March 15, 2009
My Socialist PastBy Jeffrey Folks
Anyone who has lived inside the demoralized, unproductive, gray prison of a communist state, as I did in the mid-1980s, knows to what depths of impoverishment the egalitarian fantasies of socialism inevitably lead. They lead to decades of frustrated poverty and lifetimes of untreated illness culminating in early death. I remember the columns of death notices for men and women in their forties and fifties that appeared in the local newspaper. Gradually I learned to associate those death notices with the lack of fresh foodstuffs, the travesty of state health care, and the pervasive demoralization of an enslaved population drowning itself in cheap alcohol and cigarettes.
Gradually I came to understand that the condition of life under communism, so filled with repression, suspicion, and hopelessness, dragged one down into an early grave. Gradually I saw that within the communist state everyone-everyone except the leadership of course-subsists in a cage of gnawing bitterness and permanent defeatism.
Unnumbered lives were sacrificed on the ungodly altar of communism in the last century, not only in my temporary abode of Yugoslavia but throughout eastern Europe, Russia, and much of Asia, Africa, and South America, and now the American Left wishes to revive this monstrous ideology on our own shores. Every totalitarian regime begins with the same heartfelt promises of justice and equality, just those promises of fairness that Barack Obama has made the fixation of his political career. What tyrant, one might ask, has not risen to power on promises of benevolent change?
Soon, however, those who come to power, even with good intentions, discover that for all men to be made equal, some men must be made poor, and most men will not agree to be made poor in the absence of force. So force must be applied, assets must be seized, censorship must be imposed, dissidents must be jailed, enemies must be destroyed. Men must be made equal by any means necessary, and soon enough those means include intimidation, imprisonment, and execution.
Again and again, the handsome smile of the reformer is twisted into the callous sneer of the tyrant. Those who present themselves as saviors are always the most dangerous, for unlike the one true savior, who rendered unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, they must work their will on the things of this world, and one cannot remake the world without the application of force.
At the heart of the ideal of fairness, in the peculiar ideological sense in which the term has come to be used, is the fundamental mistake that all workers -- not just all workers, but all human beings, including those who simply choose not to work -- should be equally rewarded, regardless of effort and ability. It is a problem that was noted as early as the mid-18th century, even before the French Revolution transformed that unfortunate nation into a bloody shrine to godless egalitarianism. As Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot wrote: "To permit a large number of men to live free of charge is to encourage laziness and all the disorders that follow; it is to render the condition of the idler preferable to that of the man who works...." (qtd. by G. Himmelfarb, Roads to Modernity 179).
Under socialism, those who are lazy and unproductive, or not productive at all, or even blatantly destructive, get a free ride; those who are skillful and enterprising are punished. When ambitious workers attempt to get ahead on the basis of their abilities, as inevitably they do, they are harassed, beaten, imprisoned, and executed. The longer that ambition is repressed, the less productive the overall economy becomes. At that point, the wrath of the state is unleashed on all workers, not just on the more able.
Socialism always stifles talent and ambition, and the more it does so, the more squalid things get. It is no accident that socialism always fails. It fails because of its fundamental assumption that self-interest can be suppressed in human relations. Socialism fails every time because of the arrogant lie upon which it rests. In the depths of his black heart, perhaps even Stalin suspected that Marxist economics was a lie, but he was willing to remove twelve million souls from his worker's paradise to suppress that doubt.
The reality is that it is free market capitalism that has been responsible for the explosive increases is wealth and productivity in America during the past two hundred years. It is only the public's impatience, its intolerance of normal business cycles to say nothing of its inability to comprehend and prepare for severe economic dislocations, that makes it hard to see that today. This explosive growth could never be achieved in a society of utopian social planners because the goals of socialist planners do not correspond with the actual motives of human beings in the real world.
Those who lack the virtues of perseverance, thrift, judgment, and restraint may appear within the world fantasized by the Left to be the equal of those who possess these virtues, but it is only within the illusory world of the abstract idealist that one can so utterly disregard essential human motives and demands. In the actual world the consequence of this repudiation is the demise of civilization, if by civilization we mean a society with the entrepreneurial freedom and productivity to extend a life of health, comfort, and plenty to most of its citizens.
Anyone who does not understand what this means has failed to study the history of the past century, especially those horrific decades of political oppression and moral collapse resulting from centralized government planning and control in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. There is nothing subjective about this notion of decline. The symptoms of this demise of civilization are all easily measured and acutely felt: they include a shrinking food supply, a decline in the quality and availability of housing, a reduction of educational standards, an attenuation of essential public services, a diminishment of private property rights, and, ultimately, a decreased life expectancy.
