Everyday socialism

You live in a condo unit on the first floor of the building. Let’s call it unit 1A.

One day you come home and there is a small pool of water forming in the hallway in front of the door to your unit. A group of your neighbors are standing around and discussing it.

“You might have a leak,” a neighbor advises. You unlock your door, and check your entire place: the hot water heater, the laundry machine, the dishwasher, the bathroom. There are no leaks, and there is no water on the floor inside your unit. You go outside and tell your neighbors.

The pool of water extends down the hallway, past the door to 1B and almost to 1C.  One wall is damp. One of the neighbors runs up the stairs to knock on the door of the unit above yours.  They aren’t home, but someone in the group is on the phone with the president of the homeowner’s association, and is getting the contact information for 2A. A young man answers the phone on the other end, and when he hears about the situation he says he will head right home.

The pool of water in the hallway is growing.  It’s right up against the wall of the hallway: the wall to your unit.  Your bedroom closet is on the other side. You wonder how much higher the water would need to get before it starts causing water damage inside your unit. You’re trying to remember if you have the right filter for your wet vac, or if you’ll need to start mopping soon.

The owner from 2A arrives. He climbs the stairs, opens the door to his place and looks inside. Everything looks normal. “I don’t think it’s coming from me,” he says. But you say: “You better check your hot water heater.”  Sure enough, it’s leaking a continual stream of water onto the floor, and pooling up by the wall. You can see where it’s seeping into the cracks, leaking down to the first floor.

The owner of 2A is young and flustered. He has no idea what to do. At this point the little conservative voice in your head — the personal responsibility voice, the no-handouts-for-moochers voice — says:

Why should I spend my time, my valuable time, explaining to this person how to shut off his hot water valve, and how to find the phone number of a plumber to call? He should know this stuff already! It isn’t my responsibility to do stuff for him, to teach him, to help him! He needs to work hard for himself!

Which is fine, except the water level in front of your door is creeping up. So one of the neighbors shows the owner of 2A how to shut off the water valve, while another looks up the name and number of a good plumber that he can call in the morning.

And while they are doing that, you walk downstairs and look at the pool of water. The conservative voice in your head — the unforgiving voice, the self-righteous voice — says:

I shouldn’t have to mop all this up! It’s not my fault! It’s his fault! It’s his damn water heater that leaked! He should be doing this, not me! This is taking up my valuable time! Why can’t these lazy people clean up their own messes!

Which is fine, except you know that he’s stressed out and trying to figure out how to call a plumber… maybe for the first time in his life… and get the damage in his own unit under control. He’s not going to get around to mopping in front of your door any time soon, and the longer you wait, the more chance there is that it will seep into the walls and cause water damage to your unit.

So you get out your mop, and start to soak up the water. Dab the mop into the pool of water, squeeze it into the bucket, and repeat.  You make your way down the hallway, and gradually the pool gets shallower.

Eventually you find yourself nearly to the door of 1B. The conservative voice in your head — the every-man-for-himself voice, the total dick voice — says:

Why should I bother mopping in front of 1B?  If they are not home to see this water here, that’s their problem! My time is valuable! My work is valuable! Why should I do work for someone else if they aren’t paying me! I’m a capitalist, and I’ll never do anything of value for anyone else unless they pay me for it!

Which is fine, but by now you’ve learned not to listen to the conservative voice. You’ve learned it’s a stupid, selfish voice, and has nothing to do with how real human beings live together in the world.

You’ve learned that you’re a socialist.1

footnote 1: A lot of people are going to object to me using “socialist” to characterize the situation I’m describing here, on the grounds that “socialism” involves the government forcing people to give their labor (or the product of it) to others for free, while the situation I’ve described is entirely voluntary.

But that argument misses the entire point: one of the reasons people in small, tight-knit communities work together, and help their neighbors to do things when their neighbors are unable to do it themselves, is that the community is interdependent. You teach your neighbor and support your neighbor not only because it’s a nice and friendly way to be, but because if you don’t it harms the community as a whole. If you don’t, it could end up hurting you: like the water from your neighbor’s hot water heater seeping into your apartment.

