It’s increasingly evident that many Americans now embrace socialism. A 2016 “Harvard survey found that a third of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds supported it,” and another survey “reported that millennials supported socialism over any other economic system.” They apparently favor what David Horowitz calls “morally-sanctioned theft” and are either unaware of or deliberately deny the appalling reality of socialism’s genocidal history. Add to this the amazing left-turn of the current Democrat Party, now espousing a Sanders-style socialistic agenda! So it behooves us who treasure freedom to better understand what awaits us should we follow the pattern discernible in the “unfree world” examined by two Texas economists. Having established themselves as bona fide academicians by publishing scholarly articles and books, Robert Lawson (a professor at Southern Methodist University) and Benjamin Powell (a professor at Texas Tech University), decided to take a light-hearted (anecdote-studded) but deeply serious (data-laden) tour of socialist utopias to experience first-hand their reality. This resulted in Lawson’s Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World (Washington: Regency Publishing, Kindle edition, c. 2019). Lawson and Powell launched their travels in Sweden, a allegedly “socialist country” which “is not a socialist country.” Certainly there are generous welfare and entitlement programs, but that does not make a country socialist, since our economists insist the abolition of private property and a state-owned means of production are necessary components of a truly socialist regime. In time they also visited China and concluded that it too is not economically socialistic (although it is, for sure, politically dictatorial). In fact, “China’s economic development since 1978 is one of the greatest successes of its kind in human history” (#939). It is, they concluded, a “fake socialism.”
So they decided to visit three countries that remain starkly socialist: Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea. In Venezuela they encountered a “democratic socialism” which has almost overnight plunged from prosperity to poverty. “At least until recently, it was the model that Western intellectuals admired and held up for emulation as a socialist paradise. Now things are falling apart, but the apologists still insist the country’s problems have nothing to do with socialism” (#203). Hugo Chávez “won the 1998 presidential election” promising to eliminate economic injustices and securing much popular support. Then (following the model of Stalin and Mao) he “confiscated more than ten million acres of private farmland” which led to a 60 percent collapse of food production and the skyrocketing of food prices. Consequently: “Venezuelans lost an average of twenty-four pounds in 2017. Venezuela’s socialist policies are literally starving the country” (#338). Of the 800,000 booming businesses in 1998, only 230,000 were afloat in 2016. In fact, everywhere the authors looked in Venezuela they found suffering and sorrow—the dividends of little more than a decade of the “democratic Socialism” so praised by “useful idiots” such as Sean Penn, Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, and Bernie Sanders.
From there Lawson and Powell went to Cuba to study a “subsistence socialism” that has persisted under the Castro brothers for 60 years. Before the 1959 “revolution, Cuba had a thriving urban middle class, along with widespread rural poverty” (#455). Fidel Castro promised to build a utopia featuring prosperity and equality. Instead, he imposed poverty and dictatorial oppression. Sitting in a Havana’s Hotel Tritón they saw its “decaying edifice” as “a crumbling tribute to Cuba’s central-planning problems.” No longer subsidized by the Soviet Union, Cuban authorities eliminated funding for the hotel and it “was rotting, inside and out. And nobody cared because nobody owned it.” Almost immediately Lawson said: “‘This place sucks.’ ‘Socialism sucks,’ said Bob as he drained his beer” (#475). Thus they found a title for their book! Researching by walking about the city, they became increasingly sad as they saw how poorly a state-run economy functions. The food in restaurants was tasteless (ironically, “Cuban cuisine is excellent—just not when it’s served in Cuba”), the buildings were decaying, and the people (70 percent of whom work for the state and get twenty-five dollars a month) were pitifully poor.
But Cubans are not as poor as North Koreans! Our economists next flew to Seoul, South Korea, and found that the “Korean peninsula is a rare natural experiment where capitalism and socialism can be compared side by side. The comparison is particularly informative because North and South Korea share a common history, language, culture, and, before they split, level of economic development. . . . . At the end of World War II, North Korea had about 80 percent of Korea’s industry, 90 percent of its electrical power, and 75 percent of its mines” (#761). Following the war and the division of the peninsula, GDP per capita was basically the same. Yet today South Korea is an economic powerhouse. Seoul’s “economic output ranks it fourth in the world among metropolitan areas (behind Tokyo, New York, and Los Angeles)” (#780). But thirty-five miles to the north there’s an entirely different country, North Korea. Lawson and Powell were not allowed to cross the border, but they learned that the people earned little more than $1000 a year and in the 1990s “up to three million North Koreans died of starvation and related diseases” (#831). Nothing better proves the fundamental goodness of free enterprise than the dramatic contrast between the two Koreas.
