Socialism reduces man to a science experiment; Communism reduces man to a number

Image result for bastiatImage result for fyodor dostoevskyImage result for solzhenitsyn
Over the last couple of months I have been reading three distinct books that uniquely and richly deal with a societal and political challenge that is ever before us: the tendency of mankind to place too much hope and power in class of rulers, and the tendency of those rulers to work to assume more power and decision-making authority over the ruled.  The books are 19th Century French Economist Claude Frederic Bastiat’s  The Law, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. The three books represent authors of different time eras, professional and political experiences, and in a couple of cases, imprisonment and exile. Each powerfully attacks these aforementioned societal and political challenges in such a way that still resonates in the modern Western era given our constant flirtation with socialism and of socialism’s growing popularity as a political response to Trumpist populism. I also find it fascinating and tragic that early prophets such as Bastiat and Dostoevsky foresaw the catastrophes that socialism would bring while Solzhenitsyn lived them. They key question for today is: are we still listening?

I begin with Bastiat from a chronological perspective as well as the fact that he served as an early prophet to the ills of socialism. Bastiat, as a French economist, philosopher, and statesman in France in the mid-1800s, is mostly known for his remarkable intellectual stands against mercantilism and protectionism. He also had to contend and argue against pervasive French dirigiste statism and had plenty of exposure and debates with leading philosophers and legislators who espoused Socialism. As such, he forewarns us of the ills of Socialism extensively in his book The Law. Here are a few notable excerpts:

How is it that the strange idea of making the law produce what it does not contain – prosperity, in a positive sense, wealth, science, religion – should ever have gained ground in the political world? The modern politicians, particularly those of the Socialist school, found their different theories upon one common hypothesis; and surely a more strange, a more presumptuous notion, could never have entered a human brain.

They divide mankind into two parts. Men in general, except one, form the first; the politician himself forms the second, which is by far the most important.

In fact, they begin by supposing that men are devoid of any principle of action, and of any means of discernment in themselves; that they have no initiative; that they are inert matter, passive particles, atoms without impulse; at best vegetation indifferent to its own mode of existence, susceptible of assuming, from an exterior will and hand an infinite number of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected….

…the Socialists look upon mankind as a subject for social experiments…the relations between mankind and the legislator appear to be the same as those that exist between the clay and the potter. Moreover, if they have consented to recognize in the heart of man a capability of action, and in his intellect a faculty of discernment, they have looked upon this gift of God as a fatal one, and thought that mankind, under these two impulses, tended fatally to ruin.

Whilst mankind tends to evil, they incline to good; whilst mankind is advancing towards darkness, they are aspiring to enlightenment; whilst mankind is drawn toward vice, they are attracted by virtue. And, this granted, they demand the assistance of force, by means of which they are to substitute their own tendencies for those of the human race. 

Bastiat has a number of retorts to this tendency of politicians to want to treat mankind as their own science experiment:

Truly it would be well if these visionaries, who think so much of themselves and so little of mankind, who want to renew everything, would only be content with trying to reform themselves, the task would be arduous enough for them…

…One of the strangest phenomena of our time, and one that will probably be a matter of astonishment to our descendants, is the doctrine that is founded upon this triple hypothesis: the radical passiveness of mankind – the omnipotence of the law – the infallibility of the legislator: this is the sacred symbol of the party that proclaims itself exclusively democratic: It is true that it professes to be social. So far as it is democratic, it has unlimited faith in mankind. So far as it is social, it places mankind beneath the mud.

Bastiat’s prescience is a marvel to behold, with the tragic exception to date on the part that descendants would scoff at, rather than continually marvel at, the impossible notion resting upon the triple hypothesis that we can achieve utopia through democratic socialism.

As a French statesmen, social scientist, and economist, one might expect Bastiat to have a great amount to say about the subject of Socialism. I am perhaps even more intrigued by what a 19th Century Tsarist era Russian novelist, once imprisoned and then forced to live in exile for “radicalism” (he joined a circle advocating for abolishing Russian serfdom), had to say on the subject given the horrors that would beset Russia a few decades after his eminence. The themes of anti-radicalism in general is a prominent theme throughout Dostoevsky novels. Recency of reading is perhaps the only reason a certain setting within Crime and Punishment resonates with me at present.  The setting itself is the makings of high drama – an investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, has suspicions of the main character, Raskolnikov, as a committer of a recent murder and is feeling him out in a normal social setting. One particular scene that helps Porfiry set the stage for a line of questioning on who has rights to judge and oppress whom on earth is set up by a debate between the investigator and Raskilnikov’s friend, Razumikhin, in which Porfiry goads him into attacking socialist thought in an attempt to get Raskilnikov’s own thoughts on the matter. It was common for Dostoevsky to speak through his characters. I believe Razumikhin speaks for Dostoevsky when he states this regarding socialists:

Their views are well known: crime is a protest against the abnormality of the social set-up – that alone and nothing more, no other causes are admitted…Hence if society itself is normally set up, all crimes will at once disappear, because there will be no reason for protesting and everyone will instantly become righteous. Nature isn’t taken into account, nature is driven out, nature is not supposed to be! With them, it’s not mankind developing all along in a historical, living way that will finally turn by itself into a normal society, but, on the contrary, a social system, coming out of some mathematical head, will at once organize the whole of mankind and instantly make it righteous and sinless.

