When Socialism Works – October 10, 2010

Like a lot of things, the problem with socialism is one of scale. The nuclear family is essentially socialist: everyone works and contributes as much as he or she can in his or her own way—some members by working outside the home to earn money, some inside to maintain the household, although children at the beginning can’t contribute much to either. Decisions are made eye to eye. Economic bonds are subsidiary to bonds of love and affection. Everybody eats and prospers as the family prospers.

You can extend this kind of trust and mutual benefit to the tribe or the clan. “He’s my father’s cousin, so of course we’ll stand beside him in hard times.” You can even, in times of great danger or adversity or situations of isolation, extend social ownership more broadly: to the kibbutz, the farming village, the feudal domain. But still, people have to know and trust each other. “Yes, he’s the village idiot, but he’s also Ma Johnson’s boy, so of course we’ll feed him.”

Socialism was the norm for 100,000 years of hunter-gatherer existence. In tribal groups that are suffering times of feast and famine, concepts of ownership and private property simply do not arise. The hunter who brings down a deer with the arrow he shot doesn’t say, “This is for my family to eat what we want. The rest of you go find your own.” The arrow maker who excels at straight, well-fletcher shafts—but may be a wretched archer—doesn’t say, “These arrows are mine. Only I will shoot them.” The tribe prospers when the best-made arrows are shot by the best bowman and everyone shares in the kill. The tribe listens to the wisest council in peace and to the fiercest fighters in war. It’s just the natural thing to do.

The feudal castle operated in much the same way, aside from the special perogatives of the noble lord, who had allegiances in the wider world, and the local priest, who served the world beyond. In everything else, the farmer raised grain and the vintner made wine, and they both traded their produce for shoes from the cobbler and cloth from the weaver. No Board of Trade was required to intervene.

This natural gravitation toward doing the right thing at the tribal and feudal level is probably what inspired Karl Marx to envision a stateless communist paradise. When everyone is doing the right thing, no masters, rulers, or commisars are required.

But the bonds of tribe and family and the sensible arrangements of the kibbutz and feudal castle break down when you try to extend this system. What works perfectly in small groups, fails completely at the state or national level. Decisions are no longer made eye to eye. Charity is stretched too thin. “Why should I send my grain and my tithe to Warsaw? Yes, they are Poles, and I’m a Pole—but I don’t know anyone there.” The incentive to work for the good of others doesn’t naturally extend to total strangers.

Statewide socialism also suffers from the problem of central planning. Most people can manager the economy of a family or tribe. Gifted managers can plan for a whole town or district. But to try to control the flow of goods and services across an entire country is beyond the genius of any one person or group. Needs go unrecognized or become politically disfavored. Intellectual shortcuts and bouts of magical thinking derail the optimum solution and put the toughest problems aside to be solved another day. Then people are forced to band themselves into simulated tribes—trade unions, local magistracies, ethnic associations, religious groups—and compete on their own for a share of the country’s wealth.

No one—except the political diehards who long ago fell in love with the vision of a stateless paradise—actually believes that if they give away all their arrows to the people beyond the river, they will get their share of deer meat in return. That’s an article of faith that no sane person signs up for.