All Commentary
Wednesday, October 1, 1997

Reflections on a Failure

Socialism Doesn't Offer the Slightest Incentive for Anyone to Make it Work

Mr. Smith is a freelance writer residing in Santa Maria, California.

The waning days of the twentieth century will undoubtedly bring a spate of books and articles on the people and events that shaped the era. Certainly the two world wars will be high on the list for examination, along with radio and television, air travel, transcontinental highways, and motion pictures. There will be new biographies on such century-molders as Churchill, Roosevelt, Marconi, Lindbergh, Einstein, Edison, Ben-Gurion, and Hemingway.

I would submit as an entry one that probably outshines them all: the failure of socialism. Had socialism merely been tried in some remote commune and allowed to die a quiet death, the significance would not have been so great. But socialism failed on center stage before a packed house. It was undeniable, it was conclusive, and it was probably the biggest flop in recorded history.

Socialism had a run that lasted from 1920 until 1991. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had an opportunity to succeed unmatched by any social or economic movement. For nearly 70 years, the Soviets had absolute control over a landmass greater than that of the United States and Canada combined. They had no political opposition, offering a clear shot at effecting any plan that they wanted to put into action.

The Soviets possessed immense national resources, including the largest forested area in the world. No single continent could begin to match the standing timber resources that lay within the boundaries of the U.S.S.R. Yet, they were forced to import lumber from Sweden. Our own State of Washington turned out more board feet of lumber in any year of the Soviet Union’s life span than the entire socialist operation could get to the sawmills.

In minerals, an enormous potential was again largely untapped. The Soviet Union contained copious supplies of virtually every important mineral within its borders. Despite possessing 53 percent of the world’s supply of iron ore, the U.S.S.R. lived with a chronic shortage of iron and steel products. The Soviets also led the world in crude oil and natural gas reserves—again, resources that remained largely in the ground.

Other riches included an estimated 800 million tons of manganese, as well as generous deposits of gold, silver, tungsten, mica, copper, nickel, and molybdenum. Within Soviet borders lay more than 60 percent of the earth’s phosphatic rock resources, but little was put to use.

Soviet agricultural potential staggered the imagination, but the country could not feed itself. Its citizens suffered constant shortages because farmers were unable to grow enough food and could not bring what they did grow to the consumer.

The underlying cause of this colossal failure can be described in one word: socialism. Because of a top-heavy and strangulating bureaucracy, minerals remained in the ground, trees stayed in the forests, and crop yields were always below expectations. Manufactured goods were shoddy, behind schedule, and forever in short supply. Elevators didn’t work, buses and trucks broke down constantly, and the telephone system was about on a par with that of Bolivia. Much has been written about the perennial housing shortage and there wasn’t the slightest hope of improvement at the time of the Soviet breakup. Two, sometimes three, families shared a bathroom in 1991, a rate unchanged since 1920.

Socialist apologists like to offer the “Great Patriotic War” as an excuse for the lack of economic development. After all, they argue, the nation was largely destroyed by the German invader and therefore no one can reasonably expect an economy to bounce back from such an onslaught. We might ask, however, why the Soviet Union couldn’t defend itself against a much smaller nation that was fighting a two-front war. The Soviets had a great advantage over the Germans in natural resources and most certainly in manpower and yet they were soundly beaten on their own home ground for the first two years of fighting; or until the Germans simply ran out of gas. They had been in power for 20 years, the German invader for only seven. What had they been doing since 1920?

When we read the story of the Soviet Union, we usually see the terror of Joseph Stalin highlighted and, of course, the great red menace that spread its shadow across the landscape. The whole sorry operation would certainly receive the lowest marks on any scale of humanity and common decency. More important in the long run, however, is the failure of socialism. The one time that it was given a green light, the chance to show what it could do without a shred of opposition, it fell flat on its face. The 70-year span of the U.S.S.R. proved conclusively that socialism is an idea whose time will never come because it doesn’t offer the slightest incentive for anyone to make it work. Common sense tells us that this is true. The increasingly distant memory of the Soviet Union proves it.

  • Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.