One can sense not only Dostoevsky’s cynicism related to the “mathematical head” but also skepticism regarding the desire to use government means and rulers to try to reform and direct society in a vain attempt to eradicate human flaws.

Despite the prophecies of Dostoevksy, one can’t imagine he would have foreseen just how pernicious these “mathematical heads” would become in future Russian generations. These molders of mankind into lumps of clay would, to use Bastiat’s phrase, truly place man into the mud. Or as the statement attributed to Stalin goes, more than treating men as clay, men were treated as millions of broken eggs in a tragic attempt to create an omelette concocted in a “great” mathematician’s head. This tragic reality is captured throughout the corpus of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works with such masterpieces as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich  and The Gulag Archipelago.  Perhaps there is no work in which Solzhenitsyn displays such profound sadness at a vain attempt at utopia gone horrifically wrong combined with clarity of moral purpose and tragic irony and wit as in his novel, In the First Circle.

The epic novel is far too rich and deep for me to describe in detail here (for a great podcast introduction to the book, visit EconTalk), but some key context: the novel’s name itself belies the artist’s craft and wit – the concept of the “First Circle” was adopted as a literary device from Dante’s Inferno. The first circle of hell was the highest and most painless level of hell in which philosophers and other world notables who did good but without knowing the true God were relegated. Similarly, the novel’s prison settings is the sharaska – a forced work-camp for those Russian political prisoners who had some particular skill (engineers, physicists) that allowed them to serve prison sentences in relatively livable conditions compared to the deprivations of the Siberian gulags.

There is a common chilling theme throughout the book, at one point expressed by one of the free women workers who toil alongside the male prisoners by day – “they (the state) can do anything they want to us.” But specifically to the point in my title, there is a powerful and pithy statement made by one of the prisoners that succinctly captures the essence of the horrors of communism. In this context, as new prisoners are brought into the camp, the speaker says to a fellow prisoner who happens to be a still committed communist:

What century are we living in? Numbers sewn on human beings? Tell me, Lev Grigorievich, is this what you call progress?

Indeed, a broader theme of the book is that everyone is trapped in this system – it is a prison to all, and all within the country are mere numbers, whether one was officially in prison or not. One diplomat in the book tells his sister-in-law:

You see this circle? That’s our country. That’s the first circle. Now here’s the second. A circle with a large diameter. That is mankind at large. You would think that the first forms a part of the second, wouldn’t you? Not in the least! There are barriers of prejudice. Not to mention barbed wire and machine guns. To break through, physically or spiritually, is well-nigh impossible. Which means that mankind, as such, does not exist. There are only fatherlands, everyone’s fatherland is alien to everyone else’s….”

I love when I see parallels of themes between books, and indeed, within In the First Circle  Solzhenitsyn echoes the point in the novel made (and captured above) by Bastiat about “reforming society” and whether we should focus on ourselves or of society:

Where should you start reforming the world? With other people? Or with yourself?

In summary – what I find so moving and powerful about the connections between these works of art from great authors is the healthy and much-needed skepticism regarding whether legislators or autocrats will solve humanity’s ills, that these ills are impossible to remove completely, that the best way to reduce them is setting men at liberty, and the captured fear and progression of what men will do to one another once they hold unrelenting and unlimited power over others – man turns into clay, mud, mathematical, numbers, slaves…

It also goes without saying that I recommend all three books for reading.

 

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“Socialism is for the Uninformed”

Sanders.PNGThomas Sowell makes a compelling case for going beyond surface level platitudes and shibboleths being all that it takes to realize that socialism can’t possibly work and that all evidence of countries that have tried a planned and wealth confiscatory approach have all failed. After making the case through some examples and counterpoints to the Sanders’ socialist agenda, Sowell delivers my favorite quote from the article, “None of this is rocket science. But you do have to stop and think — and that is what too many of our schools and colleges are failing to teach their students to do.”

“America’s Drift Toward ‘Socialism’ Is Generational, But Also Educational”

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Young supporters cheer on Bernie Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist, in Iowa (Andrew Harrier/Bloomberg)

There is a great article in Forbes that essentially shows a tremendously concerning growth in support of Socialism, particularly within the 18-24 age group. The great challenge is that most of them can’t even define what socialism actually is. Thus, we have a gap in both understanding of the evils of state owned means of production (in other words, what socialism actually is) and a lack of understanding of what socialism actually means for society.  So we either have people opposed to capitalism on its own merits or people that are fooled into supporting something that they don’t understand. I am not sure which is a bigger problem – hatred of what has made America great and freed millions from penury and big government control or outright ignorance of the term and underlying political philosophy.

