Socialism: A Barren System
MARCH 01, 1963 by LEONARD E. READ
Socialism depends upon and presupposes material achievements which socialism itself can never create. Socialism is operative only in wealth situations brought about by modes of production other than its own. Socialism takes and redistributes wealth, but it is utterly barren when it comes to producing wealth.1
Few Americans today would object were this devastating indictment leveled against communism. But accuse the U.S.A. brand of democratic socialism of barrenness or sterility? For heaven’s sake! Are you actually implying, many would ask, that a vast majority of Americans are rapidly committing themselves to a will-o’-the-wisp? Eating the seed corn? Acting as parasites? Yes, this is the indictment, and I shall do my best to demonstrate its truth.
But first, let the terms of discourse be clarified. Socialism is state ownership and/or control of the means of production. And democratic socialism is no less socialism than the autocratic variety. Socialism is just as surely state ownership and/or control of the means of production when installed by majority vote as when installed by a dictator. Socialism doesn’t give a hoot how it climbs into the political saddle.
Communism can be properly defined as the communalization by force of the product of all. Marx put it succinctly: "From each according to ability, to each according to need." There have been some 200 small-scale communistic experiments in this country, one of the first being the Plymouth Colony during its first three years. The production of every colonist was forcibly directed into a common warehouse and doled out by those in authority according to need. Free choice of what to do with the fruits of his own labor was denied the individual Pilgrim.
In what respect, then, do socialism and communism differ? As far as their mode of operation is concerned, not at all. Bear in mind that Khrushchev and party refer to themselves as "communists," but that they call their nation the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." They know full well, and we should know, that socializing the means of production and socializing the results of production are but two sides of the same coin, inseparable in practice. The state that controls production is going to control the distribution of what is produced; and the state that distributes the product must, eventually, control its production.
That inescapable fact is just as true in the United States, with its democratic brand of socialism, as it is in Russia with its dictatorial socialism. In our own country, when we refer to the "planned economy," we mean that wages, hours, prices, production, and exchange shall be largely determined by state directives—and not by free response to market decisions. Though our "welfare state" policies are currently more humane than their counterparts in Russia, socialism in both nations involves the forcible collection of the product from all people, in order to redistribute it to political groups. While there are meaningless differences in detail between fascism, communism, and socialism, we must conclude that they are of the same warp and woof as the welfare state, the planned economy, Fabianism, nazism, and state interventionism: the application of state force to both the means and the results of production. And insofar as the policies of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Republicanism, and the New Frontier socialize, or forcibly communalize, or plan production and distribution, then, to that extent they, too, exemplify the same collectivist principle.
Once it is clear that socialism, be it autocratic or democratic, socializes both the means and the results of production, then it is obvious that compulsory social security; subsidies to farmers; control of rents, wages, production, or prices; tariffs; TVA; the U. S. Post Office; public housing; FHA loans and other governmental financing; all domestic and foreign aid programs; federal urban renewal; federal aid to education; and so on are, in essence, socialistic or communistic. To paraphrase Shakespeare:
What’s in a name? That which we call communism
By any other name would be as odious. The above definitions and brief explanations have been made for the sole purpose of demonstrating that socialism is more than a some-other-country folly. To discuss socialism is to take a hard look at what our own American mirror reveals, not to indulge in mere academic byplay. Such discussion is self-analysis, not a discourse on the political antics of power-drunk Russians.
The Premise, in Two Parts
Now to return to my original assumption. Socialism depends upon and presupposes material achievements which socialism itself can never create.
This accusation has two parts: (1) there has to be wealth before wealth can be socialized; and (2) socialism cannot create the wealth in the first place.
With everyone’s wealth at zero, there is no one from whom anything can be taken. Many of our Pilgrim fathers starved during the first three years of community communism because there was so little in the warehouse to dole out. Communism, or one of our numerous names for the same thing, the welfare state, presupposes the existence of wealth which can be forcibly extorted. Is this not self-evident?