“Socialism” is nothing more than a way of recognizing that interdependence in a larger system of society. You spend some extra time (or money, or labor) to help the people who need it, because they are pieces of the same social and economic system that you belong to. When they function better, the system functions better, and it helps you. When they fail — regardless of whether that failure is “their own fault” or not — everyone can end up suffering.

So think about this when you’re asked to pay for a school where you don’t have any children, or you’re asked to pay for someone else’s contraception, or when you’re taxes help to pay for someone else’s housing. It isn’t about giving “free handouts”.  It isn’t about being a “nice person”. It’s about the fact that you live in a community where everyone is interdependent.

And you don’t need water from their hot water heater seeping into your apartment.

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  1. Nancy H says:

    Nice article, I dont mind your usuage of the term “socialism” as it falls in line with the more anthropological/biological term “pro-sociality”. Have you read the book The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans De Waal? It’s about how ‘morals’ (empathy) that help society run developed before religion even existed because that’s how mammals are designed (I’m totally simplifying of course), but your article really made me think of it.
    Again nice read. And necessary thought in an increasingly isolated society that tends to value individual gains while not considering the cost to our society and culture as a whole.

  2. Todd Danza says:

    Concerning your footnote, I beg to differ. If government force is involved, then no, you’re not “being nice” at all. In fact, you have no way of knowing whether the people that the government is taking resources from might even be the ones who are struggling. This can cause more problems than it solves.

    Yes, that voice in your head (If you have it) that’s always asking why you have to do this or that is indeed a selfish voice, but it’s not a Conservative voice. Giving voluntary service is a core principle of Conservativism.

    The question of whether your efforts are voluntary or compulsory makes all the difference in the world.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thanks for your comment!

      To me, issues such as whether the government is properly identifying who to take from and who to give to are what I would call “implementation details”: the fact that it’s difficult isn’t an argument against the entire system, it’s just saying that the system is tough. The reality is that the same problem exists with voluntary charitable giving as well: there is no way of knowing that the way charity is being distributed is actually helping the people who need it the most, or that it will actually result in the greatest benefit to the societal system as a whole, or that it is even coming from the people who are most able to contribute it without it negatively impacting their consumption in other ways. So the fact that governmental systems don’t have an elegant solution to the “efficient allocation of resources” problem isn’t really a criticism of socialism… because private systems don’t have a solution either. It’s simply a hard problem to solve.

      I’d like to ask about your last statement: “The question of whether your efforts are voluntary or compulsory makes all the difference in the world.” Can we dig a little more into that? Why is that the key difference, and what functionally does it mean to say that it makes all the difference in the world?

      • Todd Danza says:

        “The reality is that the same problem exists with voluntary charitable giving as well: there is no way of knowing that the way charity is being distributed is actually helping the people who need it the most, or that it will actually result in the greatest benefit to the societal system as a whole”*

        But you do know that the people providing the charity can afford it, so no, it’s not the same.

        All you’re saying is that voluntary charity is no more a solution to poverty than enforced charity (which really isn’t charity at all, but that’s another topic). That’s not the issue here, though, because as you suggested, both systems are about the same in this respect.

        The difference is that one runs the risk of taking from the needy where the other doesn’t.

        Focusing on what benefits the societal system as a whole is a flawed way of thinking. It can cause “the system” to feel very justified in behaving very unjustly toward people other than those it is intended to benefit because the benefit to some is, or appears to be a net gain to society.

        That’s a lot more serious than the problem of distributing resources efficiently. This sort of thinking can be demonstrated in just about every case of social injustice throughout history.

        That’s why it voluntary vs. compulsory makes all the difference.

        I’m not saying though that there’s no room for some socialism, but any such systems should be overwhelmingly agreed upon, not like a 51/49 percent split.

        • Greg Stevens says:

          “But you do know that the people providing the charity can afford it, so no, it’s not the same.”

          Well, I don’t really know that, no. Studies show that people with middle incomes give disproportionately large percentages of their wealth to charity, compared with people who have higher incomes. And we don’t actually “know” that the economy as a whole wouldn’t be benefited more by them using that money in some other method of consumption or spending.

          A well-tuned and well-parameterized system will take and amount of money from people that will not harmfully impact their lives and give that money to people whose lives will be positively impacted by it. There is plenty of opportunity for both a voluntary AND a compulsory system to get either side of that equation (i.e. who to take from, who to give to) wrong.

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