“A man who chooses between drinking a glass of milk and a glass of a solution of potassium cyanide does not choose between two beverages; he chooses between life and death,” wrote Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. “A society that chooses between capitalism and socialism does not choose between two social systems; it chooses between social cooperation and the disintegration of society.”
Such clarity is badly needed today. In spite of socialism’s sorry track record, millions of well-meaning people think it’s a virtual synonym for compassion.
But socialists themselves are constantly retreating from their own handiwork. 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.
Socialism never seems to have any theory of wealth creation, only fanciful schemes for its reallocation after somebody goes to the trouble of creating it.
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.”
What is meant by “the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”? If you own a convenience store, are you supposed to put to some public vote the decisions about what to stock the shelves with or whom to hire for the night shift?
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, I find myself scratching my head and asking, “What the heck is socialism anyway?” Maybe it’s just an imaginary thing that somebody hopes it is, even if it never turns out that way when it’s tried.
Just when you think you see socialism, even when its architects claim that’s what they were up to, socialists redefine it rather than admit to its failures. Venezuela is the latest in a long line of socialist experiments. Now that the dismal verdict is in, however, socialists are in denial about what it was that was tried and whether or not it failed. In other places, where a less-radical version of socialism may seem to work, it’s actually the capitalism those places still have that creates real wealth and pays the bills.
Socialism isn’t happy thoughts, wishful thinking, mere good intentions or children sharing their Halloween candy with one another. In a modern political, economic and social context, socialism isn’t voluntary. You can’t opt out. Its central characteristic is the concentration of power for these purposes: central planning of the economy, government ownership of property and the redistribution of wealth.
It all comes down to persuasion versus force. 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 going to eat these cookies, and you’re going pay for them too.”
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.
So “why not socialism?”
Socialism preaches envy and theft and delivers strife and conflict. It pits class against class. It cynically buys off one faction at the expense of another. It thrives on victimology and shuns personal responsibility. Its advocates are intellectual dope pushers — foisting addictive, soul-sapping dependency and paternalism on others. They concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the people whose character and naivete make them the most susceptible to corruption.
It’s the bottom line that most effectively answers the question, “Why not socialism?” It’s force, pure and simple. If it were voluntary, it wouldn’t be socialism. It would be capitalism.
• Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Atlanta and author of the recent book “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction,” published by ISI Books.
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