Gallup made news a few days ago in announcing a poll that found that 43% of Americans believe some form of socialism would be a good thing for the country. By contrast, 51% of Americans said that socialism would be a bad thing for the country. The last time Gallup polled this question was in 1942, when 40% said socialism was bad, 25% said socialism was good, and 35% had no opinion. So those who oppose socialism still outnumber those who favor it, but the gap has been cut in half over the past 77 years.
In a poll last year, Gallup found that younger adults, the 18 to 29-year-olds, view socialism more positively than capitalism, by a 51% to 45% margin.
Is socialism something anyone should view favorably, young or old?
A Note on Terminology
The Gallup poll is not as alarming as it could be because terms are seldom defined in such polls, and most people have a fuzzy, imprecise idea of what “socialism” means. For many, “socialism” is just big government, or welfare, or old-age pension programs like social security or Medicare.
For purposes of this article, I use the term socialism as it is defined in Webster’s Dictionary: “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods” or “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.” The gist of socialism is a centrally planned economy in which all businesses are owned or effectively controlled by the government.
Per that definition, socialism is an umbrella term that includes Marxism and communism in all its varieties, including Bolshevism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc. Colloquially, “socialism” implies a democratic or non-revolutionary mode of imposing collective ownership, as distinguished from communism, which is explicitly revolutionary. But, strictly speaking, the term “socialism” includes all modes of imposing common ownership of the means of production.
Big government is not socialism, if the means of production are in private hands and the free market system of setting wages and prices for goods and services prevails. It is true that many Americans have used the term socialism pejoratively to bash some government program they don’t like, or to describe government that is bigger and taxes that are higher than they prefer. But that is exaggeration for the sake of argument.
Almost without fail, people—both those opposed and those in favor of socialism—advert to the Scandinavian countries as examples of socialism. But they are not socialist countries. Four years ago, in response to Bernie Sanders’ claim that the Scandinavian countries are socialist, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen told students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government:
“Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy. The Nordic model is an expanded welfare state which provides a high level of security for its citizens, but it is also a successful market economy with much freedom to pursue your dreams and live your life as you wish.”
Sweden is home to famous companies such as furniture giant Ikea, car and truck-makers Volvo and Scania, cell-phone maker Ericsson, appliance giant Electrolux, H&M clothing, tool-maker Atlas Copco, tech firms Spotify and iZettle, etc. Denmark is the home of transport, logistics and energy conglomerate Maersk—a name you will have seen on cargo ships, trains, and big rig trailers. Finland is home to telecommunications giant Nokia. The Nordic countries do capitalism well.
So, in responding to this article, please do not refer to the Scandinavian countries as examples of “socialism.” They are market economies with private ownership of the means of production. They have big government, high taxes—far higher than I would want to pay—and generous public benefits, but they are capitalist countries, as we are in the United States.
Thesis of this Article
The thesis of this article is that socialism is not just a misguided political ideology, but a sin. To advocate for collective ownership of the means of production is an intellectual sin, for three reasons.
First, it is an ideology based upon covetousness and theft, and therefore violates two of the Ten Commandments. A common definition of sin is breaking one of the Ten Commandments, and socialism breaks two of them.
Second, socialism is steeped in utopianism, which is the belief that human society can be perfected. Socialism posits that society’s problems are the result of private ownership of business and industry, and could be solved by replacing private ownership with public or common ownership. In contrast, Bible Christianity teaches that society’s problems are the result of Adam’s Fall and the resulting sinful condition of the world. Christians believe that societal perfection will come only when Jesus returns to the earth, puts an end to sin, and makes a new world.
Finally, wherever it is implemented, socialism harms people, severely and in large numbers, leading to want, poverty, starvation, and ultimately mass death. One can no more advocate socialism without moral guilt than one can push a person off a ten-story building without guilt. The laws of human action that cause socialism to end in disaster are as ineluctable as the law of gravity that causes a man to fall to his death from a great height.
Theft and Covetousness
“Sin is the transgression of the law.” 1 John 3:4, Rom. 4:15; 5:13. Within the moral law written by God’s own finger we find the commandment, “thou shalt not steal.” Socialism demands that property that is used to make consumer goods be stolen from private owners and given to the state or the collective. Theft is at the core of socialism.
Socialists often justify the theft of capital goods on the basis that, if you search far enough back into the chain of title, all private property was stolen or appropriated by force, and is nothing but legalized theft anyway. A typical socialist would say something like this:
All ownership arises from occupation and violence. When we consider the natural components of goods, apart from the labor components they contain, and when we follow the legal title back, we must necessarily arrive at a point where this title originated from the appropriation of goods accessible to all. Even before that, we may encounter a forcible appropriation from a predecessor whose ownership we can in turn trace to earlier expropriation or robbery. All legal rights are nothing but time-honored illegality.
