All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 2002

A Think Tank for Those Who Don’t Think

Socialism Is a Proven Failure

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.”

Keynes was wise to include the phrase, “both when they are right and when they are wrong.” Unfortunately, it’s all too true that good ideas must compete with bad ideas and sometimes, at least temporarily, the bad ones win out. Worse yet, even a silly or superstitious notion that barely rises to the level of an idea can wield great influence. And in our midst are crackpots who dredge up discredited and discarded ideas, dress them up in new disguise, and hawk them all over again.

Imagine a group of people—now, not 500 years ago—who insist that the world is flat and that the sun revolves around it. They seek to propagate these concepts to a broader audience, so they form the Society of Flat Earth-Centrists. Ignoring science and experience, they turn out papers and hold meetings to contradict the conventional wisdom. We would demand proof of their claim, not mere flimsy rhetoric, as we heap on them mounds of evidence to the contrary. While we might be tempted to applaud their zeal, most men and women of sound mind would write them off as misguided, mystical, or mad.

In these enlightened times a “Society of Flat Earth-Centrists” seems beyond the pale. But something close to it was unveiled in Washington only last summer. The subject was not the hard science of physics or astronomy but the more pliable disciplines of political science and economics.

An article in the August 14 Washington Post announced that a new “socialist think tank” was being formed in Washington, D.C., called the “American Socialist Foundation.” Its officials declared that they will “focus on contemporary economic and political issues and develop socialist analysis and policies to address them.” Among other things, their secretary-treasurer was quoted as saying, “Socialists favor public ownership of the media.”

I acknowledge that I am in the “think tank” business myself. A reader might easily interpret any skepticism about this group on my part as a bit of competitive pique. I want to say up front that it’s not the competition that bothers me; rather, it’s the preposterous assumption implicit in the very announcement of a “socialist think tank.” Putting those words in juxtaposition is no different than placing “fire” aside “ice” or putting “chaste” next to “Clinton.” Use one or the other, but don’t put them in the same sentence, please.

“Socialism” and “think tank” are, in my humble view, mutually exclusive. Arguably, socialism is the opposite of “think.” It does, however, produce lots of tanks. Tanks to suppress people who actually do think. The one quintessential, unassailable truth that distills from centuries of experience with socialism is that when it isn’t arrogantly bossing people around, it’s stifling, strangling, or killing them. It is based on the ludicrous assumption that people who have a hard time planning their own lives, and often fail at it, can nonetheless plan the lives of not just a handful of others around them, but the lives of millions they don’t even know! The result has been everywhere and in all times what Ludwig von Mises brilliantly described decades ago as “Planned Chaos.”

Limiting Opinion

State ownership of the media. Now there’s a winner of an idea, or so argues the new socialist think tank. In free markets, one can not only purchase at minuscule cost an almost infinite array of viewpoints, one can also buy a printing press or a bullhorn or a company and manufacture one or more viewpoints oneself. What’s the point of state ownership, financed by taxation? Only an idiot would argue that state ownership broadens and multiplies available opinion; state ownership invariably exerts a coercive bias in the public square—limiting, if not ultimately monopolizing, opinion. When socialists come to power, their attitudes and actions are never inclusive and inviting. “Why think when a tank will do?” would seem to be their guiding principle.

There are some settled truths in the world, derived from such things as science, economics, human experience, facts, evidence, reason, and logic. The sun comes up in the east. The earth is spherical. Markets are immeasurably more rational and productive than central planning and state ownership. Heavens, isn’t that what even a moron should sense from the failure of every short-lived socialist “paradise” the planet has ever known?

While it’s tempting to cite reams of research, piles of statistics, and mounds of bodies to make the case against socialism, that’s been done rather thoroughly by countless others. I rest my case against it on the observation that socialism by definition does not rely on the free will and peaceful interaction of sovereign individuals to verify its efficacy. Indeed, the very fact that it reduces to force is testimony to its manifest failure. If I’m suspicious of any notion that favors the dragoons over persuasion, the fist over the podium, then I guess I’m guilty of favoring civilization over barbarism.

Socialists take aquariums and turn them into fish soup. The endless socialist quest for whatever it is socialists quest for all adds up to pitifully little—nothing more, in fact, than what French economist Frédéric Bastiat dismissed more than a century and a half ago as “legalized plunder.”

So it is that this new organization in Washington, devoted to socialism, is not a think tank or I’m Florence Nightingale. It is a Ministry of Propaganda dedicated to advancing mysticism and nonsense. Central planning, state ownership, lots of bureaucracy seizing and spending other people’s money—the essence of socialism, in other words—should no longer be elevated shamelessly to the status of a respectable science.

Diversity of ideas is a great thing, a pillar of a free and enlightened society. No inane scribbling should ever be outlawed, no matter how unpopular. But that doesn’t mean every inane scribbling deserves the status and esteem of an argument. Absolute monarchy as a political concept may still have a kernel of a credible case, but socialism as an economic system does not. It’s been tried a million times. It doesn’t work, it steals from people, and it lays waste to both the land and the spirit. Get over it.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is