As an immigrant entrepreneur, my father had a dream. He wanted to revive an ancient art form, using a furnace, a hammer, and an anvil to forge classical Argentine iron beds and sell them to buyers around the world. Before he started the business, he went to countless financial, marketing, and production advisors. They all told him the same thing, that it wouldn’t work.
Except it did. For a decade, my dad produced some of the most beautiful cast iron furnishings in the world and sold them worldwide. He didn’t make a fortune and buy me a Ferrari for my sixteenth like I dreamed when I was little, but he created something more valuable. He taught me the lesson of personal initiative, making a dream happen on your own accord.
Socialists would disagree that my father’s initiative was a virtue. In his one of his signature works “The Abolition of Man”, C.S. Lewis envisioned a future in which men lived without any individual sense of duty except for duty to their country, all dissents were quickly dealt with before they were allowed to foment into real movements, and any dialogue involved repeating propaganda and towing the state line instead of thinking for oneself. This may seem like a dystopian vision, but it is what was occurring the countries giving way to fascist communist and socialist governments all around the world at the time the book was published, or it became the reality in future socialist countries. Socialism’s implementation necessitated a gross rejection and abstraction of what Lewis called the Tao, the natural law which governs morality. In Mao’s China, the traditional Chinese sense of duty to family and elders was banished, in favor of loyalty to the state. In Stalin’s Russia, individual accountability and innovation was replaced with strict quotas governing all economic activity. And in communist Cuba, which is so often pointed to as the gold star of Marxist Socialism, doctors often work second jobs just to make ends meet.
Classic philosophers and their Enlightenment heirs believed that democracy required not a utopian form of equality but rather laws that would limit the excesses of the wealthy. The Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote that “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics,” not that a society should have only one class of citizens. We can see this play out in history, in which socialist movements which view themselves at the end all be all, actually resulted in hierarchy and lend towards authoritarianism. Union leader John Mitchell said that progress must come from “evolution, not revolution”. Activism that is guided by a sense of principled pragmatism, not the ego of movement leaders, is what historically produced results. John Mitchell’s famous Anthracite coal strike of 1902 wasn’t motivated by a desire to produce socialism, and the result was the greatest victory for workers in the history of the United States. The success of the strike inspired a wave of progressive activism, setting off the decade which produced the end to child labor, rising wages, and improved working conditions for the many, made possible by economic expansion and the continued growth of industry.
Consider by contrast, the Marxist inspired Mexican Revolution of the 1910s and early 1920s, which collectivized agriculture in Ejidos. Land was redistributed to peasants, but after the flair of the revolution, the greatest gains were made by the urban middle class who bought food from peasants priced artificially by government mandated price ceilings. The ideals of egalitarianism were celebrated in principle by government created statues, murals, and state propaganda, but post-revolution Mexico was not marked by any significant gains in wealth for the peasant class which is was supposedly fought to liberate.
Currently, Venezuela is the best-known example of a socialist-authoritarian state, which is simply unquestionable to anyone who believes in objective facts. Socialists might respond to the dictatorships which arose in Russia and Venezuela by saying that the events in these countries are actually the result of state-capitalism rather than socialism. To that I ask, where is a socialist state that hasn’t resulted in authoritarianism? It is not that state capitalism was implemented imperfectly, but that socialism was implemented perfectly. Humans have a natural right to the results of the labor they produce, to take that away requires state coercion. Of course, some taxation is necessary for the collective good of society, but the abolishment of private enterprise altogether goes against the laws of economics and principles of human rights. The often-appraised Nordic countries which have some of the highest degrees of political transparency, social mobility, and well-being in the entire are not socialist, but reformed capitalist states. The social spending in these countries is not dictated by a command economy like in the Soviet Union, or dependent on state run industries like in Venezuela, but is instead fueled by a dynamic market economy in which both small entrepreneurs and large firms alike are allowed to flourish. American progressives must reject socialism in favor of solutions which continue to embrace private ownership and innovation while reducing the excesses of inequality and corporate power that has resulted from an over-emphasis on production, rather than social well-being.
In the words of United Mine Workers Leader John Mitchell, “…a better day is in store for the American workingman, but it has to come through no radical change in the organization of human society. It must come one step at a time, and through a slow upward movement, by his own efforts. One thing at a time, and not all things at once, is the way a better state will be ushered in.”