Saturday, November 30, 2019

Week 43: Socialism
As an individual, who was raised during the waning years of the Cold War – a war between the philosophies of individualism and collectivism, between capitalism and socialism, I am regularly astonished by the growing embrace of the latter over the former. My astonishment was renewed the other evening while reading Of Plimoth Plantation, written from 1630 to 1651 by William Bradford. The Plymouth colony was founded, in part, on the principles of socialism, and more than 350 years later, one only need observe our current political and electoral processes to see that socialist tendencies are unabashedly alive and well.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s briefly define socialism. Simply put, socialism includes an economic system in which the means of production are owned collectively, such as by the state and/or by the workers. It includes political and social structures that plan the distribution of the ends of production in a centralized manner. Again, this is a basic definition. In the economic, political and social spheres of socialism, there are many different forms and combinations.
With regard to the means of production, there are numerous proposals out there discussing the need to break up monopolies, to require worker representation on boards of directors, to mandate greater government intervention into how businesses are run through the application of more and more federal regulations.
With regard to the benefits of production, there are numerous proposals out there, often funded through increases in direct and indirect taxes on all Americans, that would eliminate private health insurance and require all Americans to be on some form of government insurance – or a mix of public insurance supplemented by private insurance; proposals that would outlaw private education, requiring all students to attend public schools; proposals that would provide a basic income to all citizens. The list goes on and on.
What these proposals have in common is the sacrifice of individual objectives and initiative at the altar of the collective good. A problem with such proposals is that the collective good is not defined by the people but by the ruling class in Washington, D.C. These proposals require that one individual works for the good of another, as opposed to himself or herself. No animal, including the human animal, is wired this way. Self-preservation is the most basic of instincts. After that is the family unit as the most basic of social contracts. After that are local communities, and so on until you get to the level of the global community.
This is not to say that there is no value or import in the global community. Indeed, there is. Take, for example, Leonard Read’s essay “I, Pencil.” (https://youtu.be/U3W2v7LN-88) Read describes the global cooperation necessary to make something as simple as a pencil. He describes the benefits to people around the world that derive from their collaboration to make the pencil – their voluntary collaboration. It is Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work in a very real way. Take, as another example, the sharing of knowledge and information among the peoples of the world, from the scholarly work of the ancient Greeks and Persians that still influence our thinking today to the instantaneous transmittal of data across the internet.
To be sure, global relationships have important roles in our lives. Those examples and myriad others demonstrate success when they begin with individuals pursuing their own self-interest, not as a directive from some central authority. When centralized power is exerted to focus humanity on the global social contract, working backwards – against the nature of the individual, unfavorable results occur.
Returning to the 17th century, Plymouth was founded on the premise that private ownership would not be allowed, that each individual colonist would work for the good of all other colonists, and that goods and services of each individual’s labor would be planned and distributed centrally. This approach failed, resulting in sloth, starvation and crime. The colonists did not want to labor for the benefit of others at their own expense. There was no personal investment in success. Animosity grew as the industrious were required to pick up the slack for the lazy and received no benefit for the extra initiative.
The colony did not flourish until the means of production were placed in the private control of the individual colonists. Once this occurred, production increased to the point that all in the colony were satisfied and they actually became exporters of goods.
In the nearly four centuries that have passed since the time of William Bradford and the Plymouth colonists, think about the times in which socialism has been employed as a mechanism for economic, political and/or social organization. One is hard-pressed to find a single example in which the system has been sustained without repression of the individual. Look at the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the gulags of the Soviet Union, the forced labor camps of North Korea and China, and the political prisons of Cuba. People often point to the Scandinavian countries as examples where socialism works. However, as Nima Sanandaji points out in her book, Scandinavian Unexceptionalism, the success of Nordic economies, which is touted by the proponents of socialism, was realized prior to the great expansion of the welfare state in those nations. Since that time, key economic indicators, such as economic growth rates and national wealth, have been on the decline.
Despite the repeated failures of socialist policies, each new socialist believes that failure has been caused by errors in implementing socialism, that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with socialism itself. Yet, as Bradford points out, the fundamental flaw with socialism is that it is antithetical to the nature of humankind. Marcus Aurelius, the last of Rome’s Five Good Emperors and the last ruler of the period known as Pax Romana, reminds us over and over again in his Meditations of the importance of living life in accordance with nature. History demonstrates that the only periods of great advancement and success – for people at all levels of the socio-economic spectrum – have been during periods of limited intervention into the lives of individuals, which is to say during periods of the greatest individual freedom in terms of economic and social activity. This is true of the growth of the “middle class” in the United States, of the economic success of Nordic countries, which enabled them financially to embark on their socialist experiment, to name just a couple examples.
So, given the examples of history, which show that socialism stifles humanity and freedom advances humanity, why do politicians propose more of the former? It goes back to what we’ve discussed before: power! With freedom and liberty, the political class must relinquish control over the people, something that a corrupt mind is seldom wont to do. Recall the words of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. To this point, we may explore the notion of term limits in a future blog.
It cannot be denied that socialism, by definition, requires that individuals relinquish some level of control over their own lives, in terms of both their productivity and their consumption, to a third party. That is to say, in a free system, party A agrees to interact with party B. Their interaction is voluntary and each party presumes the interaction will be to his or her benefit. In socialist arrangements, party C sets parameters for the interaction between parties A and B. As party C’s power increases, the equation expands: party C decides what parties A and B must do for the benefit of party D. To illustrate this point more clearly, let us choose one candidate and one issue, so-called “free” education.
In a free market, I choose to pay a college to attend school and to get a degree. I received a federal student loan to go to graduate school, so the government entered that arrangement: the government paid the college so that I could go to school and get a degree, with the commitment on my part that I would pay the government back, with interest, for the loan. Under the “free” education policies of Warren and Sanders, higher education would be provided at no direct charge to students and students and graduates who have student loan debt would have that debt “forgiven.” This arrangement is one in which the government requires you and me to do something (i.e., pay taxes to cover the cost of education) for someone else. You and I will be required to pay, but we will have no input into the cost-benefit analysis of whether our money will be well spent.
Look at the government’s track record in terms of education (Week 49 posting), and it leaves one wondering (at least it leaves me wondering) why in the world would we entrust such important things – like education and healthcare – to those in government. With very few exceptions, they are little more than a collection of power-hungry fools, and their power depends on keeping us (or at least the right numbers of us) hungry, homeless, uneducated, ill and poor. Compare that to a free and capitalist system, in which the better off each individual is, the better off society is. Healthier, happier, educated individuals enrich the free exchange experience and the innovation necessary to continue the improvement of the human experience.
As you consider your vote this coming November, ask yourself which candidate seeks to control you or to free you. Ask yourself if the candidate you’re considering is a person to whom you would entrust your individual well-being. Is he or she better suited to direct your life than you are? And deeply explore if their policies enrich each individual’s life or if it sacrifices the freedom and liberty of one group for the benefit of another group. I contend that we cannot be equal and free if laws and the social contract treats one group differently from another, and that is fundamentally how socialist systems are designed, as opposed to how they are marketed.
Keeping in mind that those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them, let us not forget the repeated failures of socialism and the human misery it has created.

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