Let’s start with a hunter-gatherer situation. Everyone is born and receives nourishment from their family/society until they are old enough to fend for themselves. At this time, they go out and either hunt or gather for sustenance for at least themselves, possibly for their families (already micro-socialism). Now, perhaps they are very good at hunting, or they have a knack for gather the tastiest of berries, but they don’t need all that tasty meat or berries, so they use their surplus to trade with other people in this hunter-gatherer society for things they perhaps didn’t have the time or energy or desire to hunt or gather. “I have a few extra rabbits, how about I trade you for a few of your extra fish?”. These are the beginnings of capitalism.
If we continue on the capitalistic vein, we can assign value to certain goods/services, and trade accordingly. For instance, perhaps it takes a whole day to catch even one octopus, but you can catch 200 trout in the same time. We could say 200 fish = 1 octopus. Therefore, if I devise a plan to catch 3 octopii per day, I could trade it for 600 trout, and those who only catch one octopus per day can only trade for 200. Or I could catch 1 octopus per day, trade half for 100 trout. Or I could teach my methods to other octopus fishers for the cost of 2 bushels of berries per day. This is all well and good, because I am rewarded for my cunning and intellect. However, if there are too many octopus fishers, then the value goes down because “anyone can catch 10 octopii per day using this one method”. So perhaps after a while, the value of trout goes up.
But at this point, each person in this hunter-gatherer capitalistic society starts more or less the same, and acquires skills and makes smart trades to climb up the social ladder and acquire more wealth. Perhaps one person purchases 1,000 trout at the time where trout are worthless, then sells them later at a time where the trout become more valuable. Or perhaps a person catches ALL the trout, then lets the value rise a bit due to shortage, then trades them for as many octopii as one could eat. We call these people “stock brokers” and “investment bankers”. They may not do very much actual hunting and/or gathering, but they use their wits to manipulate the trade system so they can benefit from it.
Now let’s skip ahead a few generations. One family has been paying people a basket of berries per day to use a method of catching 10 octopii per day for generations. The 10 octopii have a value of 1,000 baskets of berries, but their method of catching so many octopii is a family secret, and a basket of berries per day is still more than other people get, so it’s OK for the workers. But after a few generations, we have this huge rift between families who are born into a situation where they literally do nothing other than stand by as someone else catches octopii and someone else gathers berries and an intermediary handles the payment transactions (also in exchange for a basket of berries per day). But nearly all the other children growing up will have to settle for working for a half-basket of berries and one fish per day, because they don’t know how to catch octopii, and if they even tried, the other families with the “rights” to the octopus fishing grounds will beat them up if they even try.
But of course these wealthy octopus-fishing families aren’t completely heartless – they’ll teach your their method and maybe even let you use some of their fishing grounds – for a price. They will teach you their methods and let you fish on a portion of their grounds for FREE*, but you’ll have to pay half of your catch to them as tribute each day as a “thank you”. So for the rest of your life, you receive 1.5 baskets of berries and 1/4 octopus per day, but you have to give the same amount to the über-family. It’s not that bad – you earn more than most of your peers, but it still seems strange that only because people born into the other family don’t have to lift a single finger and earn 10 or even 100x more than you each day. But it’s only like 10 people, and there are at least 10,000 in this now “thriving” society.
Enter socialism. A socialist society would now realize that a few people have it really good due to generations of cunning, intellect, luck, and perhaps a bit of nefarious dealings (catching all the trout to raise the value is a bit dodgy…), and most have it only “OK”. A better solution would be to look at how many berries/fish/rabbits a given person attains each day, how much they really need, and distribute a portion of the surplus to those who, for some reason or another, don’t have enough to really call themselves a member of our fictional society. Perhaps all the trout are gone in their area, or perhaps they’re not intelligent enough to figure out new ways of picking berries, or perhaps they would really like to learn new methods of berry-gathering, but they don’t have enough fish to trade for the education required to learn said berry-picking techniques. It’s not for lack of will, but, rather, for lack of equal starting conditions. And socialism tries to even things out.
If we simply put all fish, rabbits, deer, berries and chickens in a big pot and divided them up evenly among all the townsfolk, that would be communism. And of course then one would think, “hey, I could literally never go hunting or gathering and just leech off the others, as we all get the same in the end.” But in socialism, portions of the food “earned” by those who do very little actual “work” are re-distributed to those who do a lot of work but aren’t able to hunt/gather as much (because trade can be more lucrative than actual hunting or gathering, but hunters and gatherers are the backbone of this society). And if the hunters/gatherers are well-fed, educated in the most current hunting/gathering techniques, then they will be less likely to revolt and can produce more food for the traders at the top of our society. So, in a way, EVERYONE benefits!
If you feel that people born into a family with 10,000x as many baskets of berries and 1,000x as many fishing boats as you but does 10x less actual “work” than you should maybe share his essentially non-earned fortune with you for the betterment of society, you might be a socialist.
Of course this is a simple example, and world and domestic markets are very complex, but why is it that the people who “work” in those markets have six-figure salaries while highly-skilled workers have to take out a second mortgage just to be able to afford healthcare or higher education? Why is it easier to make a million a year if you already have a 5 million-dollar trust fund to invest? Is 45% instead of 38% taxes too much to ask if you’re earning > 2 million per year and the benefits include:
- nobody goes hungry
- everyone can afford higher education, no exceptions
- nobody has to sleep on the streets if they don’t want
- a happy, healthy, and well-educated work force