Why is Socialism still so popular?
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It is 2017, 100 years since the Russian revolution. The UK general election results are in, leaving Britain with a hung parliament just days before the start of negotiations on exiting the EU. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Theresa May was supposed to increase the Tory majority, and to build a stronger mandate for Brexit negotiations; a strong a stable government, as she put it. But her attempt to capitalise on a Labour Party weakened by infighting has backfired, throwing the country into the opposite of what she promised. Meanwhile, political punchbag Comrade Corbyn’s anti establishment rhetoric and promise of free stuff has worked wonders, especially on the young, and Labour has stolen seats from the Tories, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats.
Even though socialism was confirmed an unmitigated failure in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, last Thursday 2 out of 5 people voted for socialism. Britain. In the 21st century. Have we learned nothing from the past? It seems not. Why is socialism still held is such high regard by the public? Why do most political parties have socialistic leanings, when not a single precedent of socialism has succeeded?
In this essay I am going back to basics to trying to answer these, and other questions about the unwillingness of socialism to die. It’s also time we looked at the much maligned alternative to socialism, and attempt to explain why free-markets, even though they present a far better opportunity for success to the ordinary man, are so despised, why socialism still prevails in the west in the 21st century.
What is Socialism?
This from the Oxford English Dictionary
“A political and economic theory of social organisation which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”
Socialism is an economic theory based upon a simple flawed premise; that economies can be centrally planned. For this to occur, the fruits of individuals’ talents and efforts are not their own, belonging instead to the state. Private property is illegal, and capital is distributed according to the government’s carefully thought out plans for the economy. Socialism is not so different from the agreement of slavery, where the master owns 100% of the slave’s output, and decides what he does, where he does it and for how long. Hence the forced labour camps of the soviet regime. Modern socialism might be a watered down version of this, where we are only 40% enslaved, but there are calls to raise taxes every year.
Socialism erupted out of the shortcomings of capitalism, principally the issue of monopoly power, the perceived predatory nature of man and the ill effects on those at the bottom of the social food chain. Instead of seeking to remove conditions which allow monopoly power to prevail – namely government intervention – it sought to make government the monopoly.
Socialism as an idea has been promoted by many intelligent individuals. This is probably the reason it has been given so much weight through the years – even Einstein saw it as preferable to capitalism – intellectuals have been socialism’s biggest proponents, for reasons which will become clear in due course. The key word is theory, because while it may make sense in theory, socialism has never succeeded in practice, something which plays into the hands of those well meaning intellectuals who believe there are silver bullets to society’s problems, if only they could find and apply them.
In a socialist economy, the government decides, based upon its theory based, centralised planning, where resources should be best allocated, and how much of each good and service is required. The most important part of our introductory quote is ‘the community as a whole’ Socialism is predicated upon the judgement of a group that Thomas Sowell likes to call the anointed’; certain learned individuals who the intelligentsia have decided are best placed to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us. One of my favourite quotes of Sowell’s is
‘the most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best’
In my mind this phrase sums up the difference between socialists and conservatives. Socialists defer to the anointed – in fact the biggest fans of socialism very often are the anointed – while conservatives defer to the individual member of a free market society to choose for himself, and the understanding that what is best for the individual is best for society as a whole.
Socialism supposes that brilliant minds with an understanding of economics are better placed to spend your money than you are. This statement is just plain wrong. In the socialist world, an individual may hold selfish desires, but these are of secondary importance to the vision of the grand designers of society; the anointed.
I have always been a freedom seeker, and have always had a healthy scepticism of authority figures. If they could back up their statements with evidence and logic, then I would be prepared to hear them. Like many conservatives, I started out as a soft socialist, until I entered the working world. Over the years I have found Conservative views to hold more weight than socialist ones. Conservatives (in their true form) are for the individual’s power to choose, to thrive, and to make better of their life. The architects of socialism don’t want individuals to thrive, they want to thrive themselves, and they want (and need) to keep society poor so that they can continue to sell their socialist vision to them, in order to get re-elected.
Interestingly socialists politicians don’t ever seem to be poor themselves. Since being PM, Tony Blair has amassed a small fortune, selling his ‘vision’ (what else do socialists have to sell?) around the globe. Owen Jones, Guardian journalist, socialist commentator and outspoken opponent of the ‘establishment’ recently became part of it, entering that 1% that socialists despise so much but secretly aspire to be. I wonder how these individuals continue to push against ‘the evil rich people’ once they themselves become one of them. Perhaps they keep a modest income for themselves, say £50,000 and give the rest of their money to the poor. Perhaps not.
