Socialism, masturbation, and Christine O'Donnell.
Oh, dear. It looks like I have to talk about masturbation again.
Last week, I called Christine O'Donnell a "masturbation socialist." A chorus of political theorists—Will Wilkinson, Kevin Williamson, and now Ross Douthat—has descended on me, protesting that O'Donnell does not, in fact, advocate government control of wanking.
It's heartening to see conservatives become so precise about defining socialism. Two months ago, under the headline "Obama is a Socialist …," Williamson wrote this:
But is it kooky to call Obama a socialist?
Sure, if by socialist you mean Lenin or Kim Jong Il, or even Proudhon or Eugene V. Debs. If you mean somebody who believes that the government should exert significant political control over the commanding heights of the economy—such as finance and energy–and engage in some kind of economic central planning—such as a massive bureaucratic effort to reduce health-care spending as a share of GDP—whose ethic is basically redistributive, etc., then maybe it does not sound so kooky. And he does love him a good five-year plan.
But now that the accused socialist is O'Donnell, Williamson's definition has undergone sudden shrinkage. He writes: "Socialism is when The Man comes to your house with a gun and tells you that you are going to serve the community."
You guys crack me up.
Socialism can be defined in many ways, and not just in Williamson's head. It can mean "state ownership of capital," "common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production," or "any of various political philosophies that support social and economic equality, collective decision-making, and public control of productive capital." There are many schools of socialism, including "libertarian socialism."
The common thread in these definitions is that the target of collective control is industry. So except in places where masturbation counts as an industry—the U.S. Senate, for example, or political commentary—it's a stretch (and, I admit, an ironic one) to call O'Donnell a socialist. But that isn't what O'Donnell's defenders object to. Their objection is that she doesn't favor the government as the agent of social control. As Williamson puts it:
One can think all sorts of things are bad, or selfish, or undesirable, or otherwise to be discouraged—without also believing that there should be laws against them. … For instance, one may believe that marital infidelity is wrong, immoral, and to be discouraged, and believe that this is an important public issue, to be addressed by both public and private means, without believing that we should revive the adultery laws. (I do, in fact, believe there should be sanctions against adultery, but I prefer a breach-of-contract model to the criminal code, taking, as I do, a contractual view of marriage as a public institution.) One can believe that pornography is a destructive force in modern life, campaign against it, argue for social sanctions against its producers and consumers, but still reject the idea that government should censor it.
Indeed one can. And here, beneath the masturbation jokes, we have a big, serious disagreement. I don't think the absence of government is sufficient to define freedom. I think social control over individuals can be exercised not just by the state but by other agents of what's described broadly, in definitions of socialism, as the "public," the "community," or the "collective." In the context of another moral issue, abortion, I wrote a whole book about this disagreement. Short version:
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Christine O'Donnell by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.