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Socialism: Force or Fantasy?

Lawrence W. Reed

Have you ever tried to nail Jell-O to the wall? It’s easier than getting a socialist to stand pat on what socialism is, which makes socialism an endlessly moving target.

Socialists are so intellectually slippery that they could crawl through a barrel of pretzels without knocking the salt off.

Marx called for the abolition of private property and state ownership of the means of production. He labeled it “scientific socialism.”

“But that’s not what we mean!” today’s socialist dreamers proclaim.

Lenin established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). He put the Soviet state in charge of every aspect of life for “the good of the people.” Stalin, his mass murdering successor, declared that Soviet socialism would perfect the “workers’ paradise” promised by socialist intellectuals.

“But that’s not what we mean!” today’s socialist dreamers proclaim.

Hitler and his minions “planned” the German economy, called themselves socialist and even named their political organization the National Socialist German Workers Party.

“But that’s not we mean!” today’s socialist dreamers proclaim.

Fifteen different republics within the Soviet empire all proclaimed themselves dedicated to socialism (until all of their socialist regimes collapsed in 1989–91).

“But that’s not what we mean!” today’s socialist dreamers proclaim.

More Failed Examples of Socialism

Dozens of regimes in Africa and Asia from the 1950s on committed themselves to the socialist utopia, embracing socialism proudly by name. Every single one of them elicits the same proclamation from today’s socialist dreamers: “But that’s not what we mean!”

Socialists all over the world rejoiced in the rise to power of socialist Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. “This is what we mean!” seemed to be their mantra as he expropriated and nationalized and redistributed. Barely 15 years later with the country now a total basket case, you have to press today’s socialist dreamers to get them to say anything at all. But when you finally get them to talk, once more we hear the familiar refrain: “But that’s not what we mean!”

Today’s socialist dreamers, Bernie Sanders being among the more prominent, are on a kick about Scandinavia. “That’s what we mean!” they proclaim. Then more studious observers of that part of the world point out that Scandinavian countries have no minimum wage laws; lower taxes on business and more school choice than the United States; trade-based, globalized economies; and few if any nationalized industries.

The prime minister of Denmark recently declared, “I know that some people in the U.S. associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore, I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.” So today’s socialist dreamers say, “Well, that’s not what we mean.” They advocate hikes in the minimum wage, higher taxes on business, little if any school choice, and massive intervention in commerce.

A Better Life for Mankind

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, offered one of the most expansive views of who’s a socialist. “Jesus was the first socialist,” declared Gorbachev, because he was “the first to seek a better life for mankind.”

Gorbachev’s silly claim clearly gets us nowhere: I’m as antisocialist as it gets, and I, too, seek a better life for mankind (it’s one of the many reasons I’m not a socialist).

Further, as I explained in “Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus a Socialist?” (FEE.org, March 3, 2015), Jesus never advocated the redistribution of wealth by force or by the political process. The caring and sharing he suggested was all voluntary — that is, from the heart and not from somebody else’s pocket at gunpoint. He rebuked people for envy and theft and praised the man who invested his money to earn the greatest return. If Jesus was a socialist, then I’m Torquemada.

It’s socialism until it doesn’t work; then it was never socialism in the first place.

Socialists are so intellectually slippery that they could crawl through a barrel of pretzels without knocking the salt off. It’s socialism until it doesn’t work; then it was never socialism in the first place. It’s socialism until the wrong guys get in charge; then it’s everything but. Under socialism, do you shoot the cow or just milk it 24/7? One thing I know for sure: When the milk runs out, socialists will blame the cow. Maybe the reason why socialists don’t like personal responsibility is that they don’t want to be held personally responsible.

Oxford Dictionaries (whose slogan is “Language Matters”) defines socialism as “a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” It offers these terms as synonyms: leftism, welfarism, progressivism, social democracy, communism, and Marxism.

Maybe now we’re getting somewhere. Sounds precise, right? Hardly. What is meant by “the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”? Should a convenience store have to put to some public vote the decisions about what to stock the shelves with or whom to hire for the night shift?

And what about this “regulated by the community as a whole” stuff? Have you ever known a regulatory body to be everybody in town or all 325 million people in the country? Don’t such bodies end up being some handful of people with political power?

Even with a dictionary at hand to look up the word socialism, I still find myself scratching my head and asking, “What the hell is it, anyway?” Maybe it’s imaginary — something that somebody hopes it is even if it never turns out that way when it’s tried. Or maybe it’s like pornography, which Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said he couldn’t define, but “I know it when I see it.”

Exclusionary Solidarity

In his July 2015 article, “The Whitest Privilege,” National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson came as close to explaining socialism-in-theory as I’ve seen in a while:

Socialism and welfare-statism, like nationalism and racism, are based on appeals to solidarity — solidarity that is enforced at gunpoint, if necessary. That appeal is more than a decent-hearted concern for the downtrodden or the broad public good. It is, rather, an exclusionary solidarity, a superstitious notion that understands “body politic” not as a mere figure of speech but as a substantive description of the state and the people as a unitary organism, the health of which is of such paramount importance that individual rights — property, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of association — must be curtailed or eliminated when they are perceived to be insalubrious.

The socialist countries that seem to work — like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark — do so not because of the socialism they have but because of the capitalism they haven’t yet destroyed. Go full socialism and you get Venezuela. Or worse yet, North Korea.

Socialism Equals Force

It all comes down to persuasion versus force. Everything else is trivial. Here’s what I mean:

Under capitalism, two Girl Scouts show up at your door and ask, “Would you like to buy some cookies?” You get to say yes or no.

Under socialism, two Girl Scouts show up at your door with an armed SWAT team behind them. They say, “You’re gonna eat these damn cookies and you’re gonna pay for ‘em, too.”

If it were voluntary, it wouldn’t be socialism, and if it were beneficial, you wouldn’t need force to create it and sustain it.

Some socialists say that they are simply advocating “sharing,” and since socialism’s advocates have good intentions, it must be voluntary and beneficial, too. Except that it never is. If it were voluntary, it wouldn’t be socialism, and if it were beneficial, you wouldn’t need force to create it and sustain it.

Today’s socialist dreamers think and act as if they just arrived from an alternate universe. A $19 trillion national debt means that the federal government hasn’t spent enough to solve our problems. Stealing money that belongs to others through taxation is perfectly alright if you spend it on good things. People become much more honest, fair, competent, and compassionate once they get elected to office. If you force employers to pay someone more than their services are worth, they will hire them anyway and just eat the difference. Regulations always do good because their advocates mean well. Civilizations rise and become great because they punish success and subsidize failure, then they collapse when they embrace freedom and free enterprise. Each person is entitled to whatever he wants other people to pay for, like free college and birth control.

Maybe all this nonsense springs from one fundamental, definitional flaw: if it’s not the use of force to shape society the way you want it, then socialism is nothing more than a nebulous fantasy. It’s a giant blackboard in the sky on which you can write anything your heart desires and then just erase it when embarrassing circumstances arise.

Either way, I don’t want any part of it, but it always seems to want a part of me.

Recommended readings:

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

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