Concluding their journeys, our two freedom-loving economists visited “hungover socialisms” in Russia and Ukraine, witnessing the ravages resulting from Marx’s flawed theories. Standing near a statue of him in Moscow, “Bob said, ‘I bet there’s never been a guy who has been so wrong about every major thing he wrote about and who still has as many followers as Marx’ (#1046). Bob’s right. Profits don’t represent exploitation, because the labor theory of value is wrong. Instead, at least in a free market, profits represent created value. Capitalism can’t be the cause of alienation because workers inevitably do better under capitalism than under socialism, and market prices provide a higher standard of living and more economic opportunity. Finally, industries haven’t become more concentrated and wages haven’t been pushed down under capitalism. Instead, capitalism has been the engine of prosperity, innovation, new industries, and rising wages, while socialist economies have stagnated or even regressed. ‘Yeah, there’s only one great Marx,’ I said. ‘Groucho.’ Groucho’s definition of politics is Marxism in a nutshell: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies”’” (#1053). In Russia and Ukraine, those “wrong remedies” resulted in millions of deaths as Lenin and Stalin imposed their version of “scientific socialism,” including the savage liquidation of the Cossacks and Kulaks and others resisting the imposition of a communal paradise. Lawson and Powell’s loathing for Lenin and Stalin oozes from every page. So too they loath Walter Duranty, the New York Times reporter who lied on their behalf, garnering for himself a Pulitzer Prize, claiming that rumors of famine in Ukraine was “mostly bunk” and penning “columns with titles like ‘Soviet Is Winning Faith of Peasants,’ ‘Members Enriched in Soviet Commune,’ and ‘Abundance Found in North Caucasus’” (#1139).
The bright exception to the general malaise in the former USSR is the tiny republic of Georgia (Stalin’s birthplace), where a “new capitalism” has virtually overnight (following the 2003 “Rose Revolution”) generated prosperity. “I [Bob] love Georgia—the people, the food, the beer, the wine, and of course the economic reforms that have taken a Soviet backwater and given it new life” (#1244). Reformers eliminated many superfluous government workers—reducing the Ministry of Agriculture from 4,374 to 600, Tbilisi City Hall employees from 2,500 to 800, the Ministry of Environmental Protection from 5,000 to 1,700. In 2004 they sold government-owned factories, hospitals, and apartments—“everything was for sale except Georgia’s honor.” In that year “Georgia ranked fifty-sixth on the economic freedom index. In the 2017 edition of the index, Georgia ranked eighth in the entire world, ahead of the eleventh-ranked United States” (#1330). The capital city, Tbilisi, “has better-paved streets than Dallas. The once dark city now gleams like Paris at night. Tourists come from all over Europe and the Middle East to enjoy Georgia’s famous food, wine, and other attractions, including . . . the redeveloped medieval section of town with its quaint shops and hip restaurants” (#1338).
Returning to the United States, Lawson and Powell “infiltrated” a 2018 convention of American socialists. “After traveling the unfree world and witnessing the economic stagnation, starvation, poverty, and political tyranny imposed by socialist regimes, Bob and I came to the Socialism Conference to answer our own question: How can so many Americans, particularly millennials, view socialism so favorably? We wanted to hear what these self-described young socialists had to say, and there were plenty of millennials to ask” (#1438). But when asked they had only the haziest notion of what they supported! If they actually knew that socialism calls for the abolition of private property and government controlling the means of production they talked little about it. Instead, they relished the exhilaration of shouting slogans, such as “Free abortion on demand. We can do it. Yes, we can.” Abortion rights and environmental activism seemed to be the real hot button issues at the conference, and this largely explains why so many young people were attending. When speakers deigned to mention failing socialist states like, they inevitably said they weren’t “real” socialisms. “When socialists, democratic and otherwise, held up Venezuela as a great socialist experiment in the 2000s, the message was, ‘See, we told you so; socialism works!’ But when the failure happened, the message changed to, ‘No, wait—that’s not real socialism!’” (#1532).
But our two economists have seen “real socialism” in various parts of the world, and they believe no one who thinks honestly and reasons clearly could support a system which inevitably fails and causes horrendous human suffering.
