May 21st, 2022


The unbroken history of socialist failure

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published August 17, 2021

The unbroken history of socialist failure
The New York Post last week broke what it seemed to think was a big story.

An Aug. 12 headline proclaimed: "Majority of registered Democratic voters now prefer socialism to capitalism, poll finds ." In a "sharp reversal" from the recent past, the story reported, 59 percent of Democratic respondents in a Fox News poll expressed a positive view of socialism, versus just 49 percent who felt the same way about capitalism.

Of the Republicans polled, only 8 percent had a favorable view of socialism, while 67 percent had a positive view of capitalism.

Well, stop the presses!

At a time when the Democratic Party's top legislative priorities would add trillions of dollars to the federal budget and expand government control over the economy to a previously undreamed-of degree, and at a time when some of the best-known figures in Democratic politics, such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, are members of the Democratic Socialists of America, a finding that socialism is in good odor among Democrats hardly seems to merit a headline. The Post story notwithstanding, a partiality for socialism in the Democratic camp is not a "sharp reversal," it is the same-old, same-old.

A Gallup poll three years ago found not only that 57 percent of Democrats regarded socialism favorably, but that "a majority of Democrats have viewed socialism positively each time Gallup has measured the concept since 2010, and . . . those views have not changed substantively." In 2019, the Pew Research Center confirmed the nation's partisan gap in opinions about socialism:

More than eight-in-ten Republicans (84 percent) have a negative impression of socialism; a 63 percent majority has a very negative view. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats (65 percent) have a positive view of socialism, but only 14 percent have a very positive view.

In a column at the time of the Pew survey, I took the view that while "Democrats may be beguiled these days by the seductive allure of the 'socialist' label," there was "not a chance" that their infatuation would last.

I may have spoken too soon.

Back then, leading Democrats were still steering clear of the S-word. "I do reject socialism," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said flatly in a "60 Minutes" interview. "That is not the view of the Democratic Party." Those may still be her personal feelings, but she no longer is willing to say so aloud . Members of the party's progressive wing, far from shunning the charge that they are "socialist," are more inclined than ever to revel in it. So are at least some of the Democrats' allies in the media.

Still, that doesn't change the fact that socialism is profoundly at odds with the American experience, and always has been. The Mayflower passengers who settled in Plymouth sought to build a socialist society avant la lettre , one in which, as Governor William Bradford later recounted, there would be no private ownership of property and "all profits and benefits" were to be part of "the common stock."

The settlers wanted a system in which everyone would work for the good of all, and there would be no inequality of wealth. What they got instead was a painful lesson in socialism's failures , with rising levels of hunger, corruption, and persecution. Only after the colony reversed course in 1623 and established private property rights did its fortunes change for the better.

Mainstream America has never been tempted by the socialist claim that letting government control all property and direct the economy will lead to prosperity. Socialists issue fervent denunciations of capitalism and the free market, and promise that putting "the people" — i.e., the state — in charge of production, employment, and social services will lead to a sublime and enlightened society with no more inequality or deprivation.

Yet wherever socialism has been imposed, its deficiencies have been comprehensive: more poverty, less freedom, fewer resources, crippled agriculture, stunted growth, rising authoritarianism, and heartbreaking desperation.

The past century has been filled with examples of socialism's invariable failure. The most recent unfolded in Venezuela after Hugo Chavez, an America-bashing rabble-rouser and avowed Marxist, was elected president of Venezuela in 1998.

A protege of Fidel Castro, Chavez gradually seized control of every lever of power in Venezuela. The constitution was rewritten to strip the legislature and judiciary of their independence, authorize censorship of the press, and allow Chavez to legislate by decree. Before long, the government acquired a stranglehold over the economy, including the huge and profitable energy sector. (Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world.)

As petrodollars gushed in, Chavez had free rein to put his statist prescriptions into effect. The so-called Bolivarian Revolution over which he — and later his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro — presided, was an unfettered, real-world example of socialism in action. Venezuela since at least the 1970s had been Latin America's most affluent nation.

Now it was a showpiece for command-and-control economics: price and currency controls, wealth redistribution, ramped-up government spending, expropriation of land, and the nationalization of private banks, mines, and oil companies.

And all the while, the useful idiots — Lenin's term for ideologues and toadies in the West who could always be relied on to applaud or defend whatever the Communists did — cheered.

In a Salon piece titled "Hugo Chavez's economic miracle," left-wing journalist David Sirota declared that the Venezuelan ruler, with his "full-throated advocacy of socialism," had "racked up an economic record that . . . American president[s] could only dream of achieving." The Guardian offered " Three cheers for Chavez." Moviemaker Oliver Stone filmed a documentary gushing over "the positive changes that have happened economically in all of South America" thanks to Venezuela's socialist policies. And when Chavez died in 2013, Jimmy Carter extolled the strongman for "improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen."

In reality, socialism transformed Venezuela into a Third World dystopia.

"Venezuela this Christmas is sunk in misery, as it was last Christmas, and the Christmas before that," I wrote in 2016.

Venezuelans, their economy wrecked by statism, face crippling shortages of everything from food and medicine to toilet paper and electricity. Violent crime is out of control. Shoppers are forced to stand in lines for hours outside drugstores and supermarkets — lines that routinely lead to empty shelves, or that break down in fistfights, muggings, and mob looting.

Just last week the government deployed 3,000 troops to restore order after frantic rioters rampaged through shops and homes in the southeastern state of Bolivar.

In the beautiful country that used to boast the highest standard of living in Latin America, patients now die in hospitals for lack of basic health care staples: soap, gloves, oxygen, drugs. In some medical wards, there isn't even water to wash the blood from operating tables.

