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For so long, it appeared that socialism had definitively failed in practice and had lost its appeal as an economic ideology. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had crashed; its Eastern European satellites had escaped in the 1990s; China had transitioned from socialism to state capitalism beginning with the economic reforms of 1978 and has carried on energetically ever since; communist Cuba had declined to an offshore holiday resort for Canadians and Europeans, and socialist Venezuela totally collapsed. In a 1989 essay entitled "The End of History?", Francis Fukuyama argued that, in the events mentioned above, we were witnessing "an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism."
Socialist parties have, of course, been present in many European countries throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and at some time and in some countries, have been dominant. But they have tended to be "pink" rather than "red," and have generally favoured welfare state policies rather than the takeover of the means of production; at the moment, most European countries are currently struggling to stay on life-support. The British Labour Party, for instance, abandoned state ownership of the means of production in a 1993 revision of Clause IV of its constitution.
Socialism, however, has recently taken off in the American political scene, and continues to be the foundational principle of Canada's New Democratic Party. In the U.S., "Attitudes toward socialism among Democrats have not changed materially since 2010, with 57% today having a positive view. The major change among Democrats has been a less upbeat attitude toward capitalism, dropping to 47% positive this year." Furthermore, all "Americans aged 18 to 29 are even more positive about socialism (51%) as they are about capitalism (45%)."
Socialist leanings of young people should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with our educational system, from primary school through university, which has evidently been captured by Marxists, with their familiar cries of a world supposedly divided into oppressors and the oppressed. It means, if I do well, somebody must have been screwed; there is no economic model in Marxism for "I win, you win, we all win." Education these days consists largely of anti-Western and anti-capitalist, as well as anti-white and anti-male political propaganda.
This socialist orientation was reflected in the 2016 Democrat Party presidential primary, which likely would have gone to the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders if the Democratic National Committee had not fixed the race. Pro-socialist orientation was seen in the 2018 election for the House of Representatives and the subsequent pronouncements of declared "democratic socialist" (her words) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Democrat adherents claim that they are "democratic socialists," but the USSR always claimed that it championed democracy vs. capitalism, and North Korea officially proclaims:
"The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a genuine workers' state in which all the people are completely liberated from exploitation and oppression."
The record for socialism on the democracy and economic fronts is no better than its record on freedom and prosperity; on all counts it has been a massive failure.
The object of socialism is supposedly to increase economic equality by evening out the wealth in society among individuals and families. This is done by taking wealth from those with more than the average and redistributing it to those with less than the average. As wealth will not usually be voluntarily surrendered, the redistribution would have to be enforced by government agencies, backed by laws and administrative regulations. Socialism in practice, however, has usually resulted in members of the governments redistributing the wealth they seize to themselves and their associates. Even in the US government, at present, members of Congress do not bind themselves to observe the laws to which they bind the rest of the country. As Lee Atwater reportedly put it, "The dawgs don't like the dawg food."
Equality is a vague but important value in post-Enlightenment Western culture. Equality of what? Equality was first advanced historically as equality before the law, then evolved into equality of opportunity, and, in socialist theory, is framed as equality of results. Equality of results severs the relationship between being able to enjoy the rewards of one's production and the confiscation of those rewards for distribution to others, as seen in Marx's slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Even Stalin, however, wished to maintain some connection between production and distribution: he inserted into the Soviet Constitution the modified slogan, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his work."
Advocates of equality-of-result demand an even more radical disconnect between work and reward. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez circulated a summary of her "Green New Deal" proposal advocating state economic support for those "unable or unwilling to work."
Production and distribution
The focus of socialism is the redistribution of wealth. Neglected, when not disdained, is production -- an activity that governments are likely to do badly as there is no oversight or free-market competition. So, a central problem of any government's socialism is the lack of production of goods and services that it wishes to redistribute. Another major critique of socialism is that the disconnect between work and reward undermines the motivation to work and to innovate. Why work or take risks when the profits, if one is successful, go to others?
Socialist governments must redistribute, come hell or high water, and the decline of production turns out to be hell and high water. If you take away an incentive to work and produce, you end up taking away the producers. Visitors to the Soviet Union remember trying to get the attention of a waiter in a restaurant: why should anyone help if there was no reward for helping? There is a health crisis now within Europe as doctors flee poorer member states in search of better pay in wealthier member states, and in the UK, fewer people are applying to medical school. This realization is why Margaret Thatcher is quoted as saying, "the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money."
Socialist governments have a monetary solution to that problem: they just print more money. That works for the moment, but from then on, inflation increases until all money becomes effectively worthless and one cannot buy any goods or services, if there were any to buy, which by then usually there aren't. Inflation in oil-rich Venezuela reached 80,000% in 2018, according to Forbes. Socialist "equality" becomes equal poverty and starvation for all, except perhaps a few in government.