Thus, private property has no sanctity that socialists are bound to respect, especially when utopia can be achieved by seizing the property on behalf of the collective.
Even if all property arises from theft, God’s commandment is not contingent on the history or chain of title of a piece of property. The fact that someone stole it long ago does not give us an excuse to steal it. Christians are simply to obey the commandments. Whatever may have been stolen in the distant past, as far as Christians are concerned it ends now; we do not steal.
Another excuse that a socialist might make is that they do not wish to confiscate the capitalists’ property for reasons of personal gain, but rather to give it to the government or the collective. The motivation is not greed or filthy lucre, but to do a greater good for the whole society.
But the commandment “thou shalt not steal” does not have an exclusion for people who steal for ideological reasons. Neither the motivation for the theft nor what is subsequently done with the stolen property can legitimate a theft. Theft is sin, regardless whether you give the stolen property to the poor, to the collective, to the government, to the church, or dump it into the ocean.
The sanctity of private property (and of marriage) is reinforced by another commandment: “Thou shalt not covet.” “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Ex. 20:17 NIV.
To “covet” means to yearn to possess something. To bar the way toward theft and adultery, God has commanded that we not even desire or yearn for that which belongs to another. If we obey this commandment, and we do not allow ourselves to covet what belongs to someone else, it is highly unlikely that we will steal anything. The Tenth Commandment is a prohibition of the mental condition that precedes the physical act of theft or adultery.
Interestingly, the commandment lists property, an ox or a donkey, that we would think of as capital goods. Oxen were not a consumer item, not something to be eaten, but rather were used to pull a plow. They were used to produce food that would ultimately be consumed. In other words, oxen were capital goods, like a modern tractor. The commandment not to covet your neighbor’s property explicitly includes your neighbor’s capital goods and equipment.
Importantly, covetousness is not an overt action. Covetousness is a mental or intellectual transgression. This makes clear that there are intellectual sins. Promoting or giving assent to an evil ideology like socialism is one of those intellectual sins.
The Utopian Delusion
The Bible comes with its own cosmology, philosophy of history, and explanation for the human condition. Biblical Christianity holds that because it is Fallen and sinful, the world is neither perfect nor perfectible. Bible history states that God created Adam and Eve perfect and sinless, but at the prompting of that old serpent called the Devil and Satan (Rev. 12:9; 20:2), Adam sinned. As a result, the world came under the domination of this Adversary, whom Jesus referred to as “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and Paul calls “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4).
Though Fallen, the world is God’s creation, and His grace overrules much of what Satan would do to us. So there are still many lovely, wonderful, and beautiful things about our world. But ever since the Fall, sin has been in the world, and there is also much evil, including death, disease, pain, suffering, famine, crime, war, natural disasters, predation in nature, inequality, poverty, etc. These things will continue until Jesus comes and sets matters to right. The world is not now, nor will it ever be, perfectible on this side of the eschaton.
To believe otherwise is to embrace utopianism. Socialism is a species of utopianism which holds that if the means of production could be taken from private hands and given to the state, want, poverty, scarcity, war, economic inequality and much other human misery could be defeated. This belief is false and delusional, of course, but it is also unfaithful to the Christian worldview, which is another reason why socialism is an intellectual sin.
For many socialists, socialism becomes a religion that competes with Christianity, Islam and other traditional religious faiths. Socialists believe in common ownership of the means of production as a cure-all in the same way that you and I think of Jesus as the ultimate answer. Most varieties of socialism recognize that traditional religion constitutes a competing worldview, and are explicitly atheistic and hostile to it.
Karl Marx famously wrote that “Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes"—the opiate of the people. He believed that the consolation of religion had to be taken away from the masses before they would commit to revolution and class warfare. Hence, socialist regimes almost invariably persecute Christianity and other traditional religions. The socialist ideologue will tolerate no competing faiths.
The fanaticism of utopian socialism leads inexorably toward an ethic of “the end justifies the means.” This is the most dangerous aspect of utopian socialism. The utopian can and does justify anything—any crime, any enormity—in pursuit of utopia. If he must lie, cheat, steal, and murder to help usher in utopia, he reckons he should do so, because what he believes will be achieved in the end justifies any crime. This attitude has manifested itself in countless atrocities throughout the history of socialism, and still characterizes Leftist thinking today.
Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter who sympathetically covered socialism in 1930s Russia (and minimized the socialists’ crimes), wrote:
"But – to put it brutally – you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, and the Bolshevist leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive toward socialization as any General during the World War who ordered a costly attack in order to show his superiors that he and his division possessed the proper soldierly spirit. In fact, the Bolsheviki are more indifferent because they are animated by fanatical conviction." The New York Times, March 31, 1933, p. 13.