Socialism invariably kills and impoverishes. Gushing oil revenues amid a global energy boom could temporarily disguise the corrosion caused by a government takeover of market functions. But only temporarily. The Chavez/Maduro "Bolivarian Revolution" has been economic poison, just like every other Marxist "revolution" from Lenin's Russia to Kim Il Sung's North Korea to the Castros' Cuba.

By shredding property rights, dictating prices, and trying to control supply and demand, socialist regimes eventually make everything worse and virtually everyone poorer. Conversely, when governments protect free markets and allow buyers and sellers to interact freely, prosperity expands.

For the past six years in a row, Venezuela has ranked No. 1 on Johns Hopkins University economist Steve Hanke's "misery index ," which ranks each of the world's countries according to a formula that adds its unemployment, interest, and inflation rates, then subtracts its annual change in gross domestic product per capita.

By that measure, Venezuela is a more miserable place than even such ill-governed countries as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Haiti, and Libya. Is it any wonder that more than 5.6 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years?

Not only is economic despair a guaranteed outcome of socialist rule, so is hypocritical corruption. "Hugo Chavez, the man who rallied behind the poor, the man who said being rich was bad, moved $4.2 billion offshore to his daughter's bank account, making her the thing he supposedly hated the most — rich as f**k," seethed the Venezuelan-American actress and comedian Joanna Hausmann in one of her popular YouTube videos (which are usually quite funny, though not this one).

That is what socialism looks like in real life. Even avowed socialists have sometimes admitted as much.

The collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s prompted the American economist Robert Heilbroner, a bestselling author and, for most of his life an outspoken socialist, to bow to the facts.

"Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won," wrote Heilbroner in a famous New Yorker essay in 1989. "Capitalism organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism."

But more than 30 years have elapsed since the Cold War ended, and a whole generation of Americans has grown up without ever having learned just why socialism is bound to fail.

In the abstract, the socialist idea is appealing. Unlike the "selfishness" that supposedly drives capitalism, socialism claims to be a system in which everything is shared equally. In the formulation of leftist filmmaker Michael Moore, socialism is "true democracy, where everyone has a seat at the table [and] everyone has a voice, not just the rich."

The claim, in other words, is that socialism operates by respecting the wishes of all the people, not just those with great wealth. When there are goods or services that people believe they should be entitled to, such as health care, housing, a college education, or internet service, a socialist government "democratically" provides them.

Everyone pays taxes — especially the wealthiest citizens, who are frequently the most productive — and government uses the money to supply the people's needs. In this way, society's wealth and assets are managed by the government, which is empowered to act in the best interests of the public.

But it never works that way, for the simple reason that a relative handful of government elites cannot possibly know what is best for tens of millions of individual citizens and consumers. Under socialism, you — an individual — lose the power to decide how to spend your own money in your own best interest. Instead, the government sets all economic priorities, and uses your money to pay for what it decides you need.

"The essence of socialism is the attenuation and ultimate abolition of private property rights," wrote the late Walter Williams, the great Black economist who rose from an impoverished childhood in a Philadelphia housing project to renown as an educator and author (and was the subject of an Arguable post last December).

Attacks on private property include, but are not limited to, confiscating the rightful property of one person and giving it to another to whom it doesn't belong. When this is done privately, we call it theft. When it's done collectively, we use euphemisms: income transfers or redistribution.

At its core, he wrote, socialism is

the forceful use of one person to serve the purposes of another person. When Congress, through the tax code, takes the earnings of one person and turns around to give it to another person in the forms of prescription drugs, Social Security, food stamps, farm subsidies, or airline bailouts, it is forcibly using one person to serve the purposes of another. . . .

The fact that government has no resources of its very own forces us to acknowledge that the only way government can give one American a dollar is to first — through intimidation, threats, and coercion — take that dollar from some other American.

Some might rejoin that all of this is a result of a democratic process and is legal. Legality alone is no guide for a moral people. There are many things in this world that have been, or are, legal but clearly immoral. Slavery was legal. Did that make it moral? South Africa's apartheid, Nazi persecution of Jews, and Stalinist and Maoist purges were all legal, but did that make them moral?

Can a moral case be made for taking the rightful property of one American and giving it to another to whom it does not belong? I think not. That's why socialism is evil. It uses evil means (coercion) to achieve what are seen as good ends (helping people). We might also note that an act that is inherently evil does not become moral simply because there's a majority consensus.

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Championed by people who are repelled by economic inequality, socialism invariably worsens those disparities by combining them with political inequality. Thus a system rooted in idealism leads, always, to corruption and cynicism. Under every one of the socialist regimes of the past 100-plus years, from the Soviet Union to Cuba to Cambodia to North Korea to Venezuela, the gap separating the rich and powerful from the poor and impotent grew wider. And who were the rich and powerful? Those who controlled the government. More socialism = more tyranny.

In all of recorded history, there is no example of a society that became happier, wealthier, fairer, or freer by moving from a market economy to a socialist one. "Born of a commitment to remedy the economic and moral defects of capitalism," wrote Heilbroner, the lifelong socialist who belatedly saw the light, socialism "has far surpassed capitalism in both economic malfunction and moral cruelty."

Those of us who lived through the fall of the Iron Curtain naively imagined that that lesson had been learned once and for all. Alas, no. Barely a generation later, 59 percent of Democratic voters say they have a positive view of socialism. Making the case for economic liberty remains as necessary as ever. The intellectual work isn't finished, and probably never will be.