Most of us know that the socialist and communist nations of the 20th century inflicted a horrible death toll on the human race (over a hundred million dead, by any informed reckoning, and possibly over 200 million by some counts). Most of us also know that the rise of socialism in Venezuela has turned a prosperous, oil-rich nation into a starving hellhole. As many have noted, socialism and communism have been tried (and have failed) in rich countries and poor, large countries and small, warm countries and cold, eastern countries and western, northern countries and southern, and so forth.

Yet, the murderous ideology of collectivism still persists, and, after a dogged rebranding effort, is undergoing a renaissance here in America.

What’s up with that? Why is it that Nazism continues to correctly evoke revulsion and “never again” declarations, while “socialisms” (yes, Nazism was a form of socialism, but let that alone for now) past sins are waved off?

Ever hear someone assert that those murderous 20th century regimes were “not real socialism” or “not real communism?” For the logicians, this is a form of nirvana fallacy. Those purists dismiss the imperfect implementation of an ideology by asserting that the negatives it created were the result of the imperfections, not the underlying principle itself. I normally refute these assertions by pointing out that perfection is unachievable, and that what we need to look at is how things change as an ideology is implemented. In the case of capitalism and liberty, the more we have, the better things get. History makes that abundantly clear. In the case of socialism and communism, the more we have, the worse things get. History makes that abundantly clear.

Socialism-perfectionists extend their nirvana-fallaciousness to their assessment of capitalism and free markets, by straw-manning the evils of a perfectly capitalist society, one that lacks any sort of government oversight or interference in free markets. Like perfect socialism, this will never exist. Unlike socialism, moving in the direction of freer markets produces broadly better outcomes.

But, lets, for the sake of argument, consider the dream of a perfectly socialist or communist society. The perfectionists suggest that such do exist, and point at communes and kibbutzes as examples, but ignore both the small scale and the fact that they are voluntary collectives. Any collectivist effort that does not allow for unfettered exit must rely on forcible implementation, and that’s where the problems start.

Imagine a marble at the bottom of a bowl. If pushed, the marble will eventually settle back to its original position. That is called a stable equilibrium. Now, imagine a pencil standing on its end. If disturbed even slightly, the pencil will topple over. That is an unstable equilibrium. Therein lies the key to understanding why perfect socialism has never arisen, and why socialist nations have universally devolved to misery and death.

Socialism requires people to subordinate their personal, biologically-driven tendencies to a different philosophy. Instead of thinking in terms of the self, socialists are supposed to think in terms of the state, to put the needs of the collective ahead of personal desires. The early Marxists understood that their dream required inculcation, rather than merely structuring a society so that basic human nature could be channeled (capitalism, by establishing rule of law and a system of property rights, does exactly that) for greater efficiency. Thus, the socialist dream is at risk from those who aren’t fully invested in the philosophy. You can’t have perfection if some of those among you aren’t behaving in a socialistic fashion. This problem is dubbed “subversion from within,” and it’s a flaw in any system based on altruism and selflessness.

Subversion from within is also self-selecting and self-perpetuating. Consider a squad of soldiers in a battle. If one of those soldiers is less committed to the squad’s well being in the face of peril, he’s apt to be less aggressive in charging the enemy, and may increase his survival chances slightly. His relative selfishness gives him greater chance to spread his ideas to others (or, he may spell everyone’s death by not being fully invested, in which case, the collective philosophy dies with them). Extend this to any interaction of people in a socialist system, and you see the problem. The moment someone acts less than perfectly altruistically, and puts his own needs ahead of the state, he gains personal advantage over his fellow citizens. His example will be alluring to all but the most perfectly indoctrinated comrades, and the system’s equilibrium will be disturbed. The pencil will tip over, and history will repeat itself.

Capitalism, on the other hand, relies on human nature. No indoctrinations necessary, merely a framework that actually magnifies the benefits of capitalistic behavior. If you have a system of individual and property rights, courts to enforce them, and a national defense to protect the system from outsiders, you don’t have to devote as much energy to defense, defensiveness, or building structures out-of-pocket to protect your property and your rights. You find it easier to achieve personal gains and benefits under capitalism than under anarchy. This coupling with and channelling of human nature makes capitalism a stable system, a marble in a bowl. Of course, if you push hard enough, you can knock the marble out of the bowl, but that’s not a capitalism problem, that’s the peril of external force.

Socialists dream of The One, a Solomonic leader to assume the responsibility they’ve abdicated, and to wield the power they’ve ceded wisely and for the collective good. Obama was the most recent recipient of this almost messianic adulation, and many lamented that he didn’t have enough power in his hands. What’s left unsaid, apart from the reality of human imperfection, and apart from the “power corrupts” truism, is that no one lives forever, and even if Solomon himself arose from the dead to oversee a socialist nirvana, eventually he’d retire or die, and someone less perfect would step into a position of enormous power. Again, disturb the pencil, it comes crashing down.

Perfect socialism is an unstable system, where instability leads to negative outcomes. Unlike capitalism, where imperfections don’t initiate a death spiral, imperfections in socialism magnify and multiply and result in catastrophe. This is the true and best response to the “real socialism has never been tried” canard. Even if you manage it, it won’t last, and when it goes wrong, it collapses in a ruinous heap.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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