This “break-some-eggs-to-make-an-omelet” attitude explains why so many socialist regimes have engaged in mass murder, including genocides, extrajudicial executions, deportations, exterminations in labor and POW camps, and artificially created famines. Even as Duranty was writing his stories, Stalin was engaged in killing on an unprecedented scale. The 20th century victims of socialism total around 100 million, most notably about twenty million in Stalin’s Russia and 65 million in Mao’s China.
That estimate of 100 million does not include Nazism’s victims in socialism’s tally, even though Hitler said he was a socialist, and the word “Nazi” is short for Nationalsozialist (“National Socialist”). Perhaps the cleverest trick of our socialist professoriate was to teach the last three generations of Americans that German “National Socialism” was not socialism. If you include the victims of Hitler’s National Socialism, the death toll from socialism rises to about 125 million.
The socialist’s “end-justifies-the-means” philosophy is in stark contrast to the Christian’s obedience to the Ten Commandments. Preliminarily, the Christian who obeys the first and second commandments will not allow a place in his heart for the idol of utopianism. His allegiance to the Creator God rules out the false god of ideology.
Second, Christians are bound to honor our parents, to not murder, to not commit adultery, to not steal, to not perjure ourselves, and to not covet our neighbor’s possessions. We are bound to use just and moral means, regardless of their utility in reaching a desired end. We are not at liberty to do lawless deeds because we think we will thereby achieve some greater good.
In a sense, Christian philosophy is almost the reverse of the “end justifies the means.” We believe in a moral and lawful process, but if the process is righteous, justice will likely result. If everyone tried to live by the Ten Commandments—without regard to some preferred ideological outcome—society would be far closer to utopia than anything that could be achieved through socialism.
The Reasons Why Socialism Always Fails
If we were living in the late 19th Century, and socialism had not been tried, those who advocate socialism could be excused for believing that the scheme might work. But it has now been 175 years since Marx formulated his ideology, and it has been implemented in countries large and small, first world and third world. The results are always the same: failure, impoverishment, immiseration. Socialism does not work.
Socialism will never work anywhere, because its past failures were not caused by bad luck, geography, or ethnicity. Socialism fails because it violates laws of human action, economic laws and principles, that explain why free enterprise in a market-based system works and enriches the entire society, while socialism does not work, but impoverishes the entire society. We will now briefly discuss some of these principles.
First and foremost, socialism has an incentive problem. Capitalism relies upon enlightened self-interest to encourage people to be productive, and to incentivize risk-taking and entrepreneurship. The founder of the science of economics, Adam Smith, wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1976):
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
People will work extremely hard and take great risks to meet their own economic needs and the needs of their families and descendants.
By contrast, socialism, having removed the profit motive, relies on altruism or universal love of humanity to incentivize productive behavior. But ever since Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden, altruism has not been nearly the motivator that self-interest is. Capitalism works because it recognizes the reality of the human condition and operates within that constraint. (If you are an atheist and do not subscribe to the biblical world view, the Darwinian story also explains why people work for themselves much more readily than they work for humanity in general: the struggle to survive and leave descendants—the “Selfish Gene”, as Richard Dawkins calls it.)
Capitalism does have a role for altruism, but it is manifested not during the wealth-creation process, but rather after the wealth is created, as many successful entrepreneurs give away large chunks of their fortunes to establish charitable trusts and foundations (Gates, Ford, Kellogg, etc.), universities (e.g., Stanford, Chicago, Rice, etc.), art museums (e.g., the Getty, the Guggenheim, etc.), libraries (e.g., the Carnegie libraries), literary and scientific prizes (e.g., the Nobel Prize), scholarships (e.g., Cecil Rhodes) and otherwise seek to better society with their wealth.
Second, socialism has a knowledge problem. To allow entrepreneurs to make economic calculations, capitalism relies upon market prices, which incorporate millions of data points about the supply and demand, and relative scarcity or abundance, of all economic resources. The knowledge incorporated in the price system is diffused among millions of people across the whole economy. With no system of market prices, a socialist central planner must attempt to engage in economic calculation without the benefit of this knowledge. For a discussion of why this is impossible, read the great economists—Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, etc.—or just watch this short video.
Third, socialism has a competition problem. The key driver of efficiency in a free market system is competition. Businesses must constantly strive to make their product better, cheaper, and more appealing to the consumer, because their competition is doing that, and they must keep up or else lose market share and eventually go bankrupt. In a socialist system, by contrast, every industry is a monopoly owned by the government, and there is no incentive for these bureaucrats to improve the quality of their product or lower the prices. (When socialist central planners, for political reasons, lower prices below what they would be in a market system, it increases the distortions of the socialist system, and leads inevitably to shortages and long lines or waiting periods for the good or service.)