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One of the finest essayists currently writing English is Theodore Dalrymple (the pen name of Anthony Daniels), a psychiatrist who has traveled widely and worked in medical facilities and prisons in some of the most impoverished realms of Africa and England. Ever empathetic with the poorest of the poor, he writes to illuminate various social ills and enlist the reader’s concern. Consequently, in The Wilder Shores of Marx: Journeys in a Vanishing World (Monday Books, Kindle Edition, c. 2012; first published in 1991), he took a tour of formerly-communist lands devastated by a singularly pernicious ideology, Marxism. “Individually unimportant as the countries might be in world history, collectively they tell us much about one of the central political currents of the twentieth century” (#179). Visiting some of “the peripheral countries of the communist world, then in the process of dissolution,” he determined “to pre-empt the nostalgia for what was an anti-human system in the likely event that the transition to something more normal would be difficult and unsatisfactory. Apart from the massacres, deaths and famines for which communism was responsible, the worst thing about the system was the official lying: that is to say the lying in which everyone was forced to take part, by repetition, assent or failure to contradict” (#151). So he seeks to to simply tell the truth—to tell it as it was.
Early in his life Dalrymple had studied and interacted with several young socialists, and he saw that the “fons et origo” of the “appeal to intellectuals” is “snobbery. Left to themselves, people invariably display bad taste (a crime for which Lukacs, the Hungarian Marxist luminary who was also a murderer, thought they should be punished). Therefore, they must not be left to themselves” (#3233). Elite intellectuals must guide the masses, ruling (whether in economics or culture) by decrees! “It didn’t take me long to conclude that communism was dismal, and that the words of Marx and Lenin betrayed an infinite contempt for men as they were, for their aspirations, their joys and sorrows, their inconsistencies, their innermost feelings, their achievements and failings. Below the surface of their compassion for the poor seethed the molten lava of their hatred, which they had not enough self-knowledge to recognize. I make no claim, therefore, to have travelled in a neutral frame of mind. But neutrality is not a precondition of truth, which itself is not necessarily the mean between two extremes. One does not expect neutrality of someone investigating Nazism, and would be appalled if he affected it; why, then, expect it of someone investigating a different, but longer-lasting, evil?” (#198).
Marx once wrote: “Communism begins where atheism begins,” so when Dalrymple visited Albania and encountered an aggressively atheistic state he declared: “Where religion is compulsory, I am an atheist; but where religion is forbidden, I am a believer.” All public worship ceased in Albania in 1967, when churches and mosques were closed. The regime was following Marx’s malice, implemented by Lenin, who declared: “‘. . . any religious idea, any idea of god at all, any flirtation even with a god, is the most unutterable foulness . . . It is the most dangerous foulness, the most shameful ‘infection’” (#226). To gain access to the country Dalrymple joined a group of English tourists (most of them devout socialists), who were assigned a hotel in the nation’s capital, Tirana. Walking about the city streets, he noted that “not even the firmest of Enver Hoxha’s partisans would maintain that Tirana is an exciting or vibrant city, but it is safe” (#392). Safe, but dead! As dead as the innumerable number of museums, inevitably devoted to the dictator Hoxha and the nation’s grandeur, the tour guides insisted the group visit. Thereafter, “the very idea of a museum induced in me a faint sensation of nausea – still I cannot enter one without being overcome momentarily by a feeling of profound gloom” (#437). He left one of these museums, “this cathedral of untruth, with a strange knot in my stomach. The idea that Hoxha should have gone to his grave triumphant filled me with rage. I felt I should have screamed ‘Lies, lies, lies!’ and trampled on the red carpet leading to his statue, just to let everyone know that I, at any rate, did not acquiesce in this elevation of mendacity to the status of religion” (#556).
Following his trip to Albania Dalrymple joined a British delegation attending the World Festival of Youth and Students in Pyongyang, North Korea, where “thousands of young people” assembled “to dance, sing and denounce the United States. The festivals, which last two weeks, are the Olympics of propaganda” (#914). Other than himself the delegation consisted of English socialists, most of whom identified with various victimized groups and effusively aired their grievances. They’d locked into an identity “that obviated the need for consideration of others. Persecution, real or imagined, was sufficient warrant for the rightness of their behaviour. The trouble was, of course, that the majority of the delegates considered themselves persecuted, whether as women, members of splinter communist parties, vegetarians, homosexuals, Irish by descent, proletarians, immigrants, or any combination of these. Hence almost everyone acted more-persecuted-than-thou” (#939). Needless to say, Dalrymple found his companions difficult to stomach and often disgusting! But in Korea they suddenly became a “people of consequence,” rightly esteemed for their “manifest talents” (#957).
