Max Freedom

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Friday, September 23, 2005

Is Socialism Against Human Nature? - Part 3

Part 3 (of 3)



While no society has ever existed in the form advocated by Marx (and that, in and of itself, is ample evidence of its viability), there have been historical examples of socialistic systems colliding with self-interest.

In 1620, the Plymouth Colony, under a contract set up with their sponsors before leaving England, attempted to create a communal living structure for the new colonists in which the produce of everyone was made available to all. But after that first deadly winter, when the whole of the colony nearly starved, William Bradford, leader of the expedition, abandoned this concept:

“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men … that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community … was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice…. And for men's wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them…. Let none object this is men's corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”

The colony flourished in the absence of the imposed social construct. But one needn’t go back nearly that far.

While the Soviet Union never even approached the socialist ideal that Marx envisioned, it did implement socialist economic control of industry. Farmers worked for the collective whole rather than for themselves. This program was so effective that the Soviet Union, whose steppes contain some of the best land for growing grain in the world, became an importer of wheat. In an attempt to address the shortfall, the Soviet Union allowed farmers to set aside some ten percent of their land for personal use. In the wake of this change, the amount of produce generated on these parcels of land nearly equaled and sometimes exceeded the total output from the rest of the land.

In the words of renowned economist Ludwig von Mises (from the book “Planned Chaos”, 1947), the Soviet model was but one pattern for the realization of socialism in recent history. The other is even more sinister:

“[T]he Marxian or Russian pattern -- is purely bureaucratic. All economic enterprises are departments of the government just as the administration of the army and the navy or the postal system. Every single plant, shop, or farm, stands in the same relation to the superior central organization as does a post office to the office of the Postmaster General. The whole nation forms one single labor army with compulsory service; the commander of this army is the chief of state.”

“The second pattern … differs from the first one in that it, seemingly and nominally, maintains private ownership of the means of production, entrepreneurship, and market exchange. So-called entrepreneurs do the buying and selling, pay the workers, contract debts and pay interest and amortization. But they are no longer entrepreneurs. In Nazi Germany they were called shop managers or Betriebsfuhrer. The government tells these seeming entrepreneurs what and how to produce, at what prices and from whom to buy, at what prices and to whom to sell. The government decrees at what wages laborers should work and to whom and under what terms the capitalists should entrust their funds. Market exchange is but a sham. As all prices, wages, and interest rates are fixed by the authority, they are prices, wages, and interest rates in appearance only; in fact they are merely quantitative terms in the authoritarian orders determining each citizen's income, consumption, and standard of living. The authority, not the consumers, directs production. The central board of production management is supreme; all citizens are nothing else but civil servants. This is socialism, with the outward appearance of capitalism. Some labels of the capitalistic market economy are retained, but they signify here something entirely different from what they mean in the market economy.”

In modern Israel, collective living arrangements are more common than perhaps anywhere else in the modern world. The kibbutzim are mainly agricultural cooperatives in which all property is owned by the community. There is no private wealth; all assets belong to the kibbutz which must look after the needs of its members. The kibbutz is responsible for the care of its members from cradle to grave and is expected to bring up the children (communally), provide education and even social security. They operate under Lenin’s shorthand for socialism, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. About 125,000 people live in the Israeli kibbutzim. And they are an abject failure.

The kibbutzim survive at the sufferance of the rest of Israeli society. They could not survive without the heavy subsidization provided by the Israeli government. The initial subsidies were huge coupled with government loans at rates well below inflation with a 50 year payback period and a 20 year grace period before the first installment was due. Some kibbutzim cashed in on that gravy train and immediately began engaging in capitalistic behavior – even hiring outside labor – all on the tab of the taxpayers. In many cases, members of the kibbutz can retain private property and are paid based on the market value of their work rather than the determination of “need”. The second-largest Israeli kibbutz (Afikim – 1,400 members strong) even has factories that, in the words of the BBC, are “run on purely capitalistic lines by boards of directors, mostly outside experts appointed for their business or technical acumen.” In these cases, cooperative ideology has been completely replaced by self interest.

Those who attempted to adhere to the socialist ideal, however, fair considerably less well. People in those kibbutzim tend to lag economically behind the rest of Israeli society even with the subsidies. Children there have significantly more mental and emotional problems than the rest of society. And a number of individual kibbutzim have collapsed because young people, disillusioned with kibbutz life, have left for more rewarding and satisfying lives outside of the collective. It is impossible to describe any system as successful if it is neither self-sufficient nor self-sustaining unless it abandons the principles on which it was founded to embrace an entirely different set of values.


When Biologist Stephen Jay Gould said “our biological inheritance leaves open an enormous range of possible behaviors” he is not arguing that any of those behaviors would ever violate the simple concept of self-interest. Human beings have the capacity to be “aggressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive, spiteful or generous”, but invariably engage in those behaviors when it is perceived that they are in the interests of the person involved. Put simply, Edward O. Wilson was correct when he said of Marxism, “Wonderful theory. Wrong species.”

There’s no question that human beings have basic physical and emotional needs (food, clothing, shelter, social contact, affection, even self-determination). In an imperfect world, there will always be those whose needs are not met regardless of which societal structure is put in place to address societal needs. But attempting to implement a solution that is inherently unworkable because it flies in the face of basic human nature is counterproductive at best and suicidal at worst. [That the implementation of socialist policies actually do more harm to those they are ostensibly designed to help than the capitalistic policies that they are designed to “correct” is demonstrable but beyond the scope of this particular essay.]

When socialists acknowledge that the societal structure they would embrace is more than merely a different – and to their thinking, superior – form of governance, but a “new form of human consciousness”, they are conceding the problem. It isn’t merely that such a consciousness is without precedent, but rather that it is contrary to all precedent. The evidence that self-interest is at the very core of human behavior is indelibly stamped on every facet of every moment of human history. Any rational exercise to determine solutions for the problems of society must be able to function in the society as it exists; not what we would like it to be if only everyone in society would listen to “the better angels of their nature”. For that matter, expecting the whole of society to agree on what constitutes “the better angels of our nature” is clearly an impossible task. To envision a new consciousness that subsumes self-interest in favor of cooperative action and collective self-determination – a concept which is, arguably, contradictory – in a real world environment that has so far presented a complete absence of any evidence of its viability, is to engage in nothing more than utopian sophistry.

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