There remains, then, only to show that socialism—the planned economy—cannot give rise to the means of production; that is, state ownership and/or control of the means of production cannot create the wealth on which state welfarism rests.
The Pilgrims’ warehouse had almost nothing in it to dole out because the system was nonproductive. The standard of living of the Russian people is so much lower today than our own because their avowed but not wholly practiced system is productively sterile.’ Such goods as the Pilgrims did produce during their first three years, or as the Russians now produce, can be explained only as the result of deviations from socialism: leakages of free, creative human energies! Had the Pilgrims practiced socialism 100 per cent, all the Pilgrims would have perished. Were the Russians practicing socialism 100 per cent, there would not be a living Russian. Life goes on in these and all other socialistically-inclined societies because they do not practice the socialistic theory totally! If I can demonstrate this point, my original assumption becomes unassailable.
What, actually, is meant by total socialism? As a hint, here is a statement by Plato:
The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace—to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals… only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.³
The above quotation, however, does not describe socialism. It only outlines the extent to which an individual might become a selfless nonentity, willingly subserving a leader, dog fashion. If socialism were total, this recommended subservience would be brought about not by voluntary adoption but involuntarily, and by a master’s coercion. In short, total socialism means the total elimination of all volitional action—and it means people in the role of robots. Freedom of choice on any question would be nonexistent.
State socialism is authoritarianism; that is, it rests on coercive force. There is no socialistic act in this country, or in Russia, or anywhere else, that is not backed by the police power of the state. If anyone has any doubt about this, let him refuse to pay his share of subsidies to farmers, or of TVA deficits, or of our governmental gifts to other socialistic governments, or whatever. The penalty for noncompliance is severe, indeed. This, or the threat of it, is coercion, pure and unadulterated!
The idea I am trying to develop will not make sense to any person who does not fully grasp the fact that all state action rests on force or the threat of force. Coercion is government’s essential and distinguishing ingredient. The distinction between you as an agent of government and you as a private citizen is that as an agent of government you have the constabulary back of you: issue an edict, and I obey or take the consequences. Lose the backing of the constabulary and you are restored to private citizenship: issue an edict, and it has no more force than a chamber of commerce resolution, and I do as I please.
Even if every citizen is in agreement with a particular law, the law still has the police force to support it. Government is law backed by force; this is government properly defined.
Coercion versus Creation
Now, consider the nature of coercive force. What can it do and what are its limitations? Keep in mind a gun, a billy club, a clenched fist. Clearly, they can inhibit, restrain, penalize, destroy. These are what the law, or a government decree, can do, and all they can do.4 They cannot serve as creative forces.
Coercively directed action can create nothing. Consider the driving of an automobile. No person would be a safe driver if he had to think his way through each act of steering, accelerating, or braking. Add up the time it takes for decisions to travel from the brain to the hands and feet, and it becomes plain that if drivers operated this way, one wreck would follow another. Any person who knows how to drive has succeeded in relegating driving’s countless motions to the control of something akin to the autonomic nervous system. His responses have become as automatic as breathing or writing; that is, they have become conditioned reflexes.
Now, consider a situation in which the relationship between decision and action is enormously worsened: a gunman in the back seat is employing his thinking to command even the minutest actions of the driver. There could be no driving at all!
No driving at all? None whatsoever! Try an experiment: A coat hangs over the back of a chair. Find a person intelligent enough to dismiss absolutely all his knowledge of a coat, and capable of refraining from any and all volitional action: one who can force himself to be utterly incapable of independent response. In this situation, now instruct him how to don the coat. He’ll never get it on.
The above explanations and assertions, however, have to do only with the first essential of creative action, that is, volitional action. That coercion cannot induce even this is a fact that appears to be self-evident.
