A Critique of Socialism

Socialism is displacing liberalism as the preferred political and economic system of our generation. The supposed generation of forward thinkers is being duped by a remarkably out of date, failed philosophy.

In a recent survey, 43% of 18-29 year olds expressed a favorable view of socialism. A separate poll showed 58% of millennials aged 18-24 viewed it positively. This misguided fetish for the 20th century’s most discredited ideology is frightening and reflects a failure of our education system.

 

For while idealistic dreams of capitalism’s destruction may seem alluring, socialism has proven far better at making bold promises than fulfilling them.

 

Before continuing, let me emphasize I am speaking about authentic socialism and nothing less. Socialism means more than government-funded college and handouts. The socialism I am talking about accepts historical materialism, the inevitable collapse of capitalism, and believes “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” To any self-proclaimed socialist-sympathizers reading this, if you do not understand those phrases, then you are probably not a socialist.

 

As an economic doctrine, socialism is clearly impractical.

 

How is a government supposed to determine the prices of every good, the quantity needed, and how they are to be made? This requires a massive bureaucracy at great expense and, even with thousands or millions of people, determining all or most of the intricate details of an economy is simply impossible. The human brain can only manage so much.

 

The case against socialism is readily apparent from a cursory study of history, which is why its popularity among the next generation of leaders reflects poorly on America’s education system. Where socialism has sunk its teeth into the fabric of society, degeneration and decay have followed.

The USSR, the great bastion of 20th century socialism, was a wreck by the end of the Cold War. The promises of socialist-induced paradise became a living lie. Massacres and political purges followed the Bolshevik Revolution, and Joseph Stalin ruled with an iron fist. No amount of five year economic plans could fix the Soviet economy. When Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet system, its flimsiness could not withstand even moderate change.

There is no need to look to the past, however—simply look at Venezuela. It stands as a modern, socialist-created economic and human rights disaster. Matt O’Brien, writing for the Washington Post, put it perfectly: “There has never been a country that should have been so rich but ended up this poor.” Corruption, self-interest, and excessive government control of everyday life have run Venezuela into the ground. In 2015, Venezuela scored 158 out of 168 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption erodes trust between individuals, between individuals and government, and within the government itself. Socialism has torn apart Venezuela.

 

Some might say the USSR and Venezuela never implemented true socialism. Even so, that merely confirms another argument against socialism: it has to rely on imperfect, self-interested people to staff its bureaucracies, plan the economy, and oversee an excessively centralized administration. Dreams of liberation and progress quickly deteriorate into tyranny and dictatorship. Once fallible men get a taste of power, they are reluctant to relinquish it. As Lord Acton shrewdly observed, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Socialism in theory appears perfect, but it has proven unfeasible in practice.

This critique extends to so-called democratic socialism, a system in which political democracy exists alongside collective ownership of the means of production. Pure democracy, with nothing to temper the collective will of the people, is a recipe for a tyranny more pernicious than blatant dictatorship. When “the people” are directly in control of all facets of society, the will of the majority becomes legitimate law and there is nothing to prevent the 51% from imposing their wishes on the 49%. Though not a socialist event, the French Revolution offers a prime example of democracy and majorities run amok, culminating in death and eventual dictatorship under Napoleon. Instead of a system of merit and competition, in which, for example, the best ideas and most qualified individuals strive to better the lives of others, the often irrational whims of the majority rule unchecked.

Democratic socialism must also rely on imperfect people with self-interests that neither institutions nor other controls can curb. If our system is operating as it should, the self-interest of the capitalist innovator is channeled into the creation of products which benefit all. Even the luxuries of one era tend to become affordable to all. In a democratic socialist world, the system is the people running it, or better put, the people are the constitution–the system is overly reliant on fantasies of virtuous humans acting solely for the public interest.

James Madison recognized the problems posed by human nature in developing political systems:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Humans are imperfect beings, but socialism requires selfless, perfect, angelic humans to put it into action. History shows that once socialism is established in a state, there is nothing to stop it from running over the governed, nothing to “oblige it to control itself.” Revolutionary fervor quickly transforms into totalitarian oppression.

 

Our generation must reconsider this idealistic attraction. Fortunately or unfortunately, our opinions are still amorphous. Many of us hold contradictory views on spending, taxes, and the proper size of government. Even socialism’s popularity may depend on how pollsters’ characterize it. This fickleness is unsurprising since we are either just entering or about to enter the real world. But as we do, we must have an accurate picture of socialism and any philosophy which sounds pleasing to the ear, but does not stand the test of reality.

 

We are a generation said to prize progress—socialism is the ideology of regress.

4 thoughts on “A Critique of Socialism

  1. Thanks for this blog post regarding the failings of socialism; I really enjoyed it and am definitely recommending this blog to my friends and family. I’m a 15 year old with a blog on finance and economics at shreysfinanceblog.com, and would really appreciate it if you could read and comment on some of my articles, and perhaps follow, reblog and share some of my posts on social media. Thanks again for this fantastic post.

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  2. You’re lamenting that millennials have a favorable view of socialism, while using a narrow definition that allows you to talk about failures like the USSR and Venezuela without mentioning places like Canada and Europe, where people are pretty happy. Sounds like a classic No True Scotsman fallacy to me. If you want to convince everyone to use your definition of socialism, I think you’ll be at it a while. The good news is, no one is going to attempt a planned economy in the US, so if that’s what you’re worried about I think you can stop worrying.

    Your digression on Democratic Socialism was more interesting. It’s true that the government is run by imperfect people, but you fail to establish how laissez-faire capitalism is any less reliant on fantasies of good people. What, in your view, is the appropriate remedy for people starving on the streets because their jobs don’t pay a living wage, or because they were bankrupted by medical bills – or do you consider that a feature?

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    1. Hi Zach,

      Thank you for your comment. A few points I would like to make in response:

      First, I highlighted an orthodox Marxist/Leninist definition of socialism early in the article intentionally. As you rightly point out, Canada and Europe have political and economic systems derived from socialism that, relative to the USSR and Venezuela, function better. My critique was directed at the strands of socialism which adhere to a traditionally Marxist world view. Modern European and Canadian “socialism” is really just social democracy. I would argue these can hardly be called socialist states as social democracy is not wholly inimical to capitalism. Regardless, this was not a critique of social democracy—that will be for another day.

      Second, while it is probably true that no one will attempt a planned economy of the socialist variety in the US in the near future, I believe it is important every generation is aware of the mistakes of the past.

      Third, I stated explicitly towards the end of the article that capitalism accepts self-interest as a fact of life: “the self-interest of the capitalist innovator is channeled into the creation of products which benefit all.” Unfortunately, making a complete case for capitalism was beyond the scope of this article. I think your last question also goes beyond the problem being addressed here. I do not, and will not, assert capitalism is a perfect system (nor do I think we will ever develop a perfect system of economic organization). Nevertheless, I believe the problem of medical bills is an issue of our health care system, which has been hijacked by inefficient, costly government policies, not capitalism. As for people starving on the streets, that issue, once again, is beyond the scope of my critique. In the context of this article, I would simply say socialism is not the answer—it has proven to be the enemy of good living standards, freedom, and general prosperity.

      As I said at the start, thank you for your comment. I look forward to continuing this dialogue in coming months and years.

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