I encountered my most clear example of socialist pomposity during the UK EU referendum. My friend, a long term labour supporter, fan of Tony Blair’s New Labour, and having held positions in numerous socialist policy think tanks, was very much in favour of remaining in the EU. When the result was announced the morning following polling day, he told me what a terrible result this was for the UK, and that referenda are terrible ways to determine democratic outcomes, his underlying reason being that people don’t know what is best for them, and that party politics is a far better way of deciding policy. It was hardly a surprising attitude given his background and training, but it still shocked me that someone who cares as much for people as he does, was prepared to ignore them completely in the process. There was a sense that he and those he works with, like politicians in Westminster, should make these kind of high minded decisions. Never mind the people, and never mind democracy. This is socialism in action. Never mind the voting public, just sell the vision and get elected after which you have a mandate to do pretty much whatever you see fit, including how you spend everyones’ money on their behalf. Suffice to say my own opinions couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to these. Despite being from polar opposites of the political spectrum, we remain good friends.
Let’s look at what the underlying tenets of socialism are – what makes the concept still appealing to those who don’t really understand it. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t vote for such a disempowering, coercive system of government:
1. The Free Lunch
Free healthcare, free school meals, free bus pass for the over 60’s. Socialists sell their vision – usually to the poor, disadvantaged and to other intellectuals who have not yet entered the real working world – on the premise that there is such a thing as a free lunch. There is of course, no such thing. The lunch may be free to the individual eating it, but somebody, somewhere has paid for that lunch: if private enterprise and the free market created the lunch, it will be tastier, cheaper and more to your specific liking than if the government provided it.
Socialists in political power would agree than all humans are born equal, but that some (ideally them) are more equal than others. People who subscribe to socialist ideologies are either benefitting from the captured resources of the masses, or they are the losers in life who subscribe to the idea that someone else owes them something for nothing; hence the socialists promise free stuff at someone else’s expense in return for votes at the ballot box.
Socialists have a great interest in the distribution of wealth. Other peoples’ wealth. They believe that wealth somehow just exists. They give little thought to the notion that a selfish individual, somewhere created that wealth through his own initiative. Mankind started out in poverty, and has through the process of self-interested growth, improved his lot substantially over the centuries. Socialism, rather than allowing more individuals to do for themselves, would happily do for them instead. By so doing socialism dis-incentivises the creative power of selfish, self-interested individuals who create the wealth, and so there is nothing to share around anyway.
Cuba shows us communism’s failings in reality. Why excel when your efforts are not rewarded? A doctor is paid as much as a road sweeper and everybody is poor. It is a race for the bottom.
2. Man is Inherently Flawed
Socialism came about to try to counteract the evils of capitalism. It missed the point. Capitalism’s failures are largely failures of centralised planning, and the monopoly power it enables than any failure in free markets. Socialists believe that man is inherently bad, that he will, if allowed to act selfishly, rise himself up at the expense of others. Those who succeed are viewed as somehow immoral, and therefore by some holy law their ill-gotten gains should be redistributed to the rest of society. Man cannot be trusted to behave himself without some kind of government intervention to keep him in check. In the absence of central economic planning, society would fall apart, or self-destruct.
While some are viewed as evil or greedy – those who succeed in achieving wealth – those who don’t play another role in the socialist vision; ‘the wretched’ who cannot do for themselves, so the socialist Robin Hood characters will take from the rich to give to the poor. It’s a good story, but as we will see it benefits only the socialist, and not the wretched.
The socialist’s relationship with the wretched is a symbiotic one, the socialist gives to the wretched just enough to keep him alive in his wretchedness while the socialist gets votes which allow him to take other peoples property through coercion and do with it what he will. Given the distribution of wealth is usually concentrated and the distribution of poverty also, the favour of socialist manifestos depends on the economic climate of the day, and in how successfully socialists can sell the wealth gap fallacy to those lower income groups. It matters not whether they are poor, just that they feel hard done by enough to give the socialists power once more.
The best way to get poor people out of poverty is to give them the opportunity to improve their own lot in life, reducing taxation, providing opportunities for business, improving education, allowing free markets: essentially all of the things the socialist government is against. Why? Because if there was no poor, then socialists would have no means to get elected, and the dream of a free lunch would finally be over. Many people start out as socialists (some call them liberals nowadays), but as soon as they come into the world of money, earning their own, they prefer not having ever larger amounts of their property taken from them.
“The socialist attitude that there are certain individuals in life who cannot do for themselves is the most wretched of the socialist tenets”
In sharing the wealth, socialism impedes all; the entrepreneur who would otherwise benefit society has no reason to do so, as he will not personally benefit anymore from his efforts than anyone else, while the individual in search of a free lunch is allowed to continue his belief that there is such a thing, which doesn’t serve him either, keeping him in a place of victimhood and poverty. The socialist attitude that there are certain individuals in life who cannot do for themselves is the most wretched of the socialist tenets, and should be reason enough to throw the whole concept out of the window; whether it is true or not is immaterial, it belies an ideology which claims to seek improvement for the lot of mankind.
