Of Socialism and Human Nature

One of Margaret Thatcher’s more quoted sayings is “The facts of life are conservative.”

It’s a remark that covers a great deal of ground, since it applies to entire societies as well as to individuals. In conventional politics it applies most obviously to economic policy. There the facts of life teach that you can’t spend more than you earn, at least in the long run, and that if you borrow to finance an investment that pays less than the interest on your loan, you’ll end up eventually in Carey Street (where the bankruptcy court is located). In work and personal life, they recommend diligence, sobriety, service, loyalty, fidelity, gratitude, and respectability. Victorian middle-class reformers, who succeeded in transforming boisterous, drunken, rowdy, criminal, and sexually promiscuous slum dwellers into model citizens and parents, did so in part by formulating these facts of life as moralistic epigrams that schoolchildren were required to copy down in the course of learning to write legibly. Thus, we got gems such as “The man who watches the clock will always be one of the hands” and other, more solemn instructions.

Hence the title of perhaps the most famous work by Rudyard Kipling, a poet greatly admired by Thatcher: “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” The Gods in question are the facts of life formulated as rules of virtuous and prudent behavior. As Kipling mordantly observes, these rules are much mocked by those who see them as obstacles blocking shortcuts to the “Fuller Life,” but the consequences of ignoring or defying them can be terrible: “But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come / That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.”

Yet, as Kipling’s poem records, throughout human history, in one way or another, men and women have been persuaded to go down the road to perdition by glittering promises of a fuller life and a better world. He shows too how dire consequences followed from the hubristic self-confidence of the “smooth-tongued wizards” who offered these visions. On national security, for instance:

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

Or on religion and family policy:

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

Kipling was writing in 1919, at the dawn of the age of socialism, after the carnage and moral chaos of the Great War (in which his son had been killed), and just as Soviet Communism was winning in Russia and, as it then seemed, in much of Europe as well. His personal tragedy and the collapse of the European order before the barbarism of the Left seemingly combined to give him a piercing vision of the worse things that were to come from that direction. It’s decidedly eerie how he repeatedly foresaw the progress from folly and idealism to shame and defeat in different areas of life and policy before a single socialist (or fascist) government was sufficiently established to set about implementing its ideology.

Three distinctions must now be drawn, however. First, the facts of life are not the same as the facts of human nature in the above sketch. If they were the same thing, we would learn from our mistakes rather than endlessly repeat them. Human nature persuades us to ignore the risks of foolish or utopian proposals; it also incentivizes us to exploit or evade the ugly consequences of their implementation. Human nature is the set of hopes, ambitions, and ideals that explains why socialism succeeds politically, but also the hopes, ambitions, and ideals that explain why socialism eventually fails economically, socially, morally, and thus politically too.

The second distinction is that our virtues are implicated in the rise and fall of socialism almost as much as our vices. That’s why I used the phrase “glittering promises of a fuller life and a better world” a few paragraphs earlier and twinned “folly and idealism” in the previous one. Socialism is a powerful temptation to commit the worst of crimes precisely because it also appeals to our compassion and desire for social improvement. It gives us a strong excuse to impose our will on others unlawfully and even murderously.

And the third distinction is that among political philosophies, both conservatism and liberalism are also vulnerable to folly and wickedness — but to a lesser extent than socialism. It’s easy to see why. Conservatism is a set of ideas about restraint, caution, and prudence. Its liberty is an ordered liberty. It distrusts government programs, social experiments, and utopianism on principle. Liberalism shares some of these concerns. Its preference for minimal government also limits its potential for state oppression. But liberalism’s desire to demystify and replace traditional society with “rational” political structures and freely chosen social relations means that it blunders smilingly into revolutions under the optimistic banner of Reform. In practice, liberalism divides into economic liberals, who drift into conservatism for prudential reasons, and social liberals, who cannot resist the radical appeal of socialism but usually end up regulating popular social attitudes rather than industries. The risks attendant upon socialism are far greater, or at least more visible from the start. As the doctrine that the purpose of the state is to reform society along lines of social justice, it invites far greater social conflict. Even if there were enough justice to go around — which there isn’t — that task would still require formidable state coercion to reorder property and other rights to benefit the proletariat or favored groups while depriving others of their common legal rights. And with every “socially just” expropriation, there would come more resistance, and in response to that resistance, more state coercion, and in response to that, the disruption of economic relations . . . and so on ad infinitum.

For the last time, let’s hear from Kipling, on this very highly topical topic:

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.” 

Under socialism, moreover, working is not enough. As Trotsky helpfully pointed out, you also have to conform. And obey. And applaud. And sometimes you die anyway. Some socialists in the Soviet Union were killed while still applauding.

Others writing in this special issue of National Review, notably Joshua Muravchik and Jeffrey Tucker, deal more than effectively with some of the technical reasons for the rise and failure of socialism. “Practical men” and some social visionaries, such as H. G. Wells, supported the planned economy of socialism because they imagined it would be less wasteful than market competition. In practice, of course, economic planning disrupted the price signals that the free market uses to ensure that industries produce goods that people want rather than those the planners think necessary. When that happened, the stores were full of unwanted surplus products alongside empty shelves and long queues of frustrated consumers. Planning produced some goods nobody wanted at any price: Khrushchev once complained that a factory, meeting the requirements of a quota expressed in quantitative terms, manufactured chandeliers so large and heavy that they pulled down the ceilings wherever they were installed. And, in the end, “really existing socialism” turned the whole of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe into one vast economic wasteland.