A key statement by the author, David Davenport is below:

A November NYT/CBS poll found that only 16% of those under 30 could accurately define socialism, compared with 30% for respondents over 30. Even more to the point, when a Reason-Rupe survey in 2014, which again confirmed young people’s support for socialism at 58% for those ages 18-24, turned around and asked whether they favored government running businesses, the clear answer was “no.” When asked whether they want government or private markets leading the economy, they chose markets 2 to 1 (64% versus 32%).

I don’t know which is more discouraging: that young people are becoming comfortable with socialism, or that they have no idea what it is. Any definition of socialism involves government ownership of the means of production and distribution. It’s most assuredly not private ownership of business or a market economy. So for starters, young people have embraced some kind soft collectivism and mislabeled it as socialism. That’s bad enough.

Venezuela is a basket case and big government is to blame

A great post here from Economist Dan Mitchell at the International Liberty blog.

In particular, I appreciate the Theorem he includes in the blog:

Social-Collapse-Theorem

The best quote of the article is the conclusion after Mitchel chronicles the Venezuelan malaise:

The entire story is filled with heartbreaking stories of suffering families and maddening anecdotes about how unconstrained government has wrecked a potentially rich nation.

Which gives me a good reason to make the most important point of this article.

All the bad policies in Venezuela were imposed because politicians supposedly “cared” about ordinary people. That was the rationale for higher welfare payments, minimum wages, price controls, subsidies, and all sorts of other “compassionate” policies.

Yet the news reports show that it’s regular people who are now suffering the most because excessive government is causing an economic collapse.

Which is why this chart comparing Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile is so powerful. Ordinary people did the best in the nation with a government that did the least.

The substantial middle class taxes coming with #feelthebern

The Sanders path to unicorns and rainbows can’t possibly be financed through taxes on Wall Street. In fact, that will barely make a dent in the trillions of dollars needed for single payer healthcare alone. The only way to get all of this “free” stuff is to heavily tax the middle class. So the question is, are you ready for this political revolution of 50% personal income taxes?

Economist Dan Mitchell has more details…

Source: Accelerating on the Path to Greece with Bernie Sanders

The drift towards socialism

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Given all of the momentum behind Bernie Sanders, fueled by what I heard one pundit call, “the children’s brigade of people supporting Sanders that have never had to watch thousands of dollars go out of their paychecks for taxes,” I created this post, in which I essentially copy and paste from one of my hidden away comments from within the About Me section.

My guiding principles on the appropriate order of society is that man should be free to do as much as they possibly can on their own without coercion of their fellow man. Freedom from coercion will inherently mean a small and limited government, which is the antithesis of what an avowed socialist such as Sanders advocates. It is not that I don’t like the idealism of a utopian state of all of us cooperating to build a just society, it is that I believe that empirical evidence of countries that have tried socialism have failed to deliver the utopia and have instead descended into quite the dystopia. The problem is that to have such a system, the ruling elites of a society change from one in which the invisible hand of the pricing system and the free market determine who is elite based upon individual skills and effort to one in which favors and status are doled out arbitrarily by a government elite. We can’t pretend that those entrenched with government power will suddenly become benevolent and all-wise benefactors. As William McGurn indicated in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, the unfortunate reality is that the end result of a socialist society is not idealistic cooperation, it is in fact collusion of a small governing elite and their attachments and hangers on. It is no accident that the richest woman in Venezuela is Hugo Chavez’s daughter. It is no accident that Brazil is dealing with corruption charges at all levels of government due to government officials abusing their power to milk bribes and embezzle money from the state-owned oil and gas company Petrobas.

It seems unquestionable at this point that in the last 8 years, the Democratic party has made a tremendous shift to the left, which is pulling Hillary Clinton leftward as well. Granted, much of Bernie’s recent success is in converse relation to Clinton’s inherent weaknesses in campaigning, trustworthiness, and likability, but it is still clear that voters are driving the party in a leftward lurch. This is perhaps a natural outcome of 8 years of anemic economic growth and a drumbeat of income inequality. I would submit that the income inequality seems to have been greatly aided and driven by conscious decisions by the federal reserve (by extension, government) to fuel asset prices through quantitative easing that props up asset prices owned mostly by the ultra wealthy and pins down meager saving rates largely owned by the middle class on down. We have thus ignored and swept away the hard fiscal and government reform that would actually unshackle the economy and tried to take the easy but much less effective path of monetary policy manipulation that also is much more prone to fueling asset price increases to the benefit of the rich and inflates the probabilities of a bust cycle requiring more bailouts that benefit the wealthy in the future. The clarion call warning is that if you haven’t been able to trust the angels that run government before to structure your life and make it all better before, why would you hand them the keys to even more power and control over your lives? Take some time to view the outcomes of socialist governments in the past and whether they delivered the utopia that is being proclaimed today. You will find that 100% of the time, they failed to live up to their ideals and instead descended into a different and less accountable elite-controlled society with sclerotic growth and a much more income stratified society that becomes much less fluid and changeable.