In Yugoslavia of the 1980s, as in eastern Europe generally since the Second World War, no one, except for those in political power, wished communism to continue in existence. In the communist state as I knew it, the masses led lives of quiescent desolation if not grinding poverty, while the leadership, those who had sworn to sacrifice all on the behalf of the people, thrived in gated enclaves. The masses frequented state-owned stores with their pitifully bare shelves, while the leadership gained admittance to the "diplomatic" shops, well-stocked with imported goods. The masses traveled precariously in crowded, stinking, sweaty red buses, while the leadership glided smoothly by in sleek black limos.
Day by day, month by month, the masses were informed that their lives were getting better and better, even as they were ground down by the poor nutrition, miserable health care, inadequate heat, and unclean water. Although few attempted to protest openly, everyone mocked the government in private. Everyone knew that life was not getting better and better. Everyone knew that the record harvests and astounding advances in living standards were a lie.
No one graced state television with his attention except when it turned from broadcasting political "news" to soccer matches, at which point a glimmer of life appeared in the faces of the masses. Even though, even after his death, one was prohibited by law from criticizing the great leader, no one volunteered to speak favorably of him. Occasionally, in spontaneous and uncontrollable moments, the anger and bitterness found vent, as when a young visitor to the American Center in Belgrade held up a page advertising a boom box in USA Today and asked, awe-struck and almost hysterically, "Is it true? Is the price true?" ("Yes, it is true," I nodded.)
More often, the bitterness was drowned in the escapism of powerful alcoholic beverages made affordable to all.
As astounding as it may seem, given the history of Yugoslavia and of much worse, socialism remains the dream of the American Left, and it is exactly what we are getting with the Democrats now in control of the White House and Congress. In one form or another, we will have socialized medicine, with its callous specter of long waiting lists or outright denials for life-saving operations and drugs. In one form or another, we will see government control of the energy industry, and with it ever higher prices for fuel and electricity.
In the near future federal expenditures will rise from the current 20% to 25% of GDP, funded by a combination of ruinous debt and higher taxes. This figure, however, does not include the impact of stealth taxes, such as the annual trillion dollar "cap and trade" tax planned for startup in 2012. In order to address what Democrats like to call "income disparity" (shouldn't income be "disparate" for those who educate themselves and work hard as opposed to those who do not?), massive new taxation will rob trillions of dollars from skilled, hardworking individuals and redistribute it to less hardworking or less skilled persons, to say nothing of the underclass of drug addicts, prostitutes, and shiftless losers who will claim their outsized share of new "benefits."
Socialism has had more than enough time to work, if ever it is to work. In those earlier, more genteel days of audacious hope, socialism failed at New Lanark, at Brook Farm, at Rugby, and in all of the Shaker communities in which it was attempted, and not merely for want of procreation. But these failed experiments were benign compared to what came later. When socialism failed, Owen, Ripley, Fourier, and Sister Ann Lee simply closed up shop and allowed everyone to leave.
When socialism failed under Hitler and Mussolini, under Lenin and Stalin, and under Mao and Pol Pot, no one was allowed to leave until everyone was beaten down or dead -- the "boot crushing a human face, forever," to cite Orwell's memorable phrase -- yet even in their final gasp of breath, these homicidal regimes insisted that they were still out to save the world. Or more precisely, that they were still out to save the poor and oppressed of the world from the capitalist class, which they were out to eradicate.
In every case, they drew on the same radically simplistic conception that "the rich" oppressed "the poor," and so "the poor" had the right, with the assistance of middle-class intermediaries like Marx and Lenin, to exterminate "the rich." It was not a highly subtle script, but then the audience was not a highly educated one. In any case, there exists a certain tendency to suspend disbelief when one is exhorted to seize another man's property for one's own.
One large difficulty with the rhetoric of the Left is the freighted connotation that is nearly always read into that phrase, "the poor." It would be well enough if we could simply agree that "the poor" are those individuals who, at the present time and place of which we are speaking, are "poor." But this is almost never the meaning of those who are apt to use the phrase. For the liberal ideologue, poverty is not an economic condition per se, a temporary condition of low earnings that can be alleviated over time as those who are poor pursue opportunities and become better off. Rather, it is a permanent and reified condition: the poor are not just those who are earning less than others; they are those who have been made poor and who will continue poor, poverty being inherited in the manner that aristocratic titles may be in Britain. One acquires one's victimhood and retains it all one's life and passes it down to one's progeny, and just as aristocratic titles retain their own perks, so does impoverishment.