Equality "uber alles"
While equality is an important Western value, it is by no means the only one.
Prosperity is another major Western value, and prosperity is exactly what becomes lost as production falls. In addition, if equality becomes the sole value, efficiency is lost. Goods and services are neither developed nor made available. Moreover, government-controlled economies are highly inefficient: economies are extremely complex and fast moving; bureaucracies are clumsy and slow.
Freedom is another major value, but under socialism, freedom is largely curtailed. With wealth expropriation and redistribution, people lose the ability to save, to invent, to move, to purchase, and to donate. Equality and freedom are simply incompatible. Socialism means turning over your freedom to your government, which claims that it knows how to spend your money better than you do. History has unfortunately proven this to be an economic and delivery-of-services death spiral, whether of sub-standard quality of public education in the US, or the delivery of health care to veterans. For years in the US, government-run health care for its veterans has been grotesque; and if one did not like it, there was not a thing one could do about it. The government just kept changing commissioners. Now, President Donald J. Trump is finally trying to address the crisis that veterans' healthcare has become. How? By privatizing it.
Justice is yet another value. If justice is giving each person his or her due, then taking wealth from those who have earned it, in order to give it to those who have not earned it, in terms of justice, is a practice dubious at best.
The more an economy is under government control, the more power the government and its agencies appropriate. There is, to make matters worse, no way to ensure that government will shoulder the responsibility in a responsible way. As the late head of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, is reported to have said about the abysmal state of free education in America's public schools, "When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children."
The consequences of this are serious: as Lord Acton wrote to Bishop Creighton in 1887, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Economic equality that requires a strong government usually ends up resulting in political inequality: political leaders and the bureaucratic elite are in political -- and with it economic -- control. In the socialist political hierarchy, those at the top are close to absolute power; those below have no power.
Socialism has proven incompatible with democracy. Socialist countries have tended to become arrogant dictatorships, one-party states, totalitarian in culture and security. Security agencies have a free hand to enforce conformity.
The main reason that socialism has gained popularity in North America is, of course, that everyone likes "free stuff," especially "free money." It is not difficult to see the attraction in voting for people who promise to shift wealth your way.
Feeding into this support for socialism is envy. It is human to envy those with more and better. However, it is doubtful that it is good social policy to base political policy on these sentiments: one historically ends up with worse and less. While it is true that electoral systems are open to such pandering, the promises usually turn out to be fake (for instance, former President Barack Obama saying "You can keep your doctor"; "you can keep your health care plan"; "the Affordable Healthcare Act will save each family $2500"). Smart voters would be wise to avoid it.
Today's greed and envy seem to have been caused by the decline in the American character. According to the journalist Matthew Continetti:
"The bourgeois values of honesty, fidelity, diligence, reticence, delayed gratification, and self-control that once reigned supreme have been contested for many decades by an ethic of self-expression, self-indulgence, instant gratification, and demanding the impossible."
In addition, as the historian Victor Davis Hanson points out in reference to people who advocate restrictions on freedom of speech:
"I think the way they do it is through Orwellian language, so what they mean is free speech is hate speech because you could be cruel to some group and censorship is called trigger warnings, segregation as safe spaces and having some skepticism that man-made global warming is sort of creationism or denialism."
Today it is forbidden to mention to decline of virtue in America; any mention brings a mob of "social justice" enforcers to destroy anyone who brings it up. In true Orwellian, fashion, the supposed "antifascists" are the real fascists: a new morality police try to silence anyone who disagrees with them -- as here, here and here.
The reason for the decline in American character appears to be that belief in American values has been replaced by cultural relativism and multiculturalism, which claim that all values, beliefs, and cultures are equally good, and that non-American values are possibly even better than American values. For many in America, its values seem to have been have been downgraded to greed, racism, and militarism -- and that the best solution to American values is socialism in the form of "free everything."
For those Americans who do not wish to follow the road of the USSR, Communist China, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela, there is an alternative route. If a major fear is of the expense of a catastrophic illness, President Ronald Reagan suggested a government assistance program just for that, and a free-market economy of choices for the rest of one's medical care. Surely that would be a program less economically crushing for any nation and its taxpayers and more sustainable than locking a nation into a bureaucratic, centrally-run healthcare system that has unfortunately supplied increasingly deteriorating healthcare, with costs that explode and longer and longer waiting times, to fewer and fewer people wherever it has been tried. Socialism's sham absolute equality destroys prosperity, freedom democracy.
Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. His public interest articles can be found at the Frontier Centre, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Gatestone Institute, Middle East Forum, Minding the Campus, C2C Journal, Areo Magazine, and Dogma Review.