The Collectivist Menace
AUGUST 01, 1956 by REGINALD JEBB
Filed Under : Welfare State, Collectivism
Mr. Jebb is a British educator, editor, and journalist.
The most potent factor in the growth of collectivism is the tendency of all governments to increase the area of their power. It is their besetting sin.
In Britain three forces have contributed in varying degrees to this growth: trade-unionism, the Labour Party, and academic Socialism.
The part played by trade-unionism has been, one might say, almost accidental. Through the first half of the nineteenth century the main struggle of the unions had been against the government. It was only in the latter half of it that the idea occurred to them of putting up candidates for election to parliament, and even then their object was not to examine political theories but to remedy industrial grievances. They did not form a separate party, but the first candidates to be elected sat as Liberals. However, during the last thirty years of the century, academic Socialism got to work, through the agency of the Fabian Society, and the seeds of collectivism were sown. The result was a decision to form a new party which would replace capitalism by state ownership; in 1902 the Labour Party came into being, the child of trade-unionism but the pupil of the Fabians.
The importance of the Labour Party in the political trends of the present century has been its role as executive of the theories of Fabianism. In order to implement their theories, socialists must get a grip on government one way or another. They may, as in Russia, set up a tyranny and put their theories into practice by force; or they may create a new party, as in England, which will introduce Socialism gradually; or again they may find it possible to convert one of the existing parties to their views; or, finally, they may indoctrinate high-ups in political and educational circles with the socialist thesis, and thus influence both the government itself and the youth of the country by the intellectual prestige that Socialism appears to have acquired. This seems to be one of the methods adopted in the United States.
The English experiment—the creation of the Labour Party—held a double advantage for the Fabians. Not only did they obtain a direct influence in legislation, but the fact that this vehicle of Socialism had been built by the trade unions gave it at once the appearance of being democratic and the promise of widespread support. Incidentally, its name was a triumph of propaganda, suggesting that here was a party for which all manual workers should vote.
But it is one thing to propagate a theory, and quite another to prove its value in practice. The Fabians had always confined themselves to theories. They had no working model, except the Soviet Union, and that in a number of ways proved unsatisfactory to them as an example of Socialism in action. Nor has the record of their executive, the Labour Party, been encouraging. The result is that their program has undergone numerous changes.
They started with the orthodox socialist thesis of state ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and argued that such was equivalent to ownership by the people, that men would work harder for what was their own, that strikes would cease, and that real wages would rise owing to the elimination of private profit. But they found that none of these admirable results followed from the nationalization of key industries. The rise in wages in recent years has been as great in industries conducted by private enterprise as in those that are nationalized, nor has there been any increase in hard work or any diminution of strikes. The explanation is simple; a number of manual workers are beginning to realize that nationalization does not mean ownership by the people. The individual worker no more owns any part of a nationalized industry than a man in a public park owns the land he is walking on, for ownership includes control and the right of disposal, neither of which the worker possesses. What nationalization does mean in most instances is financial loss which has to be borne by the taxpayer. (The National Coal Board, for example, has a deficit in the working of the mines of between 30 and 40 million pounds despite constant rises in the price of coal.) Nationalization also means the substitution of an impersonal bureaucratic control for the incentive of competitive action.
Confronted with these failures the socialist intellectuals began to look around for new ideas. Still clinging to their hopes for nationalization or state ownership, they started to lay new emphasis on two aims that had already appeared in their agenda. These were centralized planning and the gradual whittling away of private profit, whether from the conduct of a successful business, from dividends, or from rent.
Mr. Gaitskell, the new leader of the Labour Party, lost no time in developing these ideas. He suggested that the State should gradually take over in death duties the ownership of land, shares, or other property, and that budget surpluses should be used for the same purposes. While recognizing that some private enterprise would continue for a long time to come, he envisaged state firms competing with private firms, and the creation of mixed firms in which some of the shares would belong to the State and others to private individuals. Though new methods are to be employed, the ultimate aim is the same: the eventual elimination of privately owned property—collectivism in a state-salaried nation, with a choice between ruinous inefficiency and the communist practice of forced labor for the whole population.
Meanwhile there has been built up over the last few years an edifice that, perhaps more than all the more direct socialistic experiments put together, will offer a home for the spread of collectivism—the so-called Welfare State. Unfortunately all the political parties are more or less committed to keeping this innovation in being. The dangers of this state-run spoon feeding of the population are clear enough: loss of personal responsibility, encouragement of idleness, a false sense of security, a brake on initiative, and the gradual reduction of professional men to the status of civil servants. But what makes the Welfare State particularly dangerous is the fact that it poses as, and by many good people is genuinely believed to be, a purely humanitarian measure. Indeed, while it is being introduced, before its costs can be clearly seen, the Welfare State may seem to yield less destitution, easier access to medical advice, wider opportunities for education, and other benefits. But these excellent things, instead of coming, as they should and could, through individual and local initiative or professional and business organization, are all part of a state regime which is wasteful, an encouragement to low quality work, and a menace to freedom.
For us, then, here in England, the Welfare State is a more significant milestone on the road to collectivism than is nationalization. The latter has been on the whole a disappointment to organized labor and can be reversed. (The present Conservative government has already returned road transport and the steel industry to private enterprise.) It is much more difficult for a government, even if it wished to do so, to make an end of a system that provides a large proportion of the population with many of the basic needs of life without payment. For the average man does not seek to resume irksome responsibilities from which he has been relieved until he comes to a full realization of what bondage to the State means.
To the student of politics in England, looking across the Atlantic, the people of the United States appear to have a good many advantages. There is, for example, no major party in the United States that openly espouses the collectivist theory; the unions, though now consolidated and powerful, show little signs of desiring the substitution of state ownership for private enterprise; the state governments act as a counterpoise to centralization of power in the federal government; and, generally speaking, the status of the wage earner is more satisfactory than in England.
But these advantages do not mean that the United States is free of socialist intellectuals in influential positions, whose whole aim, based on the Marxist theory of collectivist tyranny, is to undermine private ownership. These men in whatever Country they exist (and what country is without them?) constitute:the most dangerous threat to a free economy.
The real menace of these intellectuals consists not so much in the instruments they use, as in the subtle way in which they spread their virus. Students, politicians, and power-addicts are easily attracted by their specious arguments for “a new enlightenment.” It is from the top rather than from the bottom that the poison flows, and state officials are the most vulnerable to its effects for the reason given at the beginning of this article: the besetting sin of all governments is unlimited extension of their power.
It seems possible, therefore, judging from experience gained in England, that even in the United States, despite the advantages already mentioned, the unions and perhaps one or other of the two major political parties might be affected by the poison. If that were to happen, it would be a world-wide tragedy. For whereas in England collectivist experiments have been halfhearted and are becoming less popular, a social-economic revolution in the United States might well take a more extreme form and be disastrous to liberty all over the free world.