In the liberal imagination, the poor have special rights that extend far beyond the inalienable rights of the average citizen. The simple assertion of belonging to "the poor" confers the right of victimhood with all the perks of sympathy, support, welfare, and exculpatory excuse-making that go with it. The poor, the working class, working families, single moms -- within the imagination of our guilt-ridden liberal ideologues, all of these worthy classes are entitled not just to encouragement, charity, and welfare, but to elevation above and beyond the rest of the pharisaical population. They deserve advancement to the front of the line, and if there are not enough loaves and fishes to feed the late-comers, one need not worry about that. The late-comers, after all, have been well fed for too many years already. Let them eat cake.
The odd thing about socialism of this sort is that it is always supported by many among the very class who are to be sent back to the end of the line. For many, of course, it seems a chic, relatively inexpensive sort of entertainment: those in the middle class who promote socialism may expect to be taxed at higher rates, but they don't really expect to give up anything. They will inflate their earnings and pass the tax along to whoever hangs on the next rung down.
What they gain is the pleasing aura of their own role as patrons within a world in which there exists a cheaply purchased sufficiency for all and in which they themselves are fêted for dreaming it up. They have managed to grow up without ever laboring or producing any object of use and yet, as a result of the overabundance of the world they have inherited, they are able to extend a middle-class sufficiency to all those who wish to claim it. They expect, of course, to remain a great deal above the masses of the poor, but at the same time to enjoy the well wishes of all they encounter. What could be more pleasant?
Too bad the dream cannot last. Quite early in the game, one finds that the wealth of nations cannot be equally distributed to all who appear with claim checks without inflating the currency. Some seem to assume that there exists a depthless bucket of cash, which can be distributed year after year as one stimulus after another and that this magical bucket of cash will create or save millions of jobs and drive consumption indefinitely. But there is no magic bucket, no more than there is a magic beanstalk leading to golden eggs. The pernicious fantasy of the Left is that debt can mount to any level, repayment can be postponed indefinitely, and the bucket can continue to be raided in ever greater amounts with no consequences.
The Democratic leadership is eager to promote this fairy tale because mounting expenditure and debt expands the size of government, leading us gradually and almost imperceptibly toward socialism. It goes without saying that the totalist state that they envision is to be under the control of their own party since the Republican Party, at least officially, is on record as favoring smaller government.
Even if there were a depthless bucket of cash, of which some seem confident ("at a time like this, we cannot be concerned about deficits" -- Barack Obama), the psychic damage of socialism should be enough to render it abhorrent. When will the liberal elite come to understand that welfare in every form, from cash handouts for "the poor" to exculpatory sympathy for an "oppressed" criminal class, simply reinforces failure on the part of individuals who might otherwise improve their lot? Every attempt to act as our brother's keeper, apart from decent and limited, discrete acts of charity -- charity that admits the inescapable reality of suffering but not the reified condition of victimhood -- ends by promoting the very vices that we wish to remediate.
The "solution" to poverty is not to subsidize those who are poor but to allow them to feel the effects of poverty until such time as they are motivated to work. Nearly all who are made long-term clients of welfare decide to remain so. Few who have escaped poverty by honest work ever return to it.
However onerous the radical program of redistribution may be, it is only part of the looming devastation, and not the greater part. The greatest danger is the threat to personal liberty that is posed by an ever larger and more centralized government. Gradually, with the proliferation of new regulation, new legislation from the bench, and expansion of the trial bar, our lives become less and less free. We face an ever widening definition of "hate speech," including the "evil" that the Left sees in the forthright declaration of patriotism or religious faith. As the government clamps down on all public expression, especially on the public expression of religion, we will become a country in which even our most basic liberties have been stolen.
A vast increase in government spending carries with it forced acceptance of government "services," even as private choices are eliminated. Government propaganda is now broadcast through every mainstream media source and taught in every public school. Government intimidation of opposition spokesmen has intensified. What happened under communism elsewhere will happen here: the public will lose its will to resist the immense power of government and will finally lapse into demoralized passivity.
These facts regarding the moral damage of socialism should be obvious to all who have paid attention to the history of the welfare state over the past century. Yet, despite the undeniable failure of communism in the Soviet Union, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America -- and the failure in the past of democratic socialism in Western Europe and the United States and Canada -- there are now more voices calling for a greater role of government in human affairs.
The recent success of Democratic candidates in the United States was the result of a widespread sense among the electorate that our country was becoming less equal, less "fair," less "just," and that the solution was greater government involvement. The premise -- the fact that there exists a growing discrepancy in income -- is undeniable, though in tandem with grossly inflated CEO pay the middle and lower classes have benefited as well. But the conclusion -- that increased income redistribution is the answer -- is hardly tenable. In every case where such redistribution has been tried (Communist Cuba is an obvious example), it has led to a lower standard of living for all.