3. Conservatives are Cold Hearted and Socialists Kind Hearted
This is my favourite misnomer about socialism; that cold hearted conservatives don’t care. It is actually the reverse. Conservatives care so much about you, that they will give you the choice about how you spend your money. They will seek to minimise the cost of the state, and therefore the amount of taxes that you pay to sustain it, remove state interference in your life as much as possible, and focus government efforts on keeping law and order, preserving private property rights and providing services which are best organised centrally (there are some: military, roads, border control, police). Conservatives seek efficient markets, not high taxes, centralised power, racketeering, and subsidies to businesses which cosy up to government. Unfortunately the Conservative Party is nothing of the sort.
One of the most pervasive political visions of our time is the vision of liberals as compassionate and conservatives as less caring.’ Thomas Sowell
Any system which fails to take into account the fundamental selfish nature of human beings is going against the grain, and is ultimately destined to fail. Those ‘greedy’ individuals in a capitalist society are the creators of wealth. They create benefit for others and so they receive benefit themselves.
4. Give me your Money and I’ll give (less of) it back to you.
Building on the basis of the concept of the free lunch, socialists attempt to persuade the voter (usually the individual in search of a free lunch) to give larger and larger amounts of their money to the government. Government will, in its wisdom, decide where this money is spend. The slight problem with this is really twofold. Firstly, the government is never going to be better placed to spend your money more carefully than you could do it yourself, and secondly the process of trying to do the impossible – spend the public’s money effectively on its behalf – wastes a huge amount of those resources in the ineffective, bureaucratic machine of government. Anyone who has worked with a government department will attest (maybe only in private) that more government is not the solution. The government department’s selfish desire is to continue to prevail, and to do its job, so will never admit its failings, its superfluous existence, or that free markets would ultimately be far better at performing these most basic functions.
When a large, unwieldy, unfocused and ill-informed government department seeks to spend the public’s money, it is more likely than not to deal with a similar beast to itself; this means another large, unwieldy, bureaucratic, inefficient organisation. The two understand each other perfectly, operating in a similar way at a similar scale. The large organisations (charities, consultancies, professional services firms, facilities management and IT outsourcing firms) have sprung up to be avenues for the outpouring of large volumes of taxpayers’ money, spent on the public’s behalf by government. Are you lucky enough to work for one of these? Leave a comment below.
Interestingly, at no point are the public asked where we want our money to be spent : whether we would like to pay more in energy taxes to slow down the rate the planet is warming, or whether we want to fund large scale infrastructure projects which will never be profitable, like HS2? These are socialist vanity projects, designed to give the public the idea that ‘government does great things’.
Society by government design – though well meaning – always has the opposite effect to that desired.
Something I have noticed is that there is no exception to the rule that government intervention always has the opposite effect to that intended. Ideas for change are born out of an awareness of what is not wanted, rather than having a good idea and following it, government tries to prevent things from happening; thus it never works. A few examples of well meaning interventions which have had the opposite effect are as follows:
- Minimum wage laws – actually reduce employment and discriminate against the lowest skilled in society, by encouraging mass immigration from other EU countries.
- Increased regulation to make banking and finance sector safer – actually made it less safe.
- Anti trust laws – designed to stop monopoly power have had largely the opposite effect.
- Housing market subsidies to make the housing market more affordable has had the opposite effect
- Socialism, rather than lifting people out of poverty,instead keeps them trapped in it.
The alternative to socialism is free markets. Free markets are built on the basis of selfish individuals spending their own money on things that matter to them. Free markets don’t allow monopoly power easily, as the customer has other choices. Where governments erect trade tariffs, or grant licences to business etc this is not a free-market but a monopoly market caused by government intervention.
The free market is a humble concept, as compared with the intellectual socialists who think they know better than you. Free market proponents not only believe that there is no way to design for the individual, so varied are the wishes and desires of the individual, but that society’s problems are solved at the individual level, by the individual in question, not at scale. In fact it is the very bespoke nature of individuals solving others particular problems that make for an economy in the first place.
Free market Conservatism says that you the individual get to choose. You are the wisest individual to choose what is best for you and your family, not a wise intellectual anointed into a government role to spend your money on your behalf. If money is power, conservatives are empowering the individual, while socialists want to take your power away from you, and keep some of it for themselves.
The Intellectualisation of Society
Intellectuals love socialism. It appeals to them for a number of reasons, primarily because they get to be the anointed; those wise men and women who decide (on behalf of the rest of us) how society should be arranged, like the sovereign appointed priesthood of centuries past, jobs in government and decent salaries go to friends family and associates.
Intellectuals and socialism are likely bedfellows; both are comfortable with the notion that there are problems in life, and broad brush solutions to those problems, applicable at a national or even global level. It is the intellectuals’ purpose to use their big brains to find out what these solutions are so that they can apply them to society, across the board, whether society likes it or not is not important.