Fourth, socialism has an innovation problem. In a free enterprise system, the best entrepreneurs anticipate far in advance what consumers will want, long before the consumer himself knows he will want it. For example, 15 years ago, no one wanted a smart phone with thousands of different applications. But Steve Jobs knew you would want it, and 12 years ago he introduced a product that few can bear to live without today. The most successful entrepreneurs must be innovators, and anticipate future market conditions, technology, and consumer wants.
A capitalist system also has intellectual property laws—patents, trademarks, copyrights—to allow inventors and creators to exclusively profit from their inventions and creations for a stated number of years. Historically, most socialist countries have not even recognized intellectual property.
Socialism Cannot Eradicate Inequality
Utopian socialists complain about inequality of wealth, but inequality is part of the human condition. Jesus said, "The poor you have always with you." (Mat. 26:11; Mark 14:7). Because people differ widely in ability, intelligence, motivation, ambition, native talent, skill, strength, health, etc., inequality can never be eradicated.
Since inequality is here to stay, the best solution is to establish a system in which the most motivated and able channel their energies and abilities into serving us by producing goods and services that we want and need. The free enterprise system does this. In capitalist societies, the wealthiest are those who have best anticipated the desires of consumers, and delivered goods and services that large numbers of people wanted, and were willing to purchase with their hard-earned money. Yes, the wealthy are extremely wealthy, but the masses fare much better than in a socialist system; their needs and wants are seen to more efficiently and more completely.
In socialist societies, there is also great inequality of wealth, but the wealthiest are not those who have met consumers’ needs but rather those who have excelled in politics, clawed their way to the top of the political pile and grasped the levers of force and coercion. The average person in Venezuela has lost over 20 pounds because there isn't enough food, but Nicholas Maduro lives on $1.8 million per day. Maria Gabriela Chavez, age 35 and the late president Hugo Chavez’s second-oldest daughter, helped herself to about $4 billion, which is now sitting in foreign bank accounts. Alejandro Andrade, a Chavista who was Venezuela’s treasury minister from 2007 to 2010, reportedly has $11.2 billion salted away in Swiss bank accounts. Socialism can quickly degenerate into a kleptocracy in which the politically connected loot the nation’s wealth
In the Soviet Union, a class of bureaucrats/communist party officials emerged called the Nomenklatura. This class had numerous special privileges, including better housing and food, first choice of the best of all goods and services, and country houses called Dachas. As George Orwell pointed out in “Animal Farm,” even in a system purportedly based upon leveling and intentionally trying to achieve equality, it turns out that, “some are more equal than others.”
Soon there is far worse than mere inequality. In most socialist countries, the wealthiest ultimately are those—such as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot—who excel in the dark arts of spying, surveillance, censorship, the police state, repression, imprisonment, and murder.
There is No Freedom in Socialism
Capitalism or free enterprise is based upon economic freedom—freedom of association, freedom of contract, voluntary transactions, freedom to choose. Socialism is based upon compulsion. The government decides what will be produced and consumed, and how much people will be paid for their work. The private sector, the sector of freedom, is greatly circumscribed and shrunken.
But freedom is of a piece, and there cannot be freedom of religion without a very large sphere of private property and economic freedom. There can be no separation of church and state in a socialist system, even if the commissars are of a tolerant mindset, which they usually are not. Private actors, such as a religious group, cannot decide to build a church and then carry out that plan, because the state or collective owns the land, the building materials, and the labor. Because the state controls everything necessary to build the church, the state will decide whether the church is built at all. Socialism allows no religious freedom, no separation of church and state, and the public manifestation of religious sentiment is entirely within the gift of the state.
We are all charged with knowledge of the law of gravity and its operation. You cannot push a person off a ten-story building and say, “Oh, I didn’t know he would fall.”
The laws of human action that cause socialism to end in disaster are as ineluctable as the law of gravity. You cannot advocate socialism for a society and then say, “Oh, I didn’t know this would end in the loss of freedom, misery, poverty, starvation, and mass death.”
I do not understand the law of gravity in mathematical terms; I could not write out the equations on a blackboard. But I understand that objects fall to the earth, and that this law is always in effect. Likewise, you may not be able to articulate in technical terms, like a Thomas Sowell or a Walter Williams, how the laws of human action explain why capitalism works and socialism fails. But you are charged with knowing that those laws work, and that they are always in effect.
Socialism is a great evil. To advocate for socialism is a sin and, at this point in human history, unfathomably depraved. You can be a socialist or a Christian, but not both.