Bernie from Brooklyn has, surprisingly, put socialism on the agenda. What is that about? For about 150 years, socialism appeared to many people--intellectuals no less than workers--to be the wave of the future. And with good reason: Just as the Enlightenment had replaced the Age of Faith, as capitalism had replaced feudalism, and as the middle class had removed the political power of the aristocracy, so now the time had come for the crowning achievement, which was to see to the triumph of the working class, with the resulting utopia and the end of history.
In 1917 came the Communist Revolution in Russia, and the "Great Experiment" was underway. Then, as a result of the vast changes wrought by World War II, communism spread to the Eastern European countries, to Cuba, to North Korea and North Vietnam. All those communist societies--which were top-down versions of socialism--proved to be nightmares. That outcome not only punctured the dream but provided experimental evidence that the idea is bad. After all, if communism failed in Russia, one can blame it on the poor luck of having Lenin and then Stalin at the top, but if it fails everywhere, something is wrong with the system.
Still, there are Marxists around, however few, who believe that Communism has about as much relevance to Marxism as the Inquisition does to the Sermon on the Mount. They hold on to the dream in the form of social democracy or democratic socialism. They believe that when capitalism, with all its undeniable flaws (the existence of which the recent Popes, who are no radicals, continually remind us), finally reaches a dreadful excess, people will vote for socialism. And indeed the demise of authoritarian socialism (aka communism) and the elusiveness of a truly democratic socialist society has, in the past few decades, liberated capitalism from all constraints. No longer compelled by competition from the collectivist camp to restrain itself, to cosmeticize itself, to negotiate on differences, and to accede to a welfare state compromise, it has gone on a laissez faire rampage throughout the world. The malignant consequences, such as the widening income gap between the 1% and the 99%, have consequently been on show for decades now. This unmasking makes the Marxist critique of the failures of capitalism more relevant than ever. So the temptation recurs to bring back the full-blown Marxist dream.
What such dreamers therefore need in order to be able to resist that temptation is a thought experiment; that is, deductive proof that socialism cannot work, a proof to be set beside the accumulated empirical evidence.
Socialism involves a rearrangement of money and of political power. Let us try them out. As for the economics of it, give everyone a million dollars. First, each individual is unhappy because he discovers that (as Thomas More pointed out long ago) being rich means something only if others are not rich. Then inflation sets in; for, if everyone is wealthy, why not charge a $1000 for a loaf of bread, etc. Finally, the few who are entrepreneurial, aggressive, or lucky (not to speak of unscrupulous) will soon extract money and property from the many who are indolent, slow-witted, scrupulous, or unlucky. And lo and behold, we are quickly back to square one, with an unequal distribution of wealth.
As for power, it tends to concentrate. Imagine an egalitarian socialist commune or kibbutz of, say, a hundred persons. Everyone attends the deliberations about work and pay. Soon people begin to drop out, whether out of boredom, or mental incapacity, or peevishness over not being heeded. Before long, a small group is left to deal with the agenda, and the rest are given the formality of ratifying the decisions. Thus it is that just as water finds its level, so does power gravitate to the few. In all societies across the spectrum from far right to far left--including our "USA exceptionalism"--a small group of people inevitably makes the crucial decisions. As soon as such a ruling clique is established, no matter how noble it is, a gap opens between it and the rest of the populace. The haves of power can never behave like the have not. Thus, as in a play by Aristophanes, a radical solution to a long-standing problem only brings one to the realization that the status quo in unchangeable. Q.E.D.
The failure of socialism does not give much comfort to
proponents of a capitalism that is but little better. Actually one runs into
the larger question of whether sense can be made of any economic arrangement.
Here is another thought experiment: The later 1990s, in the wake of President
Clinton's tax increase on the wealthiest Americans amidst howls from
conservatives about disastrous consequences, saw the greatest economic
expansion in history. What caused it? Liberals say that it was Clinton and his
fine-tuned tax increase. Conservatives attribute it rather to the Congress,
which in 1994 became Republican, or to the policies of President Reagan a
decade earlier. Wall Street economists give the credit to Chairman Alan
Greenspan's handling of the Federal Reserve Bank policies. Free market zealots
celebrate instead entrepreneurship, and techies gush over the productivity
gains caused by computerization. Which, then, was it? A combination of all or
some of these--that is, of good luck in the alignment of the planets? Since no
individual is willing to separate himself from his ideology in order to be able
to admit that it was it all or none of the above, no one knows the answer.
Every proponent insists rather on speaking assertively, but on the basis of what?
This is a classic example of the problem of cause and effect relationships,
which are hastily and smugly pontificated on but remain ultimately and
permanently inscrutable (outside the hard sciences). Every datum has an
infinity of causes and of effects. All of which makes the case for socialism as
dubious as the one for capitalism.