Socialism is a great employer of intellectuals. A great deal of them are currently engaged in these kind of highbrow activities; from working in central banks, setting interest rates to provide the kind of economy they have decided we want, to trying to prevent the temperature of the planet from rising more than they think it should. What is right in these matters has already been decided, after which the socialists break into action to deliver these conditions. How are they doing?
Environmental issues like global warming are a socialist government’s wet dream because at stake is the future of the planet, meaning the agenda is unquestionable, the results of their actions are easily hidden by statistics, and the amount of your money that governments are prepared to throw at the problem is almost unlimited.
Socialism, being the design of society by intellectuals, in other words a technocracy gives intellectuals who would otherwise be confined to the university lecture halls, actual power to apply their theory to the real world. Using a deeply flawed theory as their premise, they head out into the world to carry out their experiments. Socialism appeals to intellectuals for obvious reasons, and they make it appeal to those in society who like the idea of socialism by pointing out the evils of capitalism – even though true free-market capitalism would do away with these experts and restore power into the hands of the people. To demonise capitalism, socialists point towards the usual suspects; the rich, the greedy, those who are taking more than their fair share etc. even though on balance socialism has caused more human suffering and poverty than capitalism.
Living off Handouts
The reason Corbyn got so many votes was that the young came out in their millions to vote for free stuff paid for by someone else. Perhaps they don’t work or haven’t ever worked. Perhaps they actually believe that socialism works? Perhaps they get handouts from their parents and seek this continuing parental relationship from their prime minister? Perhaps they don’t really understand what socialism is? Then we have the people currently on welfare and benefits. These people want to continue to be subsidised with free money earned by someone else, so they continue to vote for socialism, even though Conservatism would do them far more good.
The Liberal Press
When I use the word liberal, I am referring to the socialistic leaning press which creates the kind of socialist beliefs that become entrenched in society, allowing the ideals of socialism to prevail. The press tells its socialist story for the same reasons that socialist politicians do; it benefits them as they can sell more papers. The socialist theme is easy to spot, and it has widespread appeal, it is about the apparent fairness, morality, and decency of others’ behaviour. The successful people targeted are usually business people (never entertainers from some reason) are frequently not doing anything illegal, just behaving in selfish ways – ways that socialists have decided are wrong, even though they would likely behave exactly the same if they were in their shoes. If the rich are guilty of greed, the socialists are guilty of envy.
Once a notion gets established – like the morality of excessive boardroom pay or bankers’ bonuses, it is very hard to shift opinion to the contrary. So pervasive are these beliefs that it is very easy to get sucked into socialist delusions, usually until a free market Conservative like Milton Friedman or Thomas Sowell comes along and speaks with such sense, that our emotional outrage is completely overruled by logic.
All are Selfishly Oriented
The question to ask, in any situation in life is ‘who benefits?’. I don’t doubt that many socialists consider they are helping others with their actions, but are they helping others more than they are helping themselves to your money? When the governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King left the post, he suddenly came out with all sorts of judgements on the economy, banking, central bank behaviour, and the rightness or wrongness of various actions. We wonder why didn’t he say or do something when he was in a position to do so? It is obvious. He was doing what anyone in his position would have done; he was acting in his own selfish interest, not rocking the boat or upsetting anybody. Once freed from the position of authority, with the prospect of a book to sell, his priorities naturally changed. If you expect people to behave selfishly (yes even socialists), the world makes much more sense, and you will not be disappointed.
To Understand First you must Experience
I found it funny that those who wanted us to leave the European Union were actually members of it : Nigel Farage and Dan Hannan are both MEP’s and staunchly anti EU. Likewise if anyone has worked in or with a government department, that is all the evidence they need to say that government is not the solution, regardless of what they may have read in theory, the practice is just the same wherever you go; self interested individuals acting in selfish ways. As government has zero accountability, you can be sure that your money is being spent inefficiently, and that government is going to be doing very well out of the arrangement.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
The good news is, whether the UK population knows it or not, they have shown socialism the boot in voting to leave the European Union; this against all the wise vested interests telling them otherwise, all socialists themselves or recipients of the spoils of socialism (Obama, Cameron, UK government departments, the EU government, anyone you might care to imagine) the British public saw through this veneer and voted for freedom over serfdom, voted for self determination over state totalitarianism.
We have a long way still to go however, and we must continue to speak of the benefits of the free-market over protectionism, trade tariffs, and government monopoly power, all of which benefits business, government and special interest groups, but not the man on the street.
We must point out the failings and fallacious nature of socialism and socialists, that the people may see them for what they are; well meaning but ultimately selfishly oriented individuals wanting to wield power over the rest of us.
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Also published on Medium.