Is dictatorship necessary for socialism?

A viewer asked this question on 7/8/2000:

Can you tell me if dictatorship is a necessary precondition to socialism. It seems that it has never survived for long without imposing a police state. Tell me if government rules and regulations also require a dictatorship, as they are never accepted without resistance. Would you also explain your theory of property.

JesseGordon gave this response on 7/8/2000:

Well, whether socialism requires dictatorship is an open question in the political world, which means the answer depends who you ask. Certainly, by the usual US definition of socialism, a dictatorship is necessary, because the usual US definition of socialism is closer to the political definition of totalitarian, which implies a dictator. When Congressmen decry "socialism," yes, they mean to decry "totalitarianism" and "dictatorship."

In the academic world, people discuss this question less simplistically than in Congress. "Socialism" really means "state control of the economy." There are many countries today which fit that definition of socialist, which are certainly not dictatorships. Some examples:
-- Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia have socialist economies, including much more pervasive welfare states than in the US, but are all free democracies.
-- Singapore and other states in the Pacific Rim have, in essence, police states in terms of control of their citizens' daily lives (for example, chewing gum is illegal; see Yet they are officially a democracy and have no dictator (they DO have one-party rule).
-- France currently has a Socialist prime minister (Lionel Jospin) and had a Socialist president (Francois Mitterand), and other Western European countries have had Socialists in power, but they're still capitalist democracies.

In other words, there are plenty of examples where socialist states are NOT dictatorships. Some would say that the US has become socialist. The US Socialist Party had a famous platform in 1911 of which over half has been fully implemented -- things like a minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, a welfare safety net, and a guaranteed retirement income. We accept those things today as normal political issues, but in reality, they're all from the socialist agenda, and things which were once considered too radical for a capitalist democracy.

I think what you're really asking about is whether increasing socialist policies in government leads towards a more dictatorial government. Friedrich Hayek addressed that question in his classic tome, "The Road to Serfdom" (written in 1944 but still a bestseller). As you can guess from the title, he concluded that yes, too much socialism would require dictatorship. The open question then is "How much is too much socialism?"

I think the answer is that the line that can't be crossed is government control of our private lives and private information. That's the distinction between the modern US welfare state and George Orwell's totalitarian vision in "1984." Hayek would probably draw the line somewhat more economically, and would probably say that the US has crossed the line and is hence on the road to serfdom. In other words, Hayek would say that the US government must reduce its current intrusions into the economy or risk becoming increasingly totalitarian in the future.

I think the other thing you're really asking about is whether one can separate socialist policy from totalitarian government. The Nobel laureate Milton Friedman addressed that question on his classic, "Capitalism and Freedom." Again, you can guess from the title that he concluded that yes, capitalism ensures freedom (I discuss this in terms of China in an article at But that doesn't mean that a LACK of capitalism ensures a LACK of freedom -- in other words, Friedman doesn't say that socialism ensures totalitarianism. Neither do I -- see the examples above and a full discussion in that Singapore article I cited above.

I think the answer here is that as long as there's some capitalism in the country, enough to allow a middle class to grow, then freedom is assured in the long run, because the middle class will eventually get educated, demand political freedom, and overthrow the dictators or one-party rulers. My hope for China, for example, is that the growing middle class there will, in 20 or 30 years, force political change. I'd say that the only way to maintain a purely socialist state (one without any capitalism or middle class at all) is indeed to have a complete dictatorship and complete control of every aspect of life (like in North Korea or Cuba today). Since China doesn't do that, I predict their dictatorship will fall.

You can ask about property rights in a follow-up.

A viewer rated this answer:

Very nice answer. You pass. Now tell me if property and justice are compatible ideas.

JesseGordon gave this response:

Yes, I think property and justice are compatible. I'm familiar with the theories that say that property is itself a form of theft, and I disagree. In a "zero-sum" world, with a fixed quantity of goods, that may be true. But in the real world, we can CREATE wealth, and hence are entitled, with justice, to the property resulting from that creation.

A viewer asked this question on 8/28/2000:

what is mean by socialism?
Examples of socialism

stevehaddock gave this response on 8/28/2000:

Under socialism, the government is expected to provide services that could be provided by private enterprise, but would be too expensive for everyone to afford if it did so.

For example, most western countries (with the notable exception of the United States) offer universal health care to their citizens. This usually means that private doctors are prohibited, or at least severely curtailed.

Countries that practice socialism have higher taxes than those that don't. However, they also provide more services. In Norway, which currently has the highest taxes in the world, the "cradle to grave" model of socialism has been replaced by the "pre-natal to post-mortem" model - the government pays for everything from the treatment of the pregnant mother to your burial, all paid out of taxes.

Of course, not all enterprises have to be socialized. For example, until 1990, the British telephone system was run by the government. Since then, it has been run by shareholders. For another, until about 1992, Air Canada was owned by the Canadian government. It too is now owned by shareholders.

But even the same industry can be both publicly and privately owned, even in the same country! For example, depending on where you live in the United States, your electrical utility might be a public utility (effectively funded by the government) or a private for-profit company.

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