Recently, Rhode Island College hosted a forum on the state of political and civil discourse in society.  The forum, co-sponsored by Leadership Rhode Island and The Providence Journal, featured a panel of professors, journalists, and other intellectuals.  The panel was charged with determining the roots of today’s conflicts in public discourse.  Numerous entities were put forth as culprits causing our current state of social disarray: news outlets, political parties, social media, and an overall lack of community institutions to name a few.

The aforementioned factors, quite catalytic in exacerbating the problem, are not the cause of the sickness that plagues our ability to engage with one another in civil and respectful dialogue.  The panelists largely ignored the long, steady, and ever-broadening decline of peaceful cooperation in society in general, a trend that has continued largely uninterrupted since the founding of our democracy (and with increasing velocity since the early 20th Century).  As with a viral epidemic, understanding the cause of any ongoing and exponential disintegration involves isolating the underlying infection, and in this case, the underlying infection is socialism and the growth of the state.

Now, there’s little doubt that certain factors have contributed to the severity of the problem.  Polarized and politically biased news sources, while nothing new, have grown substantially over the past few centuries and are increasingly antagonistic towards civil discourse.  Our major political parties have succeeded in dividing the nation into two warring camps such that all aspects of life, including areas that have traditionally been resistant to political influence, have been infected.  The dawn of social media has undoubtedly ramped up the deconstruction of civil society and has caused the disease to spread more rapidly throughout our system.  And lastly, the breakdown of the family and community organizations, especially over the past few decades, has led to greater inabilities for us to communicate with each other and iron out our differences.

However, to fully understand the roots of societal conflict and the role the socialist state plays in perpetuating it, we must first strive to understand the genesis of conflict itself.  Why do we fight?  It’s quite simple, really.  The scarcity of resources and the ambiguous ownership of those resources combine to create the ultimate catalyst of conflict amongst human beings.  When the fulfillment of our wants and needs is difficult to achieve because resources are scarce, we are far more prone to fight over those resources.  Furthermore, the more valued and necessary the resource, the more likely and intense the conflict will be.  For example, conflict between people doesn’t exist when the resource in question is objectively abundant, like air or water.  In general, we don’t find people tackling each other in order to inhale a particular patch of air or drink from the tap at the kitchen sink. However, if a situation arose where those resources suddenly became scarce, the probability of conflict increases exponentially.

Free markets and capitalist systems promote abundance, whereas restricted markets and socialist systems promote scarcity.  The famous phrase, “in a socialist society you wait in line for bread, but in a capitalist society the bread waits in line for you,” is particularly instructive.  When was the last time people in a capitalist society, on an average afternoon, were seen fighting with each other in a supermarket over the last loaf of bread?  It simply doesn’t happen, because markets and capital investment foster mass production, leading to affordable prices and an abundant supply of goods and services.  The extent to which resources in a capitalist society become scarce is a direct result of the restrictions placed on their production by government.  Meanwhile, one only needs to look back a year or so at the state of things in Venezuela to see people fighting in the streets over the discarded food in garbage bins.  This is the final stage of socialism.  Any socialist state that fails to right their ship will most certainly suffer the same fate as Venezuela and the Former Soviet Union.

In regards to the effects of scarcity on conflict, let’s imagine that two divers are stuck in a sunken ship with no air left in their tanks.  One of the divers notices a small pocket of air near the front of the ship that’s only big enough for one person.  The chances that the two divers will fight over the air is extremely high while the chances they will share the air by taking turns is far lower than it would be if the air was naturally abundant as it is above water.  One might also imagine a situation where potable water becomes scarce.  If a major storm makes landfall in your area rendering the tap water undrinkable, the chance for conflict to erupt over bottled water increases while the chance for cooperation and sharing decreases.

It’s worth noting that the same principle applies to more abstract resources like attention, love, friendship, and praise.  Similar to the examples above, people are just as likely to fight over friendship or praise if the parties involved believe those resources to be in limited supply, whereas if there is an abundant supply of friendship in a social circle, or praise in the workplace, the probability of conflict erupting in those situations is lower than it would be otherwise.  If we look at social media platforms, where the social network is virtually unlimited and “friends” are a dime a dozen, we find people blocking or “unfriending” others with little to no hesitation.  “Friends” in this area are a relatively abundant resource.  Nobody is fighting over friends on Facebook.  If anything, the common criticism of “Facebook friends” is that most people have 100 times as many friends online than they do in real life.  However, in a non-virtual reality, where social networks are considerably smaller and options for friendship are far more limited, we find people are much less likely to burn bridges, all other things being equal, and are far more likely to fight to maintain friendships.