But I’m more interested here in the attitudes that fueled the rise and decline of socialism — and usually ended in their own frustration. For many different sides of human nature conspired to support the socialist transformation of society. Some were transparently objectionable vices — for instance, envy.

If greed is supposedly the characteristic capitalist vice, envy is the typical socialist one. Envy, indeed, has most of the unpleasant consequences of capitalism — it is socially divisive, productive of conflict, encouraging of hostility towards those envied, and discouraging of everyone else’s improving their lives and status — without the saving grace of greed, which leads to work, saving, and investment. Compare the relative damage to society caused by the crimes of socialism and capitalism. Both impoverish their victims, but crimes of envy can kill them too and spread a disabling fear throughout society. As Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute in London once asked: “When was the last time you were afraid to go out at night in case you were embezzled?”

Another was the power worship, allied to envy, of the intelligentsia. Literary critics, failed politicians, provincial academics, “pure” scientists, and unemployed artists all thought that they could run society and industry more competently and more generously than the capitalists and managers who were actually doing so. Marxism had given them the key. But Marxism is a fraudulent intellectual-labor-saving device that gives its converts the illusion that they can understand and solve any social problem without needing to learn much about it. The template will explain it to them. Its doctrine that ownership of the means of production defined social class, for instance, meant that it first missed and then resisted the advent of the managerial class and its rise to dominance. As a result, it creates a kind of lumpenintelligentsia that, while seeking to enforce Marxist dogma on everything from agriculture to musicology, gets in the way of everything from economic efficiency to the pursuit of scientific truth. Those who object find themselves sidelined at best, executed at worst — and the Soviet peoples got years of Lysenkoism and failed crops.

It is the social virtues, however, that have the most contradictory relationship with socialism. This was seen in 1970s social-democratic Britain as well as in harder socialist regimes. Good people in free societies are inspired to support socialism because they want to lift up the poor, help younger people to be less materialistic, and free themselves from their own guilt at what they feel is undeserved prosperity. The first two motives are decently honorable, but they don’t necessarily lead to better outcomes for their supposed beneficiaries. The third motive is usually mistaken and, when persisted in, actually neurotic. Besides, the motives of aid givers are less important than whether the giving benefits those receiving it.

Still, let’s consider each motive in turn.

First, charity. Lifting up the poor from poverty is an unalloyed good if it ends with their being self-reliant. Even if it achieves that aim only partially, it’s still better than doing nothing. If, however, it reduces an independent but poor working man to a pauper who lapses into apathetic dependency, it has done more harm than good. Much thought over two centuries has been devoted to designing anti-poverty programs that help the poor towards self-reliance. Modern socialists, unlike the early working-class “ethical socialists,” tend to disapprove of placing conditions on aid to the poor (“workfare”), usually instead viewing receipt of the aid as an unqualified right. That sounds generous. But not only does it trap the poor in long-term dependency, it also undermines what the Anglo-American scholar Shirley Letwin called the “vigorous virtues” among their neighbors.

Governments occasionally use focus groups to judge the practicality or success of their policies. One such focus group in Britain in the 1980s included a young couple who proudly told how they had saved enough money to apply for a mortgage and buy a house. They were made to look and feel foolish a moment later when their sharper neighbors advised them on how to game the system to get a home more cheaply from the government. When socialists start a program to lift the poor out of poverty, they end up trapping them in it. The final stage of this collectivist version of the rake’s progress is for the more sophisticated members of the lumpenintelligentsia to condemn the virtues of self-reliance and hard work as a shameful individualist strategy that betrays the socialist collective — or, in an American racial context, as “acting white.”

Much the same is true of apparently high-minded defenses of socialism, often coming from Christian leaders, as a system that is morally superior to materialistic and selfish capitalism. In reality, the scarcity of everyday goods in a socialist economy makes people even more materialistic than they are in the logo-obsessed West. Corruption flourishes to meet demands that socialism denies. In the later stages of Soviet Communism, a woman would sell herself for a pair of jeans; in Venezuela today, people exchange family heirlooms for a little food. But there are always hard-currency stores for socialist elites — and more than that for Politburo members. When I asked a Mont Pelerin guest in 1974 about his day job, he replied that I must understand why he could give me only the sketchiest account: “I manage the private hard-currency accounts of Soviet leaders in the West.”

Such contradictions and hypocrisies are hidden only from those who don’t wish to know about them. When their existence becomes undeniable, most comfortably-off foreign admirers of socialist regimes condemn them only formally and then carry on as before. Their admiration for leftist despotisms is really a roundabout neurotic rejection of their own societies and as such not to be taken seriously. It’s the political equivalent of a society hostess’s dressing like a dominatrix: It’s intended to show contempt for dull middle-class virtues. Hard-core progressives are a different matter. They are serious revolutionaries and either invent contorted justifications for socialist scandals — virtues are transformed by theory into vices and vices into virtues — or simply deny the plain evidence of their own senses: As each socialist paradise is shown to be a kleptocratic hellhole, the caravan of Sandalistas simply moves on to the next one without apology.

They make a trivial and contemptible contrast to those who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries sensed and predicted the paths of genocide, tyranny, and impoverishment down which their societies were trending. Before a single socialist regime had established itself, writers including Dostoevsky, W. H. Mallock, and, of course, Kipling glimpsed the horrors that lay concealed within socialism’s humanitarian promise. Surely their glimpses into its future in country after country refute the fraying excuse that socialism has never been tried. For if indeed socialism has never been tried, how could they predict its consequences with such eerie accuracy?

Original article here.

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