An Illusion of Productivity
Socialism, we must admit, gives the illusion of being productive. The productivity, however, exists in spite of socialism, not because of it. The productivity originates in the free, creative energy which ignores or escapes socialism’s repression; that is, which oozes through or around socialism’s smothering blanket. In
Numerous other distractions help to hide socialism’s essential sterility. For instance, we observe that many government schoolteachers act no less creatively than do teachers of private schools. Scientists in the employ of government have inventive experiences, as do independent scientists and those in corporate employ. TVA, a socialistic enterprise, produces electrical energy of the same quality as that from an investor-owned plant. Agents of the state and private citizens more or less look alike, dress alike, behave alike. We choose our friends as often from one set as from the other. Meeting a stranger, one could not tell to which category he belongs.
What Really Happens
If we would properly evaluate the effect of coercion, with its absolute absence of creativeness, we should have to disregard these distractions. We need to recognize that it is not the government schoolteacher who exercises the three types of coercion implicit in socialistic education: (1) compulsory attendance, (2) government-dictated curricula, and (3) the forcible collection of the wherewithal to pay the school bill. Furthermore, we rarely feel any coercions simply because we meekly obey the laws backed by force; that is, we do send our children to school, we do not prescribe our own curricula, we do pay the tax bill. But refuse to acquiesce in any one of these three phases of compulsion and see what happens!
The scientist employed by the state, trying to figure out how to put three men on the moon, exercises no coercion. The coercion is applied to the collection of the funds which pay him to work as a free agent. He will work just as freely, as creatively, regardless of how his salary is collected. A billion dollars, whether garnered at the point of a gun or voluntarily donated, is in either case a billion dollars. A dollar extorted or a dollar freely given is still a dollar, with a dollar’s purchasing power.
In the absence of socialism’s coercion, each dollar would be used in accord with its owner’s choice, to buy food or clothing, to educate the children, to take a vacation, to buy a sailboat. Coercion only diverts the dollars from owner use and puts them to state use. If, as predicted, putting three men on the moon will cost $20 billion to $40 billion, then that much freedom of choice will be destroyed. This enormous portion of our productivity will be socialized. The people are coercively relieved of their individual choices in order to permit a single choice, exercised by whoever heads the socialistic regime. Authoritarianism is forcibly substituted for individual liberty. What we witness here is a diversionary process accomplished by police action.
The Forgotten Man
We will go astray in our analysis of this complex process unless we examine coercion at one of its points of impact—for instance, the impact on the citizens who are forced to foot the bills. Let’s, then, ask ourselves this question: Is the extortion of your income (in order that another may have the say-so as to what it will be spent for) a creative act? Does it make any difference to what use the other will put it? Charity, relief, moon shots, or whatever? Does it make any real difference whether or not the other is a person or a collective? Is this extortion in itself creative? There is no rational, affirmative answer to these questions. Extortion—coercion—is destructive. It destroys your freedom of choice! Coercion, by its nature, is destructive.
Let’s draw an illustrative distinction between the coercive act and the creative act. A slap in the face (or the threat thereof) is a mild example of coercion. It is much milder than the penalty for absolutely refusing to pay one’s tax for a federal urban renewal project in somebody else’s town.
Now here is a creative experience: The medical student examined the slide in his microscope, but the culture he had been instructed to develop had failed to grow. Thousands of medical students had experienced that identical failure. But this student, observing that mold surrounded the hoped-for culture, had a flash thought: Is the mold, perhaps, antagonistic to the development of the culture? It was, and this experience led to the discovery of penicillin.
Contrast the results of a slap in the face and of the flash thought, and the distinction between coercive and creative actions will be clear.
