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Is Patton Oswalt a Wealthy Socialist Hypocrite?

During the last Republican debate, comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted, “HELP US, @SenSanders.” Neoconservative warmonger Ben Schapiro jumped on the tweet, and in the ensuing exchange of unpleasantries, Schapiro repeatedly insinuated that Oswalt is a hypocrite for supporting a socialist without giving away his savings to charity.

Full disclosure: I have a bias here. Patton Oswalt is one of my favorite comedians. His standup albums My Weakness is Strong, Finest Hour, and especially Werewolves and Lollipops are all magnificent. And Ben Schapiro is on record as an advocate of ethnic cleansing. That said, the point about socialism is worth clarifying for deeper reasons than point-scoring the dust-up between Oswalt and the odious Schapiro.

‘Socialism’ in the classical sense of the term—the sense in which pretty much everyone used it before the rise of Stalinism on the one hand and contemporary social-democratic welfare-ism on the other—means the extension of democracy from politics to economics through collective ownership and workers’ control of production. Here, for example, is the largest socialist organization in the U.S., the Democratic Socialists of America, defining the term:

Democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy. But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either. Rather, we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.

Today, corporate executives who answer only to themselves and a few wealthy stockholders make basic economic decisions affecting millions of people. Resources are used to make money for capitalists rather than to meet human needs. We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.

Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives. Democratic socialists favor as much decentralization as possible. While the large concentrations of capital in industries such as energy and steel may necessitate some form of state ownership, many consumer-goods industries might be best run as cooperatives.

Democratic socialists have long rejected the belief that the whole economy should be centrally planned. While we believe that democratic planning can shape major social investments like mass transit, housing, and energy, market mechanisms are needed to determine the demand for many consumer goods.

Here are the definitions offered by the Socialist Party, USA, and the International Socialist Organization:

Socialism is not mere government ownership, a welfare state, or a repressive bureaucracy. Socialism is a new social and economic order in which workers and consumers control production and community residents control their neighborhoods, homes, and schools.  The production of society is used for the benefit of all humanity, not for the private profit of a few.

There’s no blueprint for what a socialist society will look like. That will be determined by the generations to come who are living in one. But it seems obvious that such a society would guarantee every person enough to eat and a sturdy roof over their heads. The education system would be made free–and reorganized so that every child’s ability is encouraged. Health care would be made free and accessible to all, as would all utilities like gas and electricity. Public transportation would also be made free–and more practical and efficient. All of these basic needs would become top priorities.

A socialist society would not only take away the existing wealth of the ruling class, but also its economic control over the world. The means of production–the factories, offices, mines, and so on–would be owned by all of society.

Bernie Sanders, in the major speech laying out his understanding of ‘socialism,’ has offered a considerably more modest vision. Like the ISO definition quoted above, he emphasizes social rights like health care and higher education, and he wants to pay for these sweeping entitlements by taking away (a chunk of) the existing wealth of the ruling class. Unlike the ISO and the SPUSA and even the DSA (which has enthusiastically endorsed his Presidential campaign), Senator Sanders most definitely does not want to “take away their economic control of the world.” Even when it comes to his bette noir, the big banks, Sanders advocates that they be broken up rather than nationalized.

Presumably, when Oswalt accuses Schapiro of not understanding socialism, he’s using the term in this relatively mild social democratic sense. The extreme enthusiasm for the nascent Obama Presidency in his hilarious 2004 album Feeling Kinda Patton is a pretty good indication that Oswalt’s politics fall somewhere short of fire-breathing revolutionary Marxism. One way or the other, Oswalt is right about Schapiro’s lack of understanding.

If a business-owner advocated ‘socialism’ in the DSA/SPUSA/ISO sense of the term but nevertheless moved their factories to another country to prevent them from being nationalized and placed under workers’ control by a socialist government, she could justly be accused of hypocrisy. If a ‘socialist’ in the Sanders/Oswalt sense didn’t pay his taxes, this might or might not be hypocritical. (Intentions matter. Some leftists might practice tax resistance in order to undermine the military/industrial complex, even though they would otherwise be happy to fork over a large share of their income in taxes to subsidize a social democratic welfare state.) It would certainly be hypocritical of a comrade at pretty much any point in this spectrum to cross a union picket line during a strike.

The sin of hypocrisy involves a clash between your behavior and the behavior you recommend. An evangelical preacher who stays in a hotel under an assumed name in order to carry on with his secret lover is a hypocrite. If Dan Savage and his husband are engaged in precisely the same sexual acts in the next room, no hypocrisy is involved. If socialists’ solution to the plight of the poor were individual charity, then a socialist with disposable income would indeed be hypocritical if he or she failed to give. But the whole point of socialism, even in the minimalistic sense in which the term is used by Sanders and Oswalt, is that the ills of capitalism require institutional solutions.

In one of the Republican debates in 2008, libertarian-leaning Congressman Ron Paul, who opposes all government subsidies for health insurance—never mind the single-payer system advocated by Sanders—was asked about the fate of a hypothetical uninsured workingman who needs an expensive operation. Should we just, as some members of the debate audience infamously advocated, ‘let him die?’ Paul said that the solution in such cases was for the uninsured man’s church to take up a collection to pay his medical expenses.

Nor is this emphasis on private charity unique to quasi-libertarians like Ron Paul. The first President Bush famously talked about ‘a thousand points of light’—rather than the single light source of a welfare state—as a solution for people in great need. His son George W. Bush’s main anti-poverty initiative, such as it was, involved making it easier for explicitly religious charities to receive government funds.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of the charity of the rich, but let’s accept for the sake of argument that charitable giving is always a noble thing to do. Even so, there would be nothing specifically hypocritical about the failure of a socialist of means to give. A conservative like Paul, or the Presidents Bush (or Schapiro) who failed to give a meaningful portion of his income to charity would be another matter entirely. If your solution to poverty is charity and you refuse to give—if, knowing how badly people are suffering, you both oppose collective action to alleviate that suffering and refuse to engage in any individual action, then you aren’t merely a hypocrite. You’re a monster.

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Ben Burgis is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Underwood International College, Yonsei University.

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