Socialism’s Survival: The Endurance of an Ideological Paradox

I have written about the death and rebirth of socialism periodically over the years.  But as André Gide said in another context, “Toutes choses sont dites déjà, mais comme personne n’écoute, il faut toujours recommencer”: everything has already been said, but since no one was listening, it is necessary to say it again.

Really, the socialist impulse is a hardy perennial.  How could something so frequently and thoroughly discredited persist in the hearts of men?  Some think it has something to do with the gullibility of the human animal, some (but I repeat myself) with the persistence of the utopian dream.  I suspect there are many explanations, of which the raw desire for power plays an unedifying but also underrated role.  I also favor the explanatory power of original sin, which has profound psychological as well as theological application to many of the more farcical aspects of human experience and what is more farcical than socialism?

At any rate, the career of socialism is a powerful argument for the phenomenon of life after death. Remember: the death of socialism in the United States (except on college campuses) had been solemnly pronounced over and over during the 1980s and 1990s. But for the past several years, we have seen multiple sightings of the beast.

Back in 2018, for example, the actor Jim Carrey told Bill Maher: “We have to say yes to socialism—to the word and everything. We have to stop apologizing.”

I’m pretty sure that no one told this poor fellow that, were socialism to be instituted in the United States, one of the first things that would happen is that people like Mr. Carrey would be instantly pauperized.

Did I say “poor” fellow?

As of 2023, Mr. Carrey had an estimated net worth of $180 million. But what are the two fundamental pillars of socialism?

One: The abolition of private property.

Two: The equalization of wealth.

I can’t forbear to point out that Mr. Carrey actually starred in a movie called “Dumb and Dumber,” which is about “two unintelligent but well-meaning friends from Providence, Rhode Island.”

Talk about art imitating life.

Mr. Carrey’s self-congratulatory naïveté is repeated everywhere these days. It’s an attitude that’s especially prevalent among historically innocent beneficiaries of the free market whose lives have been blissfully untouched by the blunt and unforgiving imperatives of socialist dominance.

Given the prevalence among the tender-hearted of socialist fantasy, on the one hand, and animus toward the free market, on the other, I thought it might be useful to say a few words in defense of the latter.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith noted the paradox, or seeming paradox, of the free market, aka capitalism: that the more individuals were left free to follow their own ends, the more their activities were “led by an invisible hand to promote” ends that aided the common good.

Private pursuits conduced to public goods—that is the beneficent alchemy of the free market. (I forbear to say “capitalism” because the term, though not coined by Marx, was popularized by him as a synonym for “exploitation,” when in fact its operation has been almost wholly about liberation.)

In The Road to Serfdom and other works, Friedrich Hayek expanded on Smith’s fundamental insight, pointing out that the spontaneous order created and maintained by competitive market forces leads to greater prosperity than a planned economy.

The sentimentalist can’t wrap his mind, or his heart, around that datum.

He (or she) can’t understand why “society” shouldn’t favor “cooperation” (a pleasing-sounding arrangement) over “competition” (much harsher), since in any competition there are losers, which is bad, and winners, which may be even worse. The unhappy truth is that socialism is a version of sentimentality. Even so hard-headed an observer as George Orwell was susceptible. In The Road to Wigan Pier,  Orwell argued that since the world “potentially, at least, is immensely rich,” if we developed it “as it might be developed . . . we could all live like princes, supposing that we wanted to.”

Never mind that part of what it means to be a prince is that others, indeed most others, aren’t royalty. (Or, as that admirable logician W. S. Gilbert put it: “When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody!”) As Hayek observed, the socialist, the sentimentalist, can’t understand why, if people have been able to “generate some system of rules coordinating their efforts,” they can’t also consciously “design an even better and more gratifying system.”

Central to Hayek’s teaching is the unyielding fact that human ingenuity is limited, that the elasticity of freedom requires the agency of forces beyond our supervision, and that, finally, the ambitions of socialism are an expression of rationalistic hubris. A spontaneous order generated by market forces may be as beneficial to humanity as you like; it may have greatly extended life and produced wealth so staggering that, only a few generations ago, it was unimaginable.

Still, it isn’t perfect. The poor are still with us. Not every social problem has been solved. In the end, though, the really galling thing about the spontaneous order that free markets produce isn’t its imperfection but its spontaneity: the fact that it’s a creation not our own. It transcends the conscious direction of human will and is therefore an affront to human pride.

The urgency with which Hayek condemns socialism is a function of the importance of the stakes involved. As he put it in his last book, The Fatal Conceit, the “dispute between the market order and socialism is no less than a matter of survival” because “to follow socialist morality would destroy much of present humankind and impoverish much of the rest.”

We get a foretaste of what Hayek meant whenever the forces of socialism triumph. There follows, as night follows day, an increase in poverty and a diminution of individual freedom. The curious thing is that this fact has had so little effect on the attitudes of intellectuals and the politicians who appeal to them. Are you listening, Joe Biden?

No merely empirical development, it seems—let it be repeated innumerable times—can spoil the pleasures of socialist sentimentality. This unworldliness is tied to another common trait of intellectuals: their contempt for money and the world of commerce. The socialist intellectual, especially the well-heeled one, eschews the “profit motive” as something beneath his dignity. He recommends instead increased government control of the economy. He feels, Hayek notes, that “to employ a hundred people is… exploitation, but to command the same number [is] honorable.”

Not that intellectuals, as a class, don’t like possessing money as much as the rest of us. But they look upon the whole machinery of commerce as something separate from, something indescribably less worthy than, their innermost hearts’ desires.

Of course, there’s a sense in which this is true. However, many intellectuals fail to appreciate two things. First, the extent to which money, as Hayek put it, is “one of the greatest instruments of freedom ever invented,” opening “an astounding range of choice to the poor man—a range greater than that which not many generations ago was open to the wealthy.”

Second, intellectuals tend to ignore the extent to which the organization of commerce affects the organization of our aspirations. As Hilaire Belloc put it in The Servile State, “The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.”

The really frightening question wholesale economic planning raises isn’t whether we’re free to pursue our most important ends, but who determines what those “most important ends” are to be. Is it battling “climate change?” Abolishing “racism?” Forbidding gas stoves or air conditioning? “Whoever,” Hayek notes, “has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower—in short, what men should believe and strive for.”

There has been a great deal of agitation over inflation, rising interest rates, and troubling news from the banking industry lately. Probably, there’s more agitation to follow. We’ve been there, done that. Do we have to go through it again? There’s some irony in the fact that Hayek’s great opponent, John Maynard Keynes, provided a most penetrating criticism of the top-down rationalism that he himself propounded in economic matters.

Writing about Bertrand Russell and his Bloomsbury friends, Keynes tartly observed: “Bertie in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally.” What prodigies of existential legerdemain lay compacted in that phrase “all we had to do!”

To my ears, anyway, it’s redolent of one of the most nauseating epithets in recent memory: “It takes a village.” We all know that more government intervention and control means high taxes, greater inefficiency, and economic stagnation. We’ve seen it happen dozens of times. We remember the past. Are we still condemned to repeat it?

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