All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1996

From Each According to His Abilities . . .

Socialism Eventually Results in a Living Death

The late Mr. Shelly was a high school teacher in Yonkers, New York. This essay, first published in 1951 as “A Lesson in Socialism,” was a popular FEE reprint for many years.

As a teacher, I found that the socialist-communist idea of taking “from each according to his abilities,” and giving “to each according to his needs” was generally accepted without question by most students. In an effort to explain the fallacy in this theory, I sometimes tried this approach:

When one of the brighter or harder-working students made a grade of 95 on a test, I suggested that I take away 20 points and give them to a student who had made only 55 points on his test. Thus each would contribute according to his abilities and—since both would have a passing mark—each would receive according to his needs. After I juggled the grades of all the other students in this fashion, the result was usually a “common ownership” grade of between 75 and 80—the minimum needed for passing, or for survival. Then I speculated with the students as to the probable results if I actually used the socialistic theory for grading papers.

First, the highly productive students—and they are always a minority in school as well as in life—would soon lose all incentive for producing. Why strive to make a high grade if part of it is taken from you by “authority” and given to someone else?

Second, the less productive students—a majority in school as elsewhere—would, for a time, be relieved of the necessity to study or to produce. This socialist-communist system would continue until the high producers had sunk—or had been driven down—to the level of the low producers. At that point, in order for anyone to survive, the “authority” would have no alternative but to begin a system of compulsory labor and punishments against even the low producers. They, of course, would then complain bitterly, but without understanding.

Finally I returned the discussion to the ideas of freedom and enterprise—the market economy—where each person has freedom of choice and is responsible for his own decisions and welfare.

Gratifyingly enough, most of my students then understood what I meant when I explained that socialism—even in a democracy—would eventually result in a living death for all except the “authorities” and a few of their favorite lackeys.