Thursday, June 13, 2024
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We’re on the road to socialism


A FEW years ago, columnist Matthew Parris wondered how our economic system survived. We can’t just go on cutting each other’s hair and taking in each other’s laundry was how he put it. But that is exactly how capitalism works: meeting needs. And it’s exactly where socialism fails: by not meeting them.

Yet if socialism is really just another name for regulation, that’s where we are headed. It’s inevitable. The bigger society becomes, the more regulation is needed to perform tasks thought of as government prerogatives and to reduce the gap between life’s winners and losers.

The main difference between Left-wing and Right-wing governments in the democracies is that the former regulate faster and intervene more aggressively in civil and economic life. In Tony Blair’s case, he frequently didn’t even think through the effects of the changes he made. Socialism was a good in itself.

Support for capitalism and socialism is now almost evenly balanced in the US, which has so far been the only country in the world to be avowedly capitalist on both sides of the political divide. The way the Democratic party is going, it is more likely than not to venture far deeper into social democracy-cum-socialism over the next 50 years. If the US, capitalism’s guarantor, goes socialist, that’s the end.

Donald Trump may win re-election and delay things for a bit. Joe Biden may say that he’s centre-Left but the US is headed unstoppably Leftwards in future if a growing majority support the Democrats’ plans for unaffordable social programmes in education and welfare and a complete reorganisation of the economy, supposedly to handle climate change but actually to make it more socialist.

That people need haircuts and clean clothes is a fact. Free markets are the interface between the needs that people have and those who meet them.

During his 2016 US presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders put Parris’s question in a bizarre way. Do we need 23 different deodorants when children are going hungry? The correlation is weird but we see what he’s getting at. Underlying the question is whether we need more than one kind of anything at all? And does having more mean wasted resources? Sanders thinks capitalism is morally discredited by social irresponsibility.

Both the Tory Parris and the socialist Sanders were making an argument for economic efficiency whose priorities could be met only by ever more intrusive government regulation, which is what socialism is.

Economic stability is the prize. The Sanders case is that instability – or the unpredictability in the capitalist economic cycle – can be fixed only by a command economy and socially responsible government which decides what goods people are allowed to have.

Doubtful. Did having only one kind of everything work in East Germany? Communist economies were better characterised by what they couldn’t make, which was practically everything that didn’t first have a military use.

The socialist solution has been tried in various forms in various countries and has always failed for several reasons, but one in particular which was explained by Hayek 80 years ago in the Road to Serfdom. Efficient economic activity consists in too many variables and unknowns for planners to conceive of, never mind take account of. The Soviet Union, the breadbasket of Europe, finished up buying US wheat.

Leonard Read’s 1958 essay I, Pencil recounted the complex supply chain which resulted in the production of a pencil in which the pencil itself was incidental. No one part of it existed with the specific intention that a pencil would be the end product except at the pencil factory.

Imagine if a government department were given the task of making pencils and whether a planned process would be anywhere near as efficient as the discrete operations of a competitive free economy meeting the needs of a pencil-maker but with never a thought that pencils would come out at the end.

Are the young, who never knew the worst of socialist government, capable of grasping this, and are there college professors ideologically honest enough to teach them?

We understand that the earth’s resources are finite. It would be madness to exhaust an essential resource without having a replacement on tap long in advance. Activist-fed scares about peak oil, for example, are designed to remind us of this. Environmentalism is a minefield of competing political and economic interests but it does serve a necessary purpose. Some day the oil will run out and we have to prepare for that.

When Biden says he’ll enforce deadlines to end the use of fossil fuels over the next 15 years, he’s setting technology a challenge to provide alternatives sources of energy which provide the same level of user-friendliness to the West and guarantee developing countries the possibility of catching up with us.

What we lack is evidence that these very ambitious deadlines are reachable and at what social cost. Electric cars are an example. They are expensive toys that people won’t buy in large numbers even with taxpayer subsidies. The socialist solution is to ban the internal combustion engine. If you don’t like electric cars, take a hike instead.

Biden is taking a punt and we have good reason to fear that socialist government will coerce us into sticking to it ‘to save the planet’, ready or not.

Covid has given us an unexpected and shocking taste of government authoritarianism unknown in this country since the war. We have also seen how readily police enforce orders and how obedient we are, however much we grumble. Governments are a lot more powerful than we realise in normal times.

We have to trust in their benignity and I’m not sure how trustworthy the socialist radicals bidding to capture the Democratic party from Nancy Pelosi and her aged cohort are.

The truth is that a kind of latent socialism is inherent in government. Conservatives deny the Left’s claim that history is linear and goes in their direction. Phenomena like Mrs Thatcher don’t prove the Left wrong, only that history doesn’t go in a straight line; it hits the occasional speed bump and zigzags, but it doesn’t change course.

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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