Every so many years during the last quarter century a book has been published declaring the death of socialism and the triumph of capitalism. Always rash, such predictions were not only premature but incurably optimistic about human nature.
Briefly put, socialism is the concept that wealth should be redistributed from those who created it to those who need it. It is based on the concept that all men are equal, or would be at least, were it not for factors beyond their control, such as genetics, culture, personal history and upbringing. None of us get to pick our parents or our gene pool, and we can easily become trapped in our neighborhoods and other disadvantaged circumstances.
Socialism is fundamentally based on the philosophy of altruism, i.e. that the highest purpose of human life can be found in the service of others. For the religious, this finds expression in duty to God and neighbor; for the secular altruism finds its expression in service to Society. The core premise of socialism is one of sacrifice of self to the needs of others. Icons of socialism are Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandi, and anyone else who may have sacrificed the life they wanted to live for a life of lesser benefit to themselves, but in the service of others. Socialism is about self-denial, self-abnegation, servitude, and duty. Its hallmark is guilt, the guilt of those who thus have to sneak their pleasures. If the bottom of society can not be brought up to an equal level with the rest of society, then the top level of society has to be brought down. Not equality of opportunity, but equality of results is the benchmark of success. Since man is basically “selfish”, socialism always involves the use of government coercion, the threat of a gun, to achieve its aims. People cannot be relied on to sacrifice themselves in large enough measure to achieve the utopian objectives.
The emotional payoff for the practitioners of socialism is first of all power, for you have the ability, either by the vote, or by regulatory authority, or subjective law, or well-financed lobbying, to intrude on the lives of others and compel them to adhere to your personal vision of the “good”; and if your appeals to their sense of unselfishness and self-sacrifice are not successful, you always have the power of the governments’ guns to fall back on. For those not in power, an emotional payoff is the knowledge that if they plead their case loud enough, their needs and misfortunes may receive attention from the authorities, usually in the form of a transfer of wealth from someone more productive than you, to you. For all who sacrifice, there is the satisfaction of a certain self-righteousness, and if their sacrifices result in unhappiness or death, there is always the promise of eternal life and other gratifications on the other side. Finally, a universal appeal of socialism is that nothing is our fault, nothing can be helped, and anything less than total equality is obviously unfair. Therefore the seizure of the property of others for redistribution is considered not only moral, but a right, an entitlement. It is not even charity, because charity is voluntary, not coercive.
Socialism has a strong appeal for underachievers and those envious of the success of others, and it also appeals to those who seek power over others. The hallmark of socialism and its underlying premise of altruism is “loaded language”, or the doublespeak of those who dare not declare their real motives. Every wish, every desire, every legislative initiative, every grab for power, is carefully wrapped in the language of sacrifice, self-abnegation, and the good of society, particularly a society of victims. In this way it seeks the moral high ground of the argument, handicapping the opposition and accusing them of shallow greed and self-seeking. When the wider culture holds altruism as its highest value, it becomes a potent political weapon. In a culture where altruism predominates, for example, businessman will rarely mention the profit motive, but frame their efforts in terms of job creation. The former would be an admission of selfishness; the latter an evidence of nobility of spirit.
Socialism appeals to the power seekers, because the process of redistribution of property has to be administered. When the electoral process is involved, it is the case of nine foxes and a hen deciding on what to have for dinner tonight. The election itself is a fraud, because it is a violation of natural, immutable rights of every individual to keep what he has earned. Most of the redistribution is decided by bureaucrats, however, not by the electorate, and in time a vast regulatory bureaucracy takes on an existence of its own and becomes the Master of those it supposedly serves. Then begins the craven march of “political entrepreneurs” who come to plead their special neediness, and thus begins the corruption as constituents vie with each other for influence with the power brokers. Favors are exchanged, bought and sold, and secret “pull” with the authorities becomes more important than real competitiveness. As a matter of fact, the bureaucrats are frequently sought out for regulatory relief and protection from competitors who threaten to overtake them. Who you know has now become more important than how good you are at what you do.
This creeping corruption eventually erodes the entire system, robbing it of its efficiency, and replaces it with the adulation of mediocrity. Units and nation states become less able to compete in the global market place, sheltered by domestic regulation and protection. For a while such a nation state can maintain an illusion of security, but its internal corruption weakens its fiber until it can no longer sustain itself and it collapses under its own weight. Its producers produce less; its needy need ever more. If you are highly productive and efficient, your virtue is punished, and your “excess” property is confiscated and redistributed to the less productive. You experience the flight of human capital, as your best and brightest follow the money and leave your country to work elsewhere, anywhere where they can keep more of what they earn. These are vilified publicly for their failure to appropriately sacrifice to those they left behind. It is then common to see a government close its borders, not to those trying to get in, but to restrain those inside from leaving.
All of this is why socialism always fails. It runs counter to human nature. It runs counter to reality, and can only be enforced with guilt, and that failing, a gun. It doesn’t work because you cannot ask a man to work hard and not keep what he has earned. Socialism is an attempt to practice slavery under another name. Socialism is an attempt to load as many fleas on a sled dog as possible without killing the dog. Altruism maintains that the dog does not have a right to its own life as an end in itself, but that its only right to existence is to support the fleas. The dog begins to exert most of its effort winning the approval of Flea Control authorities rather than pulling the sled. It becomes lethargic and listless and ineffective. The other sled team wins the race. Whoops. Too many fleas. Killed the damn dog.
In a culture where altruism is the moral ideal, socialism always revives, being eternally reinvented, like draping a dead body with new clothes. In this sense, socialism always succeeds. Voters in an altruistic culture will always grant government the benefit of legitimacy and good motives that it will deny to businessmen, because the modus operandi of government is theoretically service to others, while business is self-seeking. In a modern industrial society, this assumption of the moral high ground by socialists is never attacked; criticism of socialism is always based on practical grounds. “Socialism is a grand ideal,” we are told, but “unfortunately it doesn’t work.” Or, “it would have worked if it had been properly implemented.” If only that damn Hitler or Stalin had gotten it right! Socialism revives, only to fail again. With self-sacrifice as the moral ideal, corruption, ineptitude, and bloodthirst are excused as regrettable aberrations. We’ll get it right the next time!
Dear readers, this is where your government is going at full throttle. Come back to this website in the next few days for a sequel on “Did Capitalism Fail?”
Thanks for visiting. John Bechtel, Greenville, SC