FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #39: “Socialism is easier said than done.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 9th, 2010

Capitalism vs. Socialism

Socialism as a political/economic theory is pretty involved.  With an involved history.  And if you’re suffering insomnia one night I recommend reading some of it with a glass of warm milk.  Should put you right to sleep.

Let me simplify it a bit.  To begin with, by ‘socialism’ I mean any form of collectivism (socialism, communism, fascism, statism, social democracy, etc.).  They’re all similar.  Just variations on a theme.  And they all suffer the same defects.  Three of which I summarize here:

  • Public (instead of private) ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange
  • Put the common good before individual wants or desires
  • Equality of outcomes

That’s not everything.  But it’s the 3 big reasons why socialism fails.  Basically, socialism is the opposite of capitalism.  In fact, socialism was created to defeat capitalism.  The East-West rivalry during the Cold War was the final showdown between the two systems.  And we know how that turned out.  (In case you don’t, capitalism won).

Public (instead of private) ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange

Mikhail Gorbachev asked the great Margaret Thatcher how she fed her people.  Her reply stunned him.  She did nothing.  The Soviet Union was struggling to feed her people with their socialist command economy.  And they couldn’t do it.  They who had great tracts of some of the most fertile farmland in the world.  And yet they still had to import grain from their arch nemesis.  The United States.  To keep famine at bay.  The free markets of capitalism didn’t have to struggle to feed her people, though.  The United States had food to spare.  And even though Great Britain is an island nation that had to import much of her food, there were no famine fears in Great Britain.  The socialist just couldn’t understand how that was possible.

One of the problems with socialism is that it ignores market forces.  And perverts the economic decision making process.  In a free market, market forces maximize the use of scarce resources that have alternative uses.  The market does this through the laws of supply and demand.  And prices.  Things high in demand but low in supply have high prices.  This ensures there is enough of that supply available for those who really need it.  Anyone who pushed a car to the gas pump during the gas shortages in the 1970s understands this.  When the Nixon administration kept prices artificially low, everyone bought and used gas until the supply ran out.  If we had let prices rise to their true market price, those who didn’t absolutely need gas would have cut back on their purchases, leaving gas available to those who really needed it and were willing to pay a high price for it.

When the state takes over the economy, politicians make economic decisions for political reasons.  They ignore the ‘invisible hand’ of the market place.  In the Soviet Union, the state boasted about its industrial output and filled stores with tractor parts no one wanted to buy.  Meanwhile, people stood in line for hours in hopes of buying soap or toilet paper.  And no matter how hard they tried they just couldn’t increase the yield of some of the world’s most fertile farmland.

Put the common good before individual wants or desires

Doing what’s best for the common good sounds noble.  And easy to do.  We all agree our children should be safe.  And should have enough to eat.  And that our schools should serve them breakfast each morning.  And teach them about contraception.  Well, okay, it’s not that easy to do.  Because different people want different things.  And different people think different things are better for the common good.

This is the problem of putting the common good before our individual wants or desires.  Few can agree on what the common good is.  We know our own wants and desires.  But we have no idea what other people want or desire.  Unless we ask them.  But does that even help in determining the common good?  Get a group of your friends and family together.  Make it at least 10 people.  Now get the ten of you to agree on a movie to see.  You know what will happen?  First of all, you’ll waste a lot of time saying, “I don’t care.  What do you want to see?”  Then people will start suggesting movies.  And for every one suggested, someone will vote it down.  This will go on until you finally arrive at a movie that no one wants to see.  But because it’s the movie everyone hates the least, everyone’s willing to settle for it.

Now imagine that little exercise with a thousand people.  The agreeing process will be even more difficult.  In fact, it may be impossible.  It is very unlikely that one thousand people will agree to anything.  And if they try they will waste an enormous amount of time in the process.  No.  Someone will have to decide for the group.  Someone will have to weigh everyone’s opinion and decide what is best for the common good. No matter how many people disagree with this one person’s decision.  F.A. Hayek wrote a book about this.  The Road to Serfdom.  He said socialism ends in dictatorship.  Because there’s no efficient means to determine what’s best for the common good.  He predicted this would happen in Germany with their creeping state socialism.  And Adolf Hitler proved him right.

Equality of Outcomes

If a business has a good year, they tend to be more generous at the holidays.  Let’s say a business owner wants to give out some Christmas bonuses to thank her employees for all their hard work.  She goes to her accountant.  Asks what’s the maximum she can give out without giving herself any cash-flow problems at the beginning of the new year (taxes, insurance, etc.).  The accountant crunches some numbers and says $50,000.  If she has 15 employees, that’s about $3,300 each.  Which should make for a pretty Merry Christmas.  Now, let’s say she has 125 employees.  That works out to a $400 bonus per employee.   Which won’t be quite as merry.

The lesson learned?  The more people included in the getting of something, the less each one gets.  And so it is with socialism.  The only way to get equality in outcomes is to give everyone less.  Sure, we can afford to give Congress people a Cadillac health insurance plan.  But we could never afford to give the same coverage to everyone.  To be able to give coverage to all the people, each person will have to get less.

And they will continue to get less.  As costs go up, it is difficult to maintain the same level of government benefits.  Eventually, they’ll have to raise taxes to cover the higher costs.  And when they can’t raise taxes anymore, they’ll have to reduce the amount of benefits.  Or, in other words, they’ll have to ration benefits.  A bureaucrat will have to decide who should get what.  Which could easily turn health care into politics.  A political opponent needs an expensive cancer treatment?  So sorry.  We’ve already reached our quota this year.  Try again next year.

Socialism is Slavery

What it comes down to is this; socialism really fails for one reason.  It goes against human nature.  It only works when we sacrifice our wants and desires so that others may have their wants and desires.  It’s not trying to keep up with the Jones.  It’s helping the Jones get ahead of you.  It’s living your life to serve others.  And there’s another word for that.  Slavery.  Hence the title of Hayek’s book.  The Road to Serfdom.  For socialism to work, the state must become a dictatorship.  And we must become its slaves.  But few willingly volunteer for servitude.  So, given the choice, we will ultimately choose to make socialism fail.

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