All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1983

Until Shrimp Learn to Whistle


Mr. Smyth is a journalist and free-lance author in Metuchen, New Jersey.

Some things are so self-evident that they really require no proof. They are simply a matter of looking around you in your daily life to see how things work and how people act.

For example, consider these questions, and answer them from your own experience and observation of life:

—A high wind has blown over all the garbage cans down a suburban street. Food wrappers, old newspapers, and assorted scraps are strewn all over the street, sidewalks and homeowners’ front yards. The residents are more likely to: A) clean up the street and sidewalks only, or B) to clean up their own front yards only.

—A sewer pipe has clogged in a 10-story apartment house. The toilet and bath-water from the top nine stories is spilling out all over the floors of the apartments and public corridors of the first floor. The first-floor dwellers are more likely to get to work at once: A) cleaning up the public corridors, B) cleaning up their own apartments.

—A widget company tries an experiment. It puts half of its salesmen on a regular salary, so that they make the same amount of money weekly regardless of how many or how few widgets they sell, or indeed whether they sell any at all. The other half are told they will be paid 25 per cent of the sales price of every widget they sell. Who will sell the most widgets: A) the first group? or B) the second group?

These examples could be multiplied endlessly, covering every human activity in the nation, so that overall they reflect what is known as the national economy. In each case the choice is between A) acting in the interest of society as a whole, or B) acting in one’s own interest.

You may note that A) and B) do not necessarily exclude each other. Once you have wiped up the dirty bath water off the floor of your own apartment you may well decide to help your neighbors clean up the corridors of their apartments. Or you may leave it to the janitor. After all, that is what he is paid for. You may decide to help only the neighbors you are friendly with, or who are crippled or aged. Or to help clean up the corridors because the janitor is away on vacation. Whatever you decide, they are voluntary decisions that you alone make and that nobody imposes on you.

Now, from what I have seen around me in the United States I think it is a safe bet that almost everybody will clean up his front yard before he thinks of getting to the public side walk, that he will mop up the mess in his own apartment before he gets around to the public corridors, and that he will sell a lot more widgets if he knows that every extra one he sells means extra money to support himself and his family.

Selfishness? Well, yes, in part. But in large part it is rather a matter of responsibility, of priorities. If you have a family to support that is your first duty. If you have a property itis your responsibility to maintain it. It is not your obligation to be a garbage collector for the neighborhood unless you have contracted for the job.

I have lived in other countries, in South America and in Europe, and from what I saw there I think those people too would act the same way as they do in the United States.

My observations, therefore, lead me to the conclusion that it is a universal human trait to act in one’s own self-interest. It is not, in my experience, a universal human trait to act spontaneously and consistently in the public interest.

Do you agree with me so far?

If you do, then it must also be self-evident to you at this point that private enterprise gives a much truer reflection of human nature than socialism or communism or any kind of collectivism does.

Acting in One’s Own Interest

Private enterprise, private ownership, private action—they all require only one basic condition: that individual human beings will consistently and spontaneously act in their own self-interest.

Socialism, communism, public ownership, collectivist action, all require a quite different condition: that individuals will consistently and spontaneously act in the public interest.

Since we know from our own personal experience that people all around the world are not always likely to fulfill this basic requirement of their own accord, the consequence is inevitable and obvious: they must be forced to act in the public interest.

If they are not so forced, then socialism, communism or any other kind of collectivism simply will not work. By the very nature of their most basic assumption, these isms unavoidably lead to the use of force to make people do what they would not do spontaneously of their own accord. The use of force is imbedded in their very essence. The immediate result of such a system is the imposition of rules, regulations, requirements, quotas, work-norms, rations, inspectors, regulators, policemen and enforcers of all kinds. The end result is the Nazi concentration camp, the Soviet forced labor camp, the Vietnamese re-education camp, the Chinese collective farm and the Maoist “cultural revolution,” and the Pol Pot genocide in Cambodia.

But the use of force achieves absolutely no advance toward the ideal of a happy, free and productive society that the collectivist “idealists” perhaps sincerely wish to achieve. Since it ignores the basic fact of human nature, the collectivist system merely sinks deeper and deeper into a police society where the carrot of incentive counts for less and less while the stick of authority counts for more and more. The growing use of force merely makes the forced la borers even more recalcitrant, mutinous and uncooperative than they were to begin with (as the Communist authorities happen to be discovering right now in Poland).

Given these circumstances and this attitude, it is no accident that a privately owned American farm will outproduce a Soviet or Chinese state farm fifty- or a hundred-fold. The American farmer has the powerful incentive of self-interest inducing him to produce. The American farmer also has better equipment? Yes, but that, too, is a result of the private enterprise system. And even with the very best agricultural machinery, the Soviet state farm employee has no incentive even to keep up his machines. Combines and threshers rust out in the open fields, harvested grain rots rain-sodden out in the .open. As there is no profit or benefit in it for the individual state farm employee, what does he care? Only the fear of punishment by the authorities will stimulate him to the extra effort that farming invariably requires at critical times of the year.

In Summation

If you have followed me so far, we are now agreed on this:

Firstly, the private enterprise system is based on a realistic appraisal of human nature, whereas communism or socialism is based on an “idealistic” conception of what human nature ought to be. And when individuals like you and me do not live up to this “ideal” then the collectivist authorities have to use force on them to oblige them to conform to the “ideal” pattern.

Secondly, the private enterprise system is in its very essence a system of individual freedom, because by the very nature of things nobody has to be forced to act in his own self- interest. He does it naturally.

Thirdly, the private enterprise system is a more productive system, because everybody is motivated to produce more by the knowledge that his own efforts will have a direct, measurable effect on improving his own individual situation. In the collectivist system the individual is motivated mainly by fear of punishment, since he has no great hope of any measurable reward for his own individual efforts.

Since all our reasoning above is based on observed facts, it is pure realism. It takes the world as it is and builds on that as a secure foundation. The collectivists start out with an “idea” of the world as they think it ought to be, and they try to force people to build castles in the air that soon turn out to be prisons and hells on earth.

But the collectivist “idealists” are obstinate in their error, and not even decades of experience have persuaded them that their argument is vitiated in its first premise, that it is quite literally baseless. As Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev put it so picturesquely: “Those who wait for the Soviet Union to abandon Communism will wait until shrimp learn to whistle.”

Communists pride themselves on an “objective” interpretation of history. Those of us who have an objective view of human nature, as contrasted with their “idealistic” view of it, might well set Khrushchev’s words back in his teeth: if you think your collectivist system is ever going to equal the private enterprise system in truth, freedom, or prosperity, comrade, you can wait until shrimp learn to whistle.