Obscured Tautology and the Persistence of Socialism

28 January 2021

Since sometime in my childhood, I have repeatedly encountered arguments of the form

If X were Y enough, then X would be able to Z.

For example

If you were smart enough, then you'd be able to fix that widget.

The enough makes this claim a tautology; it really just unpacks to

If X were Y enough to Z, then X would be able to Z.

But the tautology is vacuous and useless in cases in which

Y enough to Z

is not possible, as in

pretty enough to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem

It is true that

If Madeline were pretty enough to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem, then Madeline would be able to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem.

It just isn't true that

Someone could be pretty enough to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem.

Outside of pædogogic exercises, when someone makes a declaration of form

If X were Y enough, then X would be able to Z.

he or she is presuming or insinuating that

At the margin, there is some level of Y that is sufficient to be able to Z.

but this proposition may not be true, and certainly ought to be examined before accepting

If X were Y enough, then X would be able to Z.

as part of an argument that

X ought to be more Y

or that

Z can be accomplished.

The reason that I write about this issue of logic now is that is seems to me that a great many people essentially believe that

All that is necessary for socialism to work is for us to take control and to be sufficiently virtuous; thus, when socialism fails it is either because we are not in control or are not sufficiently virtuous; and thus, no matter how much or how often attempts at socialism fail, we must struggle to take control and to be virtuous — perhaps by finding ways to incentivize virtuousness — until socialism succeeds.

Some critics would perhaps want to ask the genuinely important question of to just whom this we and us refer, but for my purpose here they can be left as a variable to be assigned whatever value the political left might want. My objection is that lurking in the argument is

If X were virtuous enough, then X would be able to make socialism work.

And, in this context, even a genuine failure of socialism will not be seen as a reason to quit trying. The socialists can always tell themselves We can succeed next time, or at least fail better.

The typical opponent of socialism argues that socialism will fail because people will not be motivated to expend sufficient effort. Not only can this been seen as a problem of virtue by the political left; it has been seen as a problem of virtue by the political right, who sometimes ascribe the impossibility of well functioning socialism to Original Sin.

But a motivation to work with sufficient intensity is not the deepest practical problem of socialism. The problem of knowing at what to workthe Problem of Economic Calculation — is the deepest problem. We can presume that, somehow, everyone conforms utterly to a left-wing notion of virtue, and still the Problem of Economic Calculation will abide.

At the margin, there is no level of virtue on the part of any us or of any them that is sufficient to be able to make socialism work.

But, hidden behind an obscured and misapplied tautology, the presumption that such a level exists can keep socialists banging their heads against the wall indefinitely and putting other people against the wall indefinitely.

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