This article appeared in Consent #19 (October 1993)


- Kenneth H. W. Hilborn

{A Freedom Party member, Professor Kenneth H.W. Hilborn teaches courses on totalitarianism and 20th Century international relations at the University of Western Ontario, London.}

War, famine, disease and socialism --- these frequently interrelated evils have been the deadly scourges of mankind in the 20th Century.

War, famine and disease had been with us since the beginning of recorded history, and indeed before. In this century medical science made important progress against disease, and improved communications made timely famine relief more feasible; but these gains were counterbalanced by the increased killing power of weapons used in warfare and by the appalling calamities inflicted on vast populations by socialist regimes.

Socialism (along with a related collectivist movement called fascism) was our century's unique contribution to human misery. Although it developed as a doctrine in the 19th Century, socialism as an operational economic and political system came into existence only after Lenin's seizure of power in the Russia of 1917.

Beginning with this act of violence and the Red Terror that Lenin quickly launched, the tragic socialist "experiment" claimed the lives of more than one hundred million people in countries as diverse as Cambodia, Cuba, Hungary and Ethiopia, but especially in the Soviet Union and mainland China. Far larger numbers were forced to live as prisoners behind guarded frontiers, enduring cruel repression and unnecessarily low standards of living.

Socialism is inherently incompatible with both prosperity and freedom. That is true because the principles of socialism collide head-on with the realities of normal human nature.

Given the freedom to do so, many people will seek to acquire private property and become richer than those around them. If the system prohibits them from pursuing that ambition, they will want to change the system. Thus, to preserve socialism, the rulers must stamp out political liberty. To condition people into giving up their desire for freedom and the right to own property, the ruling party must set out to reshape human nature --- an enterprise that leads inexorably to the pervasive control over society that we call "totalitarianism."

The socialist principle of state control over the economy not only rules out economic freedom but provides a powerful means of suppressing political freedom as well. Under capitalism, newspapers and other news media can be independent of government; but under strict socialism, they are owned collectively --- that is, by the state, the ruling party or perhaps the "workers," organized in a body that serves as a front for the state or party.

Even if granted an exemption from collective ownership, the media could not be independent in the way that they are in capitalist societies, because all sources of equipment, paper and advertising revenue would be in the hands of the regime. Secure freedom of the press depends on economic pluralism --- on the existence of numerous and diverse non-government enterprises, interested in selling their respective goods and services rather than in supporting the policies of those in power.

In the short run, state control over the economy strengthens a socialist regime politically. In the long run, however, the economic controls prove ruinous. Socialism destroys itself, but it takes a great deal with it.

Why is socialism inevitably self-destructive? By its very nature, a state bureaucracy stifles individual freedom and initiative, impeding technological innovation and therefore economic progress.

Innovation implies change --- the rise of new industries that often threaten old ones with the prospect of decline and eventual death. Think of what the introduction of transistors did to the manufacturers of those once-familiar vacuum tubes. Destruction of the old goes hand in hand with creation of the new.

Such changes shift wealth and power from one industry to another. In a capitalist system that happens spontaneously, through competition. In a socialist system it requires not only bureaucratic approval but bureaucratic initiative. Officialdom normally resists ideas for innovation; the bureaucrats responsible for an endangered industry defend their turf, and they probably enjoy more seniority and wield more authority than the would-be innovators. Obviously, if an industry is in its infancy or not yet born, no bureaucratic empire can yet exist to advance its interests.

Facing no competition, the entrenched bureaucrats in charge of established industries have no incentive to try anything new. Innovation is risky, and if a bureaucrat committed resources to a project that failed, his career would suffer. If the project succeeded, a superior would probably step in to claim the credit; certainly the official responsible would not be allowed to reap the personal profit that capitalist entrepreneurs can hope for as a reward for the risks they take in business.

If a bureaucrat is tempted to take risks at all, he will choose those that do offer him financial reward; he will accept bribes. A controlled economy leads easily to a corrupt society; the more extensive the controls, the greater the human urge (and need) to evade them, and thus the greater the opportunity for well-placed officials to enrich themselves illegally. Bribery makes possible an underground "second economy" --- an economy in which free-market practices prevail, and which can therefore meet needs neglected by state planners. Such a "second economy," along with the associated corruption, became long ago a major feature of life in the Soviet Union.

So far I have said nothing about "democratic socialism." and for a very good reason. No such thing has ever really existed; it is a contradiction in terms. People called "democratic socialists" (like Canada's New Democrats) have managed to remain democratic only by being much less than fully socialist.

Any reduction in state ownership reinforces freedom and allows private enterprise a wider scope. Conversely, any increase in state ownership is a step in a dangerous direction. But even when they achieved temporary power over a nation, as they did in Britain at the end of World War II, "democratic socialists" never extended state ownership sufficiently to put basic political freedoms in imminent jeopardy.

State ownership, along with centralized economic planning, is now so thoroughly discredited that most "democratic socialists" no longer display any enthusiasm for it. But the collapse of the socialist dream has not put an end to anti-capitalist emotions, which remain virulent and dangerous.

In statements reflecting knowledge that the rational side of his mind thrusts upon him, Premier Bob Rae has publicly conceded the virtues of markets and entrepreneurship. On the other hand, his emotional distaste for capitalism has led him to criticize the quest for individual financial gain in which entrepreneurs engage. He has complained about the wealth and power of capitalism's "unelected elite," though in fact everybody trying to survive in a competitive marketplace is constantly facing "election" by consumers free to take their business elsewhere.

Socialism of the sort attempted in the Soviet Union and other Communist-ruled states purported to offer a constructive alternative to the capitalist system. By contrast, the anti-capitalism of the New Democrats has no alternative to offer. Using such weapons as "employment equity" schemes and other manifestations of "big government" (meaning excessive state intervention in society), high taxes, and labour legislation biased in favour of unions, politicians like Bob Rae inflict damage on our capitalist economy without even attempting to replace it. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what that means for Ontario's (and therefore Canada's) global competitiveness, on which the people's standard of living ultimately depends.

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