As mentioned before, a lack of private property in any society leads to scarcity.  A society that fails to develop and maintain a system of property rights will eventually collapse under the weight of its own internal struggles for resources.  These struggles will consist of larger and larger groups of people until the conflict is impossible for even disinterested parties to ignore or avoid.  Instead of arguments over property being relegated to isolated disputes on an individual level, societies that promote and expand public property generate large groups of antagonists, to the point where entire races, religions, genders, and political affiliations are at war with one another.  Socialism is the ultimate tool used by the state to drive wedges between large groups of people to keep them divided amongst themselves.  This division allows the state to grow, and grow, and grow, until its size and scope is so overpowering that resistance is futile.

As ever-increasing amounts of private property in the form of money, land, goods, and services continue to be seized by the state for redistribution, a diverse and impassioned array of special interest groups will continue to emerge, fighting with an accelerated ferocity for influence and control over both the apparatus charged with redistributing the appropriated property and the people elected to operate that apparatus; the politicians.  While the entrance of groups representing workers, corporations, religious groups, environmentalists, senior citizens, industries, and various racial and socio-economic groups into the political process may be a product of democracy itself, the growing influence of those groups on the political process can be laid at the feet of an ever-expanding socialist state.

The amount of private property up for grabs has increased by leaps and bounds over the years.  In terms of dollars alone, total US government revenues (federal, state, and local) currently sit at $6.27 trillion per year or about 35% of GDP.  in 1900, before the income tax and federal reserve banking system were instituted, total government revenues amounted to just 7% of GDP, garnered mostly through tariffs.  As the size of the public pie has grown, so to has the incentive for people to fight amongst themselves for pieces of the pie.  Over the past 20 years alone, lobbyists representing various special interest groups have increased their spending from $1.45 billion to $3.37 billion.  Why?  As the size of the pie has grown, so to have efforts to influence the politicians who are charged with redistributing pieces of the pie.  Interestingly, although not surprisingly, the size of the pie increased from $3.7 trillion to $6.27 trillion over the same time period, an almost identical increase in terms of percentage.  These figures do not take into account the total amount of money the government borrows and adds to the debt every year. (statistics from usgovernmentrevenue.com and statista.com)

There is no arguing that polarized news outlets, political parties, and social media act like gasoline being thrown onto a fire.  However, they do not explain the emergence of the fire, nor do they serve as a steady source of fuel for the fire to grow.  They are accelerants that can cause a rapid and drastic intensification of the fire itself.  But what caused the fire in the first place?  How was it lit?  In truth, the initial point of ignition is impossible to pinpoint.  It is reasonable to assume that the fire has always existed in varying degrees of scope and intensity.  However, in a society founded on private property rights, it is extremely rare that the fire will spread very far.  Property rights serve as a barrier to the growth of conflict, like a wall of water between the house on fire and the house next door.  Rights to property that are unambiguous and easily defined serve as an infinite trench dug deep around the perimeter of a forest fire and the enforcement of those rights are like suppressants dumped from helicopters circling above the blaze.  The fire can be isolated, it can be contained, and it can be extinguished.

When the rights to property are ambiguous and indeterminate, the wall of water between two houses is reduced to a light mist, and the trench surrounding the forest fire is like a line drawn in the dirt with the fat end of a twig.  In this scenario, there is infinite room for the fire to spread.  As the state seizes more and more property from the private sector the bigger the fire becomes.  Eventually, it gets so big and covers so much ground that it cannot be isolated, it cannot be contained, and it cannot be extinguished.  Eventually, everything around you is on fire, as far as the eye can see and beyond.  At this point, the only way the fire can be neutralized is for it to burn itself out.  Sooner or later there will be nothing left to burn and the result will be a landscape of smoldering ash.

If we do not address the root causes of our divided and conflict-ridden discourse, things will most certainly get worse before they get better.  In the literal sense, socialism ought to be called, “anti-socialism.”  The expansion of the socialist state in America must be reversed if we stand any chance at salvaging the social fabric of our nation.  If we fail in this endeavor, the fabric will burn from the first stitch to the last until there is nothing left but a society that is charred and unrecognizable.  The answer to what ails us is not just an abundance of resources, but an abundance of individual liberty, free markets, and private property rights for all.

The theories in this article were heavily influenced by the writings of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Stephan Kinsella, and Murray Rothbard, among others

About the author: Eric
Eric worked closely with Bob Healey on his campaign for Governor in 2016 and founded the “Democrats for Healey” movement. As a Libertarian Quaker activist, he advocates for both a free market and a free society as essential to a moral society. Eric Palmieri also studies economic theory, history, and philosophy through the Mises Academy (the Mises Institute's Independent Study Program) and has successfully completed more than 10 courses to date. He currently resides in North Providence, Rhode Island.