A Spiritual Genesis
That socialism, founded on coercion, cannot bring about the production which socialized distribution presupposes, is plainly evident once we understand the genesis of all production. Ralph Waldo Trine put it plainly:
Everything is first worked out in the unseen before it is manifested in the seen, in the ideal before it is realized in the real, in the spiritual before it shows forth in the material. The realm of the unseen is the realm of cause. The realm of the seen is the realm of effect. The nature of effect is always determined and conditioned by the nature of its cause.5
Professor Ludwig von Mises, noted free market economist, supports this view:
Production is a spiritual, intellectual, and ideological phenomenon. It is the method that man, directed by reason, employs for the best possible removal of uneasiness. What distinguishes our conditions from those of our ancestors who lived one thousand or twenty thousand years ago is not something material, but something spiritual. The material changes are the outcome of the spiritual changes.°
Just imagine how antagonistic is a slap in the face, or the threat of death or imprisonment, to those spiritual experiences which precede all manufacture: insight, intuition, inventiveness, cognition.
The fact that creative action can and does take place even when financed by funds coercively collected does not in any way modify my assertion that coercive action is destructive, not creative. The Kremlin’s master destroys freedom of choice on an enormous scale. Russians may not choose how the fruits of their labor are to be expended. Mr. Big does the choosing in their stead. He chooses to use much of the income thus extorted—socialized—for sputniks and other military hardware.
Misdirection of Resources
We now come to the most important point in this thesis: True, Mr. Big, or the head of any other socialist state can, with the money he has obtained by diverting funds from producers’ use to his own use, induce creative action along the lines of his choice. But observe where this authoritarian process channels creative energies: it puts genius at work on questionable if not downright evil ends! Let us remember that not all genius is employed on the side of the angels. Is it not plain that creative energies can be turned to destructive ends? Do we need any more proof of this than the amazing ingenuity that has brought about the most destructive force ever devised by man? But putting aside the H-bomb, and such miraculous and fascinating follies as orbiting monkeys and men around our earth, reflect on the countless economy-destroying projects that result from man lording it over his fellow men. Man cannot feign the role of God without finally playing the devil’s part. This is to say, as Emerson so eloquently phrased it:
Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.7
Stated in other terms, man cannot use coercion for other than destructive purposes; for even a legitimate police action for defense is still an inhibiting or destructive action, however necessary a police force may be. Raise billions by destroying freedom of choice—the socialist format—and the creative energies the funds finance will rarely serve the higher ends of life. Three men on the moon, subsidized farmers not growing wheat, flood control that floods the land forever, mail delivery that bears a $2 million daily deficit, the rebuilding of urban areas that the market has deserted, the financing of socialistic governments the world over, are cases in point. None of these is a creative or productive endeavor in the full sense of those terms.
I began this paper with the resolve to demonstrate that socialism depends upon and presupposes material achievements which socialism itself cannot create, that socialism is productively sterile. But after thinking it through, I must confess that my affirmation can be proven only to those persons who see the long-range effects of present actions; and to those who know that man playing God is a prime evil, an evil seed that must grow to a destructive bloom, however pretty it may look in its earlier stages.
1 This paper refers only to the economic barrenness of socialism, its unproductivity. But even if socialism were the most productive of all economic systems, it would not merit approval. Socialism de-emphasizes self-responsibility, and, thus, it wastes the soul of man.
2 While state planning of the economy, and the coercive implementation of the state’s plans are more widely practiced in Russia than perhaps any other country except China, we must remember that the Kremlin is more and more disregarding its own tenets and edging gradually toward the practices of a market economy. Incentives to induce production are on the increase, and a significant acreage has been restored to a free market type of farming. What a picture: Russians damning capitalism as they drift into capitalistic practices, and Americans damning communism as they drift into communistic ways of life! Russians are so impoverished that they must turn to capitalistic realities; Americans are so affluent that they indulge themselves, at their peril, in communistic nonsense.
³ Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), p. 9.
4 The proper scope of governmental action is prescribed by what ought to be inhibited, restrained, penalized, destroyed. See my Government: An Ideal Concept. (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.,
5 From In Tune with the Infinite (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1897). 6 From Human Action (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), p. 141.
7 From TheComplete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, N. Y.: The Modern Library, 1940). p. 176.