I once sailed with a very sage Dane who said two things about socialism that I have never forgotten: 1) “You know why communism ain’t never gonna work? I’ll tell you why communism ain’t never gonna work: because the smart always gonna steal from the dumb! That’s why communism ain’t never gonna work.” And 2) “If you took all the wealth of the world and divided it up equally among all the people in the world, in ten years the same people would have it all back again.”

I’m not sure I would have stated it exactly that way, but there is little doubt that he had the basics right. Of course there are exceptions to all rules. Socialism (or communism, the difference is euphemistic) can work when conditions are right. The basis of socialism is communal ownership. At the beginning of the socialist period, all property must be confiscated and then administered for the good of all. As you might guess, the incentive to excel is removed from all but the most altruistic. Whatever existed at the beginning of the period must suffice for the future for there will be very few innovations. If a free market society coexists with the socialist society, innovations in the free society can be copied and even improved upon if bright people are offered special treatment in exchange for copying and/or improving the innovation. When this is done, however, the socialist society ceases to be a truly socialist society because some members are offered better living conditions than others. If true socialism is maintained, the standard of living will deteriorate with the inevitable increase in population as more and more people share in a fixed amount of assets.

In order for socialism to work, you must have two conditions which do not exist in society as a whole. The first requirement is a willing population. Every member of the population must be willing to do his share without shirking. The second requirement is a stable population. You cannot have more and more people sharing fixed assets without eventual collapse. There are examples of successful socialist societies, but they all meet these two requirements. The Soviet Union was not a successful society. The Jamestown Colony was not a successful society until socialism was discarded. Cuba is not a successful society. A monastery is an example of a successful socialist society. Shaker villages (which were just protestant monasteries) were successful socialist societies. The Armed Forces are examples of successful socialist societies. The Panama Canal Zone was an example of a successful socialist society. All these examples have (or had) fairly stable populations of people who are (or were) there by choice. None of these societies had to deal with ever larger succeeding generations who didn’t really want to be there and had to be fed. Even these successful societies cannot claim to represent socialism in its purest sense, for in none of them are (or were) the members exactly equal. Canal Zone Government and Canal Company hierarchies were laden with officials whose salaries and houses were a little better than those of the lower sorts. The Armed Forces have a necessary hierarchy of officers and petty officers (or noncoms), each rank having its little privileges. Even in the Religious institutions someone must be in charge and, at the very least, attending to necessary internal and external administrative duties will provide a lifestyle that is a cut above that of those in the rank and file. In less successful societies the disparities are greater. In the Soviet Union it was a whole lot better to be a ballet dancer than a collective farmer; and in Cuba a party post is much preferred over the duties of a day laborer. As Orwell’s pig put it, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

In spite of socialism’s dismal record in the real world some people cling to the theories of Karl Marx, believing that a little bit of tweaking will produce Utopia at last. Mr. Marx gets a lot better press than Adam Smith. Somehow a system based on self interest just seems unworthy. It just seems nobler to keep trying to make Marxism work than to acknowledge that free markets do work, and work very well indeed.

Socialism is more than an economic system. It is a religion, and its adherents are driven by missionary fervor. They are undaunted by failure. They are certain that the reason their doctrine has not been wholeheartedly accepted is simply because they have not explained it well enough. When their teaching has been accepted, they are certain that the resulting economic collapse was not caused by any defect in the system, but only in the way that it was administered. Some socialists say that perhaps small businesses should be left alone except for taxing them enough to ensure that their owners do not become too rich and powerful. Perhaps large industries can be controlled by government regulation rather than managed directly by the government. The government can reap the benefit by levying heavy taxes. So long as the tax rate is less than 100% the industry will have some incentive to produce, innovate, and improve. The owners and employees of all enterprises can be taxed on their incomes and the money collected from all these taxes can be used to do good. This system is rampant in Europe and is the system from which the United States’ economy is constantly struggling to free itself. This particular brand of socialism has a name, but it is a name which gets little use because its proponents are ashamed of its historical connections. This system is fascism, known in Germany as National Socialism. Does this brand of socialism work? It certainly worked pretty well in Germany, and it seems to be working in western Europe today. The question, though, should not be whether or not the system will work, but whether or not it will outperform a free market system.

Singapore is probably as close to a free market system as one can find. From there it is a gradual shading through the list of nations to North Korea at the other end of the spectrum. Few would argue that Singapore is not doing better than North Korea, but what about the countries between them. Is Sweden doing better or worse than the U.S.? How about Germany and Italy? Which countries have more government control of economies and which are closer to a free market system? Some countries have free medical care. The trade off seems to be availability. Some countries have shorter working hours and longer periods of vacation. The trade off seems to be a lower standard of living, at least as measured by income and buying power. Some countries have very strict laws protecting workers. The trade off seems to be lower productivity with the inevitably resulting lower standard of living and a higher rate of unemployment. The way to measure the success of an economic system is to compare the annual growth (or shrinkage) of one country’s gross domestic product with that of another country over a period of several years. It is submitted that if you do that, you will find that the closer a nation comes to a free market economy, the better its growth rate, and the better the standard of living of its people.

Why then do some people cling to the disproven, but not discarded, theories of Karl Marx? It would probably be hard to find any Marxists in the Engineering, Business, or, today, even in the Economics schools of a major university. They are still on the campus though, lurking in the Sociology, Language, Journalism, and Communications faculties. And their students go forth to bombard me with their socialist opinions masquerading as news and entertainment.