This column might have made a lot more sense if the date on it was slightly different — say, March 6, 1918, rather than March 6, 2018. At that point, the economic utopianism from Karl Marx remained almost entirely theoretical, except for the nascent socialist state emerging in Russia in the middle of the Great War. One hundred years later, this argument from Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig has long reached an expiration date, one emphasized by tens of millions of deaths from starvation and worse:
In the United States, we’ve arrived at a pair of mutually exclusive convictions: that liberal, capitalist democracies are guaranteed by their nature to succeed and that in our Trumpist moment they seem to be failing in deeply unsettling ways. For liberals — and by this I mean inheritors of the long liberal tradition, not specifically those who might also be called progressives — efforts to square these two notions have typically combined expressions of high anxiety with reassurances that, if we only have the right attitude, everything will set itself aright.
Hanging on and hoping for the best is certainly one approach to rescuing the best of liberalism from its discontents, but my answer is admittedly more ambitious: It’s time to give socialism a try.
We’ll get back to giving “socialism a try,” but first, let’s look at Bruenig’s argument against free-market liberalism. She bases it on a basic human yearning for meaning and purpose, and notes that it “seems” to be thwarted by capitalism:
In fact, both Sullivan’s and Mounk’s complaints — that Americans appear to be isolated, viciously competitive, suspicious of one another and spiritually shallow; and that we are anxiously looking for some kind of attachment to something real and profound in an age of decreasing trust and regard — seem to be emblematic of capitalism, which encourages and requires fierce individualism, self-interested disregard for the other, and resentment of arrangements into which one deposits more than he or she withdraws. (As a business-savvy friend once remarked: Nobody gets rich off of bilateral transactions where everybody knows what they’re doing.) Capitalism is an ideology that is far more encompassing than it admits, and one that turns every relationship into a calculable exchange. Bodies, time, energy, creativity, love — all become commodities to be priced and sold. Alienation reigns. There is no room for sustained contemplation and little interest in public morality; everything collapses down to the level of the atomized individual.
Bruenig provides absolutely no evidence for her conclusions that capitalism causes shallowness, isolation, and a lack of “public morality,” other than this same allegation was “present in earlier socialist thought.” In one sense, this is a perfect argument for Bruenig. As socialism stands on the shoulders of free-market societies and turns them into poverty-stricken mass-rationing entities, Bruenig merely stands on the arguments of predecessors without an original thought to advance the “socialism now” project.
This argument is full of fallacies, but let’s just point out one in particular. It is indeed possible for bilateral economic arrangements to benefit both parties. That is precisely how wealth is created. If that were not the case, then the wealth of the world would have remained fixed throughout time. Few may get rich off one transaction, but that’s because wealth and capital usually accumulate over time. In the exchange of goods and services and the innovation that competition incentivizes, free-market societies have not just expanded wealth but made it far more egalitarian than in the top-down societies that preceded and coexisted with it. The rapid improvement in the Western and especially American standard of living corroborates this, especially when compared to the standard of living under other economic systems since Marx first offered his theories for Utopia.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the socialist experiment over the last century, an experiment that is still ongoing. In the major socialist nations of the twentieth century, millions of people starved to death, sometimes just because of famines resulting from incompetent, top-down “five-year plans,” and sometimes from more deliberate intent. For instance, Joseph Stalin deliberately set out to starve Ukrainians in 1932-33 by stripping the Kulaks of their land. Stalin was determined to apply the socialist model of food distribution and ruthlessly wiped out the people who had been farming for centuries in one of the best areas for food production in Eurasia. Millions starved, but Stalin got what he wanted: a population dependent on the central government for food distribution. For decades, people in Russia had to queue up for their food quotas rather than produce it for themselves, a situation that only changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But that’s just one example. In China. Mao Zedong also killed off millions of people to impose his socialist vision. One historian granted access to official Communist Party records in China estimates that Mao killed forty-five million people in his Great Leap Forward. “It ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three greatest events of the 20th century,” Frank Dikötter wrote. “It was like [the Cambodian communist dictator] Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times over,” which brings us to another brutal socialist utopia in the 20th century.
As if history wasn’t enough, how about current events? Hugo Chavez adopted Cuban-style socialism more than a decade ago in Venezuela, which at the time was one of the most self-sufficient economies in South America. They had access to vast reserves of petroleum, excellent food distribution, and a thriving middle class. What has been the result of the Chavista “time for socialism” decision? Starving Venezuelans are trying to flee across the borders, creating a refugee flood that the WaPo’s editors called “Latin America’s worst-ever refugee crisis” just two weeks ago. Meanwhile, oil exports keep plunging (thanks in large part to socialist nationalization) and the nation experiences profound medicine and food shortages.
In spite of consistent failures in the application of Marxist economics, people keep insisting that socialism is the wave of the future. Its failures, advocates claim, come from having the wrong people in charge. Unfortunately, as F.A. Hayek explained so well in The Road to Serfdom not long after Stalin’s dealings with the Kulaks, is that socialism’s inherent utopian contradictions inevitably require more and more brutal leadership to counteract the failures that result. When five-year plans fail in socialist nations, it’s never the fault of the plan but of the people who put them in place, or the general population that requires “re-education.” Both get purged and new leaders arise to conduct those purges. It’s almost literally a strategy of “the beatings will continue until morale improves,” only beatings have hardly been the worst of it.
The reason that well-regulated free markets succeed and socialism fails is this simple: free markets account for human failures. The failings of human nature that Bruenig points out existed well before capitalism; there’s a reason why selling “bodies,” which Bruenig blames on capitalism, is called “the world’s oldest profession.” A free market society governed in a classically liberal style provides self-governance to deal with those issues, imperfectly to be sure, but while still granting agency to the human beings who make up those systems as individuals as well as in communities and free-association interest groups.
Utopian socialism strips that agency away on the assumption that it can remake human nature. The Soviets often referred to this process as creating the New Soviet Man, one in whom selflessness was pre-eminent and all individual desires and need sublimated to the good of the State. Any failures could then be attributed to something akin to treason and dealt with accordingly. In order to impose that utopian vision, socialism generates a brutal, oppressive, top-down leadership because it has to do so to survive. Thanks to the political systems required to impose socialism, people have little recourse but to flee when things go bad — as the Venezuelans are only the latest to discover. The historical results make Bruenig’s complaints about the “shallow” nature of people in free-market societies utterly laughable, if not an example of unintended irony.
One century of mass murder, starvation, oppression, and brutality is enough. It’s not time to consider socialism as an economic system for anything other than an object lesson on the reasons why limited government and free choice are necessary for human flourishing.