The delegates were allowed to see nothing but what the regime prescribed. Thus they could see modern highways without automobiles. They were marched through museums celebrating the Great Leader. But beneath the veneer of grandeur Dalrymple “rapidly became convinced – absolutely and unshakeably convinced – that one day stories would emerge from North Korea that would stun the world, of cruelties equal to or surpassing those of Kolyma and the White Sea Canal in Stalin’s time” (#1108). He was in fact face-to-face with one of the most inhumane nations ever established. In due time the delegates joined a great throng assembled in a stadium seating 150,000 to witness a parade of the representatives from the world’s nations. In one section of the stadium 20,000 Korean children with colored cards created a variety of portraits and slogans. The children, Dalrymple learned, had not attended school for six months in order to daily practicing these routines! Rather than being impressed Dalrymple was angered: “Here was a perfect demonstration of Man as a means and not an end; of people as tiny cogs in an all-embracing machine” (#1308).
When at last Kim Il Sung (“the Great Leader”) appeared “a kind of controlled pandemonium broke out instantaneously all around the stadium” (#1355). Since only 15,000 of the attendees were foreigners, the stadium was basically packed with Koreans following orders, and Dalrymple “recalled a passage from Vaclav Havel: ‘Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialisation of his or her inherent humanity . . . In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself’” (#1318). At that moment Dalrymple determined to stay singularly seated, “even if I were to be threatened with torture or death itself. I was so appalled by the sight and sound of 200,000 men and women worshipping a fellow mortal, totally abdicating their humanity, that I do not think I am exaggerating when I say I should rather have died than assent to this monstrous evil by standing (my mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany)” (#1361). Clearly he had “glimpsed the terror that underscores the tombstone orderliness of North Korea” (#1503). And he could hardly wait to escape the prison of Kim Il Sung’s Democratic Republic of North Korea.
Subsequently Dalrymple visited Romania, Vietnam, and Cuba. Inevitably he found the same physical drabness and societal decay characteristic of socialist nations. Once “magnificent” cities, such as Bucharest or Havana, “the pearl of centuries of exploitation, is an inhabited ruin; the inhabitants are like a wandering tribe that has found the deserted metropolis of a but dead civilisation and decided to make it home” (#3270). Shortages of virtually everything weighed down the people. Totalitarians inevitably impose shortages, for the “perpetual queuing for the bare necessities of life is the best guarantee against subversion” (#3414). People were depressed. Whenever he could talk privately with persons who knew they would not be reported to the authorities, he found deep dissatisfaction with anything socialistic. He asked a Vietnamese man whether he thought Ho Chi Minh had deceived the people—and received an emphatic “Yes!” The incessant state propaganda, the omnipresent quotations promoting either the Great Leader or his agenda, he came to see, was not designed to persuade but to humiliate. “From this point of view, propaganda should not approximate to the truth as closely as possible: on the contrary, it should do as much violence to it as possible. For by endlessly asserting what is patently untrue, by making such untruth ubiquitous and unavoidable, and finally by insisting that everyone publicly acquiesce in it, the regime displays its power and reduces individuals to nullities” (#2041). So too history must be destroyed. “To put an end to the past: to begin again, the dream of adolescent revolutionaries everywhere” (#3990). George “Orwell grasped intuitively but with astonishing precision the importance to a totalitarian regime of control over the past” (#2047). So whether reporting the news or writing history, truth is irrelevant, for it “does not depend on correspondence to reality; it depends merely on who propounds it, and when” (#2093).
In the book’s “Afterword,” Dalrymple scoffs at the utopian fantasies of socialists everywhere. In fact: “It was never a utopia, of course. The extraordinary deadness of communist countries, detectable even at their airports, is simply the deadness of communist prose transferred to life itself. The schemes of communist dictators to reform the whole of humanity, to eradicate all vestiges of the past, to build a new world with no connection to the old, are not the whims of despots made mad by the exercise of arbitrary power, but the natural outcome of too credulous a belief in a philosophy which is simple, arrogant, vituperative and wrong. When men reach power who believe that freedom is the recognition of necessity, is it any surprise that tyranny ensues?” (#4077).