forth and so on; and all in the public interest. Mr. Shaw unsparingly diagnoses the various ills to which the body politic is heir; his diagnosis is complete and correct; and for each and every ill he prescribes the one remedy — State action.

Shaw noted that the England of his time had many injustices. The English political system long institutionalized inequality, especially in the form of large landowners who dominated politics for centuries. Nock characterized his solution by saying, "All we have to do is to set up the right kind of government, manned by the right kind of people, and there you are."

Ironically, Shaw's solution — the right people in power — was exactly what the upper class thought they had accomplished. Nock notes that Shaw's mistake was his failure to account for the law that "man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion."

Nock notes the implication that

the one incomparably powerful means of exploitation is the State. It is also the safest means, because it is irresponsible. It is exempt from all the basic sanctions of ordinary morality. It is free to murder, cheat, lie, steal, and persecute at its own good pleasure and without fear of reprisals. … Their irresponsibility brings on a regime of prodigality, waste, inefficiency and corruption;

Shaw's faith in the state leads to him noting the problem without divining a real solution.

Robert Southey

Robert Southey wrote Sir Thomas More, a muddleheaded attack on the England of 1829 in the form of a dialogue with More. Lord Thomas Babbington Macaulay wrote a wonderful essay demolishing Southey's dialogue. According to Macaulay, Southey's characters in the dialogue were "equally eloquent, equally angry, equally unreasonable, and equally given to talking about what they do not understand." Macaulay's essay documents the great strides in wealth and long life that even ordinary people were sharing in — and it is worth reading for that alone. Southey, on the other hand, believes that "'a people,' he tell us, 'may be too rich, but a government cannot be so.'"

Macaulay makes the great insight that tyranny and corruption go hand in hand. People often object to the corruption without objecting to the tyranny. Macaulay contrasts the feelings the two engender:

A severe and gloomy tyranny, crushing opposition, silencing remonstrance, drilling the minds of the people into unreasoning obedience, has in it something of grandeur which delights his imagination. But there is nothing fine in the shabby tricks and jobs of office; and Mr. Southey, accordingly, has no toleration for them.[39]

Macaulay also notes,

He renounces the abject and paltry part of the creed of his party, without perceiving that it is also an essential part of that creed. He would have tyranny and purity together; though the most superficial observation might have shown him that there can be no tyranny without corruption.


Many a socialist — and Southey is a quasi socialist and Tory reactionary — objects to the tawdry reality. Yet they fail to realize that tyranny cleaves to corruption. The powerful are expected to use power to pursue noble ends. Yet the socialist is shocked when power is used for personal gain or self-interest.[40] In both cases power is used to force others to directly or indirectly pursue the ends and interests of the powerful.

Power and pelf, in the old phrase, went together so naturally for a reason.[41] Without power, one cannot seize or bestow wealth and privilege, and power is hard to maintain without patronage.

Does not power corrupt, and absolute power corrupt absolutely?

Until people accept that truth, socialism will seem the natural answer to a corrupt system. When people accept the truth, they will decrease tyranny — and with it corruption.

Anders Mikkelsen is a cost-management consultant in New York City. Send him mail. See Anders Mikkelsen's article archives.

© 2010 Copyright Ludwig von Mises - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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Ivy League Greg
10 Sep 10, 00:20
Ancient Greek History

Neither Plato nor Socrates were for communism as you so claim.

12 Sep 10, 17:05
Socialism as a Reaction to Corruption

Yup, the basic thought here looks sound. But in this unique American experience, we also empowered the rich through our own individual corruption. The existence of corporate greed, particularly gains through illegal means, is acknowledged. But where would Labour Union Strength be without violence, duplicity and coercion of conscience? Across the board, no one wants administration of justice, because it would harm our friends or else stop the gravy train. The fundamental problem is an unwillingness to deter sin.

24 Oct 10, 01:12
US Citizen

O come on...its federal corruption too. Please look at the indictmnents and investigation> The system is only suspected broken when it is caught. Its flat out corrupt> Americans need to take their country back!

24 Oct 10, 01:16
Us Citizen

Bail Outs are not from State Corruption!!! Its also from Federal. Look at all the resignations in the Bush administration, including The US attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Get Real! If these people are treating other countries like they do their own people, its no wonder we are always at war. Send Our Troops Home!!!!!!! Take America Back

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