The reason for this is quite simple: without the powerful effect of the free market, no one has any real incentive to work. If the high earners are removed at the top, the new top comes to be measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay, not in millions. But if the new top becomes hundreds of thousands, why not tens of thousands? With the realization of this fact, why would any young person sacrifice so much in training for and obtaining a professional position? Irving Kristol was correct to focus on the tendency of welfare systems to leave their "clients" "unmanned and demoralized." Welfare states, Kristol concluded, create "a vicious circle in which the best of intentions merge into the worst of results" (49).
For many in the past decade, the tacit model of this new egalitarianism has been Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. Those on the left wing of the Democratic Party have been accommodating in their dealings with Chavez because they view him as an ally, for they wish to create in America the worker's paradise that they see in Venezuela. Just as Western leftists of the 1930s were blinded by their politics and unwilling to credit Stalin's crimes, even as those crimes reached monumental proportions, so modern-day leftists in Washington are unwilling to criticize Chavez, no matter how murderous his tactics have become. The overwhelming evidence of Chavez's active support of Columbia's FARC terror organization, as revealed in the extensive files of a captured laptop computer, was greeted with stubborn silence on the part of the Democratic leadership in Congress.
That same leadership, in an outrageous affront to the interests of liberty, went on to block the free trade agreement which would have buttressed Columbia's democratically elected government. Indeed, the American Left has extended all sorts of cover to Chavez, not least of which aid is a determined effort to remain mum about the massive abuses of personal liberty and property rights under his rule. Not a word of reproach was uttered when Chavez seized the production of American oil companies, costing American retirement funds billions of dollars. Perhaps nothing was said because so many Democratic leaders, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have publicly expressed the same desire to seize the profits of oil companies. Given the common goal -- the transformation of the world by whatever means necessary into a communist dictatorship -- the Left in this country is willing to overlook any sort of little flaw.
Since there are emerging signs that the Venezuelan people have begun to defect from the socialist camp, and that, with declining oil revenues and rising shortages, Chavez's days may be numbered, there exist in all the world only three true bastions of faith in the state-planned economy. Those three diehards are the totalitarian rulers of communist North Korea, the aging dictators of communist Cuba, and the left wing of the Democratic Party of the United States. The only difference, it seems, is that our homegrown socialists were freely elected, albeit with the advantage of hard-ball tactics and relentless media bias.
Every communist regime in history has begun its rule with sweeping confiscations of private wealth and widespread nationalization of industry. How does this differ from Democratic proposals for government regulation and confiscation within the health care, financial services, and energy industries, or from their plan eventually to institute a four trillion dollar tax increase -- the result of bloated stimulus programs and rollback of President Bush's tax cuts?
If the Democrats have their way, America will become the world's largest socialist economy at the very moment when the rest of the world, even the welfare states of western Europe, have begun to repudiate socialism. Yet evidence of America's mounting ideological capitulation is everywhere. Suspicion of our "giant corporations" is a frequent refrain of the political Left, as if giant government, which produces nothing and preys upon the earnings of the public, were not menacing in a way that healthy corporations never are.
Obama's tirades against free enterprise, aimed one day at offending CEOs and another at whole industries or free market philosophies, witness to the true character of this president. His hostility to corporate profits, or profits earned as a result of any business or individual endeavor, reveals a warped sense of reality. Imprinted somewhere on his mind is the pernicious notion that no enterprise, no behavior, no expression unregulated by the state can be permitted to exist.
Perhaps Mr. Obama has not read so far into our founding documents as to be familiar with Amendment IX, which states that "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." It would appear that our president wishes all rights not now held by government to be denied and disparaged, and, beyond that, to be seized. This is not the American Dream: it is a noxious and corrupt conception of the purposes of government, and one that can be traced directly to the perverse theories of Karl Marx.
All socialist experiments, from the high-minded 19th-century utopianism of Robert Owen or Charles Fourier to the vicious authoritarian nightmare of Mao Tse-tung or Pol Pot, have been the product of middle- or upper-class fantasies, the underlying feature of which is the megalomaniac intention to "save" the working class from its own bad habits. Paul Johnson observed in his superb book, Intellectuals, that saving the working classes from themselves has been the ruinous ambition of middle- and upper-class intellectuals for over two hundred years, and the result has in every case been calamitous. For the poor, socialism is indeed "a ruinous creed."
From the French Revolution to today's Left Wing of the Democratic Party, the aim is government for the masses, not by them. The authoritarian and elitist leanings in the present administration are unmistakable evidence of this sad history of intellectual self-deception.
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. New York: Knopf, 2004.
Kristol, Irving. "Welfare: The Best of Intentions, the Worst of Results." IN Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. New York: The Free Press, 1995. 43-49.