My Evite event pick notice came the same day as the event, so I was not able to change my schedule to get down to the University of Texas’ McCombs Center. Still the event sounded intriguing. It was a talk by SMU economist Robert Lawson titled “Socialism Sucks.” Of course, anyone with a brain knows that socialism sucks, so what made this event so intriguing? The event announcement noted that Prof. Lawson (described as an irreverent but honest economist) was the co-author of a book titled, “Socialism Sucks, Two economists drink their way through the unfree world.” My curiosity got the better of me and I ordered the book from Amazon.
Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell (Bob and Ben as they refer to themselves) come off as two pretty regular guys except that they are both economics professors and live in the world of academia (where libertarian academics are as rare as hen’s teeth). They traveled to Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Russia and the Ukraine as well as Georgia to investigate how socialism had affected those countries. They couldn’t actually get into North Korea so they had to be content to observe from a Chinese hotel on the other side of the Yalu River and were limited to interviewing North Korean workers in China who were petrified to be seen with foreigners. And they could only sneak across the border into Venezuela for a few hours from the Colombian town of Cucuta.
Despite these limitations they were able to gain some insight into how life was inside socialist (and formerly socialist) countries. Generally, the beer was bad and the hotel rooms were worse. In Venezuela there was no beer because the only remaining brewery could not get the dollars needed to import barley (a worst-case scenario – chaos, tropical heat and no beer). There were only two kinds of beer in Cuba available to the general populace (you could probably get more varieties in the tourist hotels run by the Cuban military to generate the dollars needed to buy weapons). They said that, “The state-owned hotels in Cuba suck, but they don’t suck because Cuba is poor. They suck because no one cares.” Service was awful.
North Korea is a poverty stricken socialist country stuck between two prosperous capitalist countries. Bob and Ben could not directly compare the difference between prosperous South Korea and the desperate North because of the demilitarized zone that separated the two countries with a no-man’s land. But from their high-rise hotel in the Chinese city of Dandong they could look over into the North Korean city of Sinuiju, except at night when Sinuiju was completely dark. In the daylight, they could see the shabby, run-down factories and warehouses and, up-river, dilapidated apartment buildings where the people lived.
The fact that these socialist countries are desperately poor was no surprise to me (and shouldn’t be to you if you have been following my commentaries). The lack of incentives to improve and the inability to own property or accumulate capital guarantees a lack of economic growth. Deng Xiaoping realized this when he abandoned pure communism in China in favor of a form of state capitalism, deviously described as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Deng realized that China could become rich and powerful as a capitalist country or remain poor and weak as a communist country. He chose rich and powerful.
Bernie Sanders along with many socialist academics believe these countries to be exceptions and explain their failures on poor leadership (Venezuela) or American interference (Cuba). However, the socialism apologists apparently have no explanation for what’s happening in North Korea. Nor can they explain why China’s capitalist conversion has produced such wealth that they have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty (as compared to Mao Zedong who killed almost as many).
Bob and Ben also visited the formerly socialist republics of the USSR - Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. They described these countries as suffering from a commie hangover (maintaining their alcohol infused theme). It is hard to develop a free market economy if you were taught as a kid that making a profit is morally wrong. Russia and Ukraine are still suffering, although the outlook for Georgia is a bit brighter (as long as the Russians don’t invade again).
But Bob and Ben also wrote about infiltrating a socialism conference here in the USA that I thought particularly relevant given the current leftward tilt of the Democratic candidates for president. The conference speakers and the break-out groups were generally nonsense. But Bob and Ben’s real purpose for attending was to chat up attendees after the conference meetings (usually over beers) in order to understand their views of socialism. Seventy percent of millennials (as well as 64% of Gen Z) say that they would vote for a socialist (according to a YouGov poll). Why is that?
What Bob and Ben found out is that most of the conferees they spoke with had no idea what socialism was. They didn’t know what the “means of production” were, let alone what “state control of the means of production” meant or what that might imply for their future. Then why were they at a socialism conference? A look at a partial list of the conference sessions might explain a bit.
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Gen Z and Millennials conflate progressive social justice goals with socialist economic goals. Abortion, racism, homophobia and gender identity have nothing to do with socialism. These young progressives want to give the government greater power to enforce their social justice agenda, so it makes sense that if the government needs greater power then it should have power over the economy as well. But if government power over the economy is such a disaster (as clearly shown by Bob and Ben), then what do they think the government is going to accomplish regarding their social justice demands?
The social justice rights, written down in the constitutions of almost all socialist countries (including North Korea), remain nothing more than that – words on a page. Socialist governments don’t respect the civil rights of anybody, let alone those of the LGBTQ community. The Soviet Union was an ecological disaster. And China was, too, except they are getting better now that they are more capitalist.
The truth of the matter is that socialist countries generate so little surplus that they lack the resources to deliver on their social justice promises and the paucity of economic growth means that they never will. Meanwhile, capitalist countries generate vast amounts of surplus that, while unevenly distributed, means that most people have all the necessities that social justice implies.
Okay. I admit it. I was duped. I fell for it. Back in 2008 after the Democratic Convention, presidential candidate Barack Obama shifted his campaign rhetoric toward the middle of the political spectrum. I fell for it and voted for him. After the election, he swung back to his left-wing roots. Much to my chagrin. But I don’t think I was alone. In the next off-year election the Democrats lost seven Senate seats and 64 seats (and control) in the House of Representatives, as voters wised up and rejected the leftward lean by voting in conservatives.
Politicians often hide their true motives when running for office. Their campaign speeches and policy positions are defined by polling data, not conscience. They say what they have to, make any promise they can invent, in order to get into office. Only then can they work on their own agenda. The only elected official I can think of that truly seems to act on his campaign promises is President Trump, although he is roundly castigated for trying to do so.
The current crop of presidential candidates have come up with a slew of campaign promises of all the stuff that more government can give you – for free! Free healthcare! Free college! Free abortions on demand! And universal basic income with no work requirement. And they are also promising changes in government that will cement their hold on the reins of power if they win, like packing the Supreme Court and eliminating the Electoral College.
But after the 2020 convention, the eventual candidate will swing toward the center and, draped in American flags, will try and convince the independent voters in the middle (having discarded any hope for the “deplorables” that will vote for President Trump no matter what) that he (or she) is not a radical commie but just a homespun pragmatist. But I won’t be duped again. And neither should you.
But wait a minute, you might say. Bernie Sanders has been a democratic socialist all along. He is genuine and consistent. I think he has you all fooled. His current spate of radical policy positions actually represents a shift to the center. And given his praise for Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega, I think we can strike the “democratic” from his political position. He just a plain old socialist. And, unlike many of his fervent (but naïve) supporters, he understands full well what it will take to implement his programs. He differs from his highly praised socialist dictators only in his methodology, not the goal. I think his idealistic but economically uninformed young supporters would be shocked at their ultimate fate, if ever he was able to win.
The other candidates have also been adjusting their positions. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has moved to the center to create some space between him and Sanders and Warren. Senator Amy Klobuchar has moved to the left in order to not be totally rejected in the highly partisan primaries. No one knows what Mike Bloomberg’s true positions are. All we know is that he is spending as much money as he thinks it will take to get him the nomination. And what desperate measures and outrageous policies will Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden put forth to save their candidacies?
Bernie’s fervent followers may have been duped into believing his phantasmagorical depiction of socialism. But Democrats better hope the voting public will reject him this primary season, because President Trump and the Republicans are chomping at the bit to take him on.