Deconstructing the Socialists

The recent obituary of Pete Seeger in the Chicago Tribune (h/t prompted me to revisit a thought that I've had for some time:

Seeger was also known for his liberal politics and for refusing to testify to Congress about his time in the Communist Party . . . and his lifelong belief that songs could and should be used to build a sense of community to make the world a better place.

This reminded me that I had never seen an obituary written the following way:

S/he was born into a poor family. An avowed capitalist s/he built a fortune from nothing to become one of the area's wealthiest people. Through consistent generosity and philanthropy, s/he made the world a better place.

Communists seeks to make the world a better place, but capitalists by implication represent the richest 1% who give nary a whit about the improvement of the nation or its people. In this popular national myth the 1% is a "Scrooge McDuck" diving into his vault of gold coins (think Occupy Wall Street and physicians performing unnecessary tonsillectomies and amputations). This reverse McCarthyism in our ubiquitous media myth is clear; it's just fine if one happens to be a ruthless communist making the world a better place, but it's not fine to be a capitalist for any reason even if the evidence of history belies this very myth.

John D. Rockefeller, one of the wealthiest men to have ever lived, once said: "From the beginning, I was trained to work, to save, and to give." "Let the good work go on," he wrote to his partner, " We must ever remember we are refining oil for the poor man and he must have it cheap and good." Leave it to Thomas Sowell to cut to the essence of the matter:

[Rockefeller] profoundly changed the lives of millions of working people. Too many discussions of large fortunes attribute them to "greed" -- as if wanting a lot of money is enough to cause other people to hand it over to you. What increased the wealth of society was Rockefeller's cheap kerosene that added hundreds of hours of light to people's lives annually.

The individual fortunes represented a fraction of the wealth created.

Think about Sowell's insight. The immense fortune of John D. Rockefeller, and it was immense by any standard, represented only a fraction of the wealth he created for others by adding hundreds of hours to millions of people's lives every year. Carry the idea further; consider Carnegie's libraries. How many people in the U.S., me included, owe Andrew Carnegie an inestimable debt? Just as Rockefeller institutionalized and revolutionized the concept of philanthropy, Carnegie created the very concept of a circulating free public library for the common man.

Today the left romanticizes socialism and communism much as we romanticize 17th-century pirates. Leftists proudly parade their T-shirts festooned with images of Che Guevara while driving affordable cars (Henry Ford) to a public library (Andrew Carnegie) to read leftist authors under electric lights (Thomas Edison) not realizing that those romanticized pirates were more like today's murdering Somali pirates than any swashbuckling Johnny Depp or Erroll Flynn. And likewise, Che, an executioner who provided no contribution to posterity, is romanticized as a great catalyst of welcome change.

Perhaps we see socialism through the romanticized superficiality of its ethic. "Help your neighbor" is certainly a better ethic than "help yourself." And, in fact, socialism can work when entered into on small, interpersonal and voluntary scales; that is, when we have the opportunity to individually negotiate, choose, and control how much and with whom we will "socialize." My neighbors and I agreed to keep our contiguous small urban backyards undivided by a fence to provide more room for each of our dogs to run. I proposed the yard sharing. It was a voluntary arrangement and our shared-yard arrangement worked well. Still I would never propose that a municipality force such neighbor-sharing of yards. Such coerced socialism, like coerced "charity," is no more than organized theft. It doesn't work and history is littered with the carcasses and corpses of its failed attempts.

When we are given the opportunity to help our neighbors, we invariably first choose to help ourselves. The proof? Eric Hobsbawm, avowed socialist and defender of Communism died with an Estate of $1.8 million dollars. Pete Seeger? His estate is estimated at $4.2 million. Russell Brand, who recently called for global socialism is worth an estimated $15 million. There is no indication that any of them are or were particularly interested in the redistribution of their own wealth; there have been no redistribution checks forthcoming from them or their estates. Perhaps the most egregious example of this faux socialism is Yoko Ono's legal challenge to the use of the song "Imagine" in Ben Stein's 2008 film Expendable: No Intelligence Allowed:

Imagine no possessions . . .

Imagine all the people sharing all the world

Yes, just imagine -- as long as you agree with my politics. And see the Huffington Post essay on this issue by James Boyce who invokes the eighth commandment: "Thou shall not steal." Steal? How can one steal when everyone owns everything? In a socialist world where there are no possessions there can be no theft. The problem is there are no socialists there either. There are only socialist pretenders and they are capitalists all.

The Marxian commandment "to each according to his need," is perhaps the most imbecilic aphorism ever conceived. Without capitalism there can be no progress because there is no capital to invest. Without capitalism there can be no charity because there is no wealth to charitably distribute. Ah, but the socialist/communist responds, "with such a principle there is no need to redistribute because everyone already has what they need." Think so? Then why did Leonid Breshnev need an antique car collection while Soviet gospodins stood in line for bread and meat? The answer is simple: They help themselves first. Capitalists all -- each and every one!

Anthony Benvin is a former university professor and has worked for over twenty-four years in the financial services industry.