By Jeff Olson
Over the past several years, the subject of socialism has increasingly gained more exposure in the news, social media, and likely at the coffee shops, dinner tables and town squares throughout America. Ever since the arrival of Bernie Sanders on the political scene, socialism has enjoyed a resurgence in the American lexicon and in the public square of moral and political discourse.
More recently, we are seeing many others jumping on the socialism band wagon, some of whom are running for political office. Not since the days of the Cold War have we seen such attention and credibility being given to a political and economic system which has never endured and never will.
This is unfolding at an alarming rate in this election year, as we are witnessing both stealth and bold promotion of a highly-flawed and failed ideology which has historically contributed to the rise of totalitarian regimes and left most of its host nations on the ash heap of history.
This movement in America hasn’t happened overnight. Since the mid-19th century, there has been an ongoing and systematic secularization of our nation, primarily through the infiltration of our educational system. This accelerated in the first half of the 20th century and has been spreading like a cancer ever since
It has purged our nation’s Christian origin and history from the classroom and culture, indoctrinating our young people, and discrediting the foundation it provided for a moral order and economic system which has been the most enduring and successful of any nation in world history.
However, as I’ve noted often in this column: We much too often learn from history that we do not learn from history.
Four hundred years ago, religious separatists we know as the Pilgrims were struggling to work out legal arrangements to sail to the New World and begin a new life.
Contrary to the Pilgrims’ wishes, their initial ownership arrangement was communal property. This, the investors thought, would ensure a more assured return from their investment. In putting up the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money, and combined with the big losses in Jamestown, investors in London were very hesitant to take on any more risks.
Terms were agreed upon reluctantly by the Pilgrims, stipulating that at the end of seven years everything would be divided equally between investors and colonists. This arrangement however would provide at best minimal incentive for the colonists to succeed on their plantation, but they went along because of little choice. The Mayflower arrived hundreds of miles north of their planned destination (Virginia) at Cape Cod in November 1620 with 101 people on board. About half of them died within the first few months, probably of scurvy, pneumonia, or malnutrition.
By the spring of 1623, having tried what Governor Bradford called the “common course and condition”—the communal stewardship of the land required of them by their investors— the Plymouth Plantation was afflicted by an unwillingness to work, confusion and discontent, a loss of mutual respect, and a prevailing sense of slavery and injustice. The experiment was a failure and it was endangering the health and the future of the colony.
While some contemporary historians would opine that the root of the problem was exploitative capitalism, this was clearly not the case. Bradford made it clear that common ownership demoralized the community much more than the high tax.
It was not Pilgrims laboring for investors that caused so much discord but Pilgrims laboring for other Pilgrims – and at times for the Indians. The industrious were forced to subsidize the lazy and the strong had no more in food and clothing than the weak.
The older men thought it disrespectful to be “equalized in labours” with the younger men. Bradford observed that this system bred “confusion and discontent” and “retarded much employment that would have been to [the settlers’] benefit and comfort.”
With the colony on the verge of extermination, the leaders changed course and allotted a parcel of land to each settler, hoping the private ownership of farmland would encourage self-sufficiency and lead to the cultivation of more food. This brought “very good success.”
The colonists immediately became responsible for their own actions, not for the actions of the whole community. Knowing that the fruits of his labor and additional efforts would benefit his own family and dependents, the head of each household was given an incentive to work harder.
In short, the division of property established a connection and proportion between act and consequence. As Bradford surmised, “God in his wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”
This episode of early American History was invaluable not only for our forefathers but even more so for America today, especially given that much of the current political and cultural climate is favorable toward socialism.
However, there has also been considerable pushback, claiming socialism’s evils, flaws and failures of which there are no shortage. Yet, I’ve heard and read little if anything about its worst evil, it’s greatest casualty – a psychological change, an alteration in the character of people which occurs when they gradually but willingly yield their freedom to the comfortable servitude of a welfare state.
In the words of Friedrich Hayek, this almost imperceptible increase of control eventually “hinders, compromises, extinguishes, debilitates, dazes, and eventually reduces a nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd”, where men prefer equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.
In supplanting traditional intermediate social and cultural institutions, socialism substitutes government for God by replacing our inherent equality before God and under the law with an imposed equality of condition under the name of man-made social justice.
The darkest evil of socialism is not in its calculable material inefficiency, but in its incalculable damage to the soul.
Hayek understood the inherent and irreducible complexity of human nature with its God-given capacity and need for the freedom to make choices. According to Eric Voegelin, these choices – economic and otherwise – arise from the fullness of our humanity, from man’s “participation in the world with his body, soul, intellect, and spirit.”
This is the genuine, natural foundation that must be preserved and safeguarded from the abstract, theoretical, and artificial schemes of socialism (including its surrogates within modern American liberalism) which center around top-down collectivism, centralization, control and dehumanization in its war on tradition, virtue, and the primacy of the family.
The fundamental question in economics, and all of life for that matter, is not so much how we buy and sell but first and foremost who we are as human beings in relation to God and whether or not we will have the freedom to fully explore, discover, and express that identity which
He designed and created in each one of us. Our soul, and that of our nation, are at stake as we answer that question in our prayer closet, in our daily lives, within our communities, and at the ballot box.