Liberty Versus Socialism, Part 1
Updated: Oct 17
I’ve often claimed that I stand for liberty and against socialism because it’s simply what I want. A freer society is the kind I want to grow old in, a civilization most consistent with my own values. This stands in contrast to the reasoning of most socialistic thinkers who try to posit a more elevated calculus, a science which tells us that strong central direction is the only way, a reasoning only accessible to great minds and only executable by them. But in fact I think they can’t admit their own biases that transcend science and reason, and simply excel more at rationalization of that which they also want for the most human of reasons.
So, I’m often content to say that freedom is just what I want. But this leaves a lot of questions and seems insufficient to counter the more authoritarian theories constantly thrust on us by the lovers of control. There are many directions to go beyond the simple “it’s what I want,” but today I’d like to focus on the way socialism ruins people—ruins lives. The socialistic theorists like to offer an array of ways in which lives might be ruined by capitalism, but the twentieth century left us a clear record of which grand theory works for humans and which does not. To embrace liberty is to embrace humanitarianism and humanity, prosperity and ascendance.
This goes to the heart of The Long March of Liberty.
Socialism works in a vicious cycle to erode individuals from the inside, persuading of the need to be cared for by those who crave power even while creating a breed of citizen who needs and wants more care. Among the more insidious ideas put forward at times past and re-introduced today to a forgetful populous are these:
That people are most shaped by things they have no control over rather than those they do. This is to say that people are primarily victims of circumstance and if you were born in an inner city slum your destiny is fixed, for the worse. Likewise, that people are “privileged” by being born into wealth and that their individual futures will not primarily be dictated by their character, discretion, or choices, but by that wealth. This belief has been among the most fundamental faiths of left-wing doctrine since at least Marx.
That you are oppressed (if you are not a white male) and that someone needs to fix this. It seems that nothing could be more damaging to a person’s self-propulsion in this world than a belief that the cloud of oppression hangs over you, no matter how hard you try. This idea seizes on the instinct to envy and builds a belief system around it.
That new laws from government can solve your problems and that that’s what government exists for. Here we find the power base of the left and of the American Democrat Party as well. There are very good and serious reasons that our Constitution exists and exists primarily to limit the reach of the government.
These three are primary, but I’m compelled to add one more that seems to afflict those who have fallen under the spell of the above ideas:
That the purpose of learning is to achieve some state or institutional credential; that if you complete curricula A, you will be rewarded with credential B, which entitles you to hold job C. Such a shallow conception of education ensures that positions throughout our economy may continue to be filled with useful idiots and that ubiquity continues to devalue the degree. It’s demonstrable that this has grown worse as government has involved itself more in education.
All of these invite statism. There’s no resistance to it from people infected with the dogmas of illiberalism.
Society’s potential innovators and free thinkers are those most harmed by general acceptance of such ideology. The creative minority has the most to lose when potential is throttled. Read some of the voluminous and recent works of Stephen Kotkin to understand the mechanisms by which innovation dried up in the Soviet Union—among the places where the communists held the most power to manipulate all for the betterment of their people. When you do not stand to reap the reward of your own investments and endeavors, you are much less likely to pursue them. When enriching yourself is only likely to bring the assessors and re-distributionists of the state to your doorstep, the incentive for progress is lost. And in fact, what happens is that people simply learn to “play the game,” to buy off officials and seek favor and hide things and trade on a black market so that the whole of society is corrupted. This is the history of states that have experimented heavily in socialism.
When people lose the incentives for progress, they lose the incentive to put their own minds to higher purposes. When the state makes all the important decisions for you, there’s little reason to consider deeply and then take risk or make investment. And when the state treats you as a fungible asset, there’s little reason for self improvement.
When people become dullards and slackers they need to be taken care of and they lack the will to do important things, such as resist tyranny. This is perhaps why John Adams embraced the old slogan Obsta principiis: resist at the beginnings. The entire paragraph in which Adams introduces this directive, early in his epistle Novanglus, is illuminating and worth reprinting here:
“Obsta pricipiis, nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness and downright venality swallow up the whole society.”
To many of us, a life of compliance is no life at all. The condition in which men soon find themselves under such a regime seems to me a sort of slow death—still ostensibly carrying out the most organic of functions and performing work, but living far from vibrant lives. It was the central metaphor of my 2016 book, The Dying Fish. People find themselves unprepared, intellectually and otherwise, to do little more than seek today’s bread when government does the thinking and decision-making for them.
All this hits home when we see that our current government seeks to deprive us of control over even our own health decisions—the care of our own bodies. Our children normally attend government schools that most of us have to pay to support. It seems that we have to ask the permission of government officials to do anything significant—even having work done to our own homes, and we certainly have to keep paying government the property taxes they covet or we will lose our homes outright. The unelected bureaucracy now deploy mechanisms for domestic spying capable of flagging even the most benign of dissent. One comes to see that the time to nip the shoots of arbitrary power has long since passed.
In the next installment: What we can still do about it.