Some wag once told us that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This definition may as well apply to progressivism, as the left constantly trots out old ideas that have failed, wanting to give them a spin all over again.
Take socialism, for example. For generations, we’ve heard that socialist policies have failed only because nations haven’t properly implemented them. Even after a long track record of collectivism falling apart over and over again—with examples happening right before our eyes—the left refuses to see that the system many of them hold so dear is inherently flawed.
It sure doesn’t stop them from advocating for it time and again. Just this week in the Washington Post, writer Elizabeth Bruenig opines that “It’s time to give socialism a try.” You may have expected a statement like this from The Onion or UK’s Daily Mash, but alas, this is a legitimate, serious consideration of state economic ownership.
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.
But don’t get her wrong: Bruenig claims to be no totalitarian. Instead, she preciously advocates for some sort of magical end to “inequality.”
I would support a kind of socialism that would be democratic and aimed primarily at decommodifying labor, reducing the vast inequality brought about by capitalism, and breaking capital’s stranglehold over politics and culture.
She suggests that capitalism sits at odds with this vague idea of the “harmonious, peaceful, stable liberalism of midcentury dreams,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. And she offers no practical ideas for bringing about her fantasy of socialism that actually works.
Instead, Elizabeth Bruenig is just one more in a long line of leftists who think that this time socialism is just going to work! All we have to do is take a chance on socialism. Why is Bruenig so flawed in her advocacy, like all the others before her? Because socialism has always been doomed to fail no matter when or how it is implemented.
Why is socialism such a bad idea? There are plenty of reasons, of course, but first among them is that it is an economic system that lacks incentives. In his classic 1995 essay, “Why Socialism Failed,” Mark J. Perry makes this case:
In a capitalist economy, incentives are of the utmost importance. Market prices, the profit-and-loss system of accounting, and private property rights provide an efficient, interrelated system of incentives to guide and direct economic behavior. Capitalism is based on the theory that incentives matter!
Under socialism, incentives either play a minimal role or are ignored totally. A centrally planned economy without market prices or profits, where property is owned by the state, is a system without an effective incentive mechanism to direct economic activity. By failing to emphasize incentives, socialism is a theory inconsistent with human nature and is therefore doomed to fail.
To this, I would add that collectivism is based on the flawed assumption that humanity is inherently good and neglects the basic selfish sinfulness that is baked into the heart of every human since the fall of man.
Let’s also not forget that history is littered with the failure of socialist economies. From the utopian collectivists of the Oneida Colony and the disciples of Robert Owen to the Cold War era
workers’ paradises oligarchies of the Soviet Union and China to the hot mess that is Venezuela today, socialist models—whether their flavors are totalitarian or democratic—fall apart over time.
Guatemalan sociologist Carlos Sabino summarizes in a PanAm Post how even the modern welfare state is yet another example of filed socialism:
Socialists created a model of government that, based on very high taxes, intended to transfer the wealth of those who have more toward those who have the least. They tried to accomplish this by creating the so-called welfare state, in which health, education, pensions and sometimes even housing became benefits offered by the government.
Markets were regulated in a thousand different ways and controls were imposed on production. This model of government prevails today in Europe and, to a large extent, in the United States, but such intervention in society reveals its limitations over time. The size and expenditure of governments has been growing, resulting in colossal debt and severe economic crises that have been increasingly ineffective in providing the services they promise to offer, and undermine the rights and values of a free society.
Even the Scandinavian models that modern liberals like Barack Obama adore so much aren’t as socialist as their devotees would like to believe. True, these countries have extensive welfare programs, but their economies aren’t controlled by the government— they’re market-driven social democracies, not socialist countries. In fact, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, told Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”
Elizabeth Bruenig and her ilk would lead us to believe that the solution to everything is a bland socialism where we all sit on a hillside like hippies, equal in our naive bliss. Unfortunately, economics and history are on the side of those who know that socialism hasn’t worked in the past or the present and won’t work in the future. It’s never worth trying.