Why Socialism Does Not Work

The resurgence of socialist ideology is curious given the unpleasant history of that doctrine.  The historical evidence is that socialism does not work as claimed.  Moreover, when socialism has been tried, it has all too frequently been accompanied by catastrophe and atrocity.  It is not unfair to say that history has not been kind to socialism and vice versa.  It is not hyperbole to note that the results of socialist government have been evil.  It is also reasonable to conclude that many of the failures of socialism were due to inherent weaknesses in its doctrines and philosophies.  Stated simply, the history of socialism as a large-scale governing principle is one of misery and failure. 

Some of the appeal of socialism is due to its proponents’ selectively disavowing past socialist failures while also adopting successes that are not socialist.  It is common to hear that the mass deaths that accompanied the socialist enterprises of the 20th century and the ongoing economic catastrophe that is Venezuela were not socialist per se but rather artifacts of circumstance.  It is also claimed that public financing of roads, schools, and public services are species of socialism when they are, in fact, methods of allocating the benefits of private enterprise to public purposes.  Much of the appeal of socialism is a semantic artifice.  The socialism that is promised in current politics will always work in the imagination and fail in reality.  There are very simple reasons for why this is so. 

Socialism, as an economic and political doctrine, is not social safety nets or paying taxes to fund public services.  It is government control of capital.  All economic systems, whether in the United States, or North Korea, or Zimbabwe, require capital. The difference lies in who controls the capital, and consequently, who profits from it.  The fundamental flaw of socialism is that it contains no optimizing mechanism for selecting those who will manage capital most efficiently.  Capitalist systems rely on the optimizing mechanism of competition.  Fair competition selects those who make the most effective use of capital and who are most suited to contend with risk.  Socialists do not deny this fact, rather they substitute the irrelevant argument that competition produces "unfair" outcomes, and that efficiency ignores empathy.  The appeal of socialism is almost entirely emotional.  It implicitly disparages efficiency but in fact all progress, all improvements in human life, are the result in improvements in efficiency of one sort or another.   

Socialism lacks objective processes of optimization and improving efficiency.  Instead, it seeks to determine relative merit and improve processes by planning and resort to "experts." This creates an endless regression of shortcomings in that there is no optimizing mechanism for planning or choosing experts.  More particularly, there is no optimizing mechanism for choosing who should be given control of the process, and those who attain such positions often do so because of abilities largely irrelevant to the claims of the socialist ideal.  Capitalist systems, through competition, tend to select managers of capital who have competence in using it.  Socialist systems, lacking any other type of optimizing mechanism, tend to select on the basis of political skills, which may be entirely unrelated to economic competence, or even interest in economic progress.  It is no accident that many of the socialist experiments of the 20th century resulted in authoritarianism and the predictable calamities to which authoritarianism is prone.   

It should not escape notice that many of the socialist regimes that were associated with mass death and economic calamity had leaders whose terms were limited only by their deaths or removal by force.  This reveals another flaw in socialist theory.  Once a leader ascends to a position of power, he becomes interested in maintaining power and is decidedly hostile to any mechanism that may identify a more capable leader.  Socialism thus tends to discourage finding those most capable of using capital, with the result being North Korea, Venezuela, and other economic invalids. 

The success of socialism depends on leadership whose selection is, in reality, not based on their ability to bring about the ideals of socialism.  Those who successfully obtain leadership do so largely on their ability to exploit political opportunities and understand inefficient and insular bureaucratic machinery, rather than their ability to improve the overall quality of life of others.  The inherent dependence of socialism on bureaucracy is another weakness of the doctrine.  Bureaucracies have interests beyond their stated purpose.  The longer they exist, the more self-perpetuating and self-interested they become. They become risk averse, complacent, inefficient, and possessed of interests that do not coincide with the larger society.  This has the tendency to stifle innovation, and ultimately, progress.  Innovation and progress often involve significant risk-taking and socialism does not compensate people for the assumption of risk.  Socialism in fact does the opposite, encouraging risk avoidance. 

One of the most pernicious and profound defects of socialism is that incentives within a socialist system are incompatible with human nature.  A person is motivated by those things that he inherently values, and he expends his time and resources in the manner that is most meaningful to him. This applies to truly selfish interests as well as to public-minded ones, such as charitable giving and service during time of national emergency.  The socialist cannot tell a man what is important to him and expect it to be so. This is why black markets arise in planned economies and why socialist enterprises of any scale, such as the Israeli kibbutzim and Plymouth Plantation, were forced to reform their economic models. 

The socialist enterprise relies on appeals to what the socialist thinks that the people should want rather than what they actually do want.  Since these appeals predictably do not work, the socialist authority necessarily must resort to threats, and use, of government force.  Force, and all of the negative consequences that it inspires, is inherent to a system that is so much at odds with individual values and human nature.  This, probably more than anything else, is what explains the atrocities associated with socialism in the 20th century. 

Economic prosperity is produced by capital.  In the capitalist model the capital is held by private citizens and the socialist model is held by the government, but it is nonetheless capital.  In the capitalist model there is a disparity in the wealth accumulated by those who provide value and those who do not, and in the socialist model there is a disparity in the wealth accumulated by those who rule and those who do not.  In both cases wealth accrues to those who control the capital. 

The resurgent appeal of socialism does not result from improvements in the doctrine over that which has such an unhappy history.  It does have something to do with disregard of that history.  Just as it is easier to assume that an iconic image of Che Guevara represents revolutionary heroism than it is to do the minimal investigation necessary to realize that he was a psychopathic killer, it is easier to be seduced by the platitudes of socialism than it is to inquire into their reality.  Socialism does not work because it is really not suited to anything other than acquiring power. 

Image: Bob Simmons

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