I keep hearing that communism is a great idea, except that it doesn’t work in the real world. Ironically, I’m pretty sure that’s the very definition of a bad idea.
It’s a predictable slogan on college campuses, and increasingly in many churches: communism describes an ideal system that just happens to be impractical and impossible to implement (at this time, but that won’t stop someone from trying again soon).
Here’s what (I think) people mean by that. They assume that “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” would be the most virtuous possible organizing principle for a society. After all, isn’t that how it is, or should be, in a family? And what is society but the great human family? They assume (or assert) that this is what Jesus, or Buddha, or whichever religious leader they follow, really meant, that this was the core of their real message, which has been obscured over the centuries.
Unfortunately, they say, human nature is too flawed, too sinful, to live by this virtuous rule. Our greed keeps us from working for the greater good and for those less capable than ourselves. And so, say the college students and the sympathetic Christians, if capitalist societies have proven more prosperous and resilient than communist or socialist experiments, it is only because capitalism is an evil system that is more aligned with our own worst impulses. Some go so far as to say that communist experiments have only failed because they weren’t communistic enough, and that greedy interlopers and capitalist enemies sabotaged the purity of their experiment. They daydream about it being properly implemented by revolutionaries who would be smart and ruthless enough to stamp out the last vestigial artifacts of self-interest in the hearts of the masses.
There are so many things wrong with this line of argument that I can’t begin to address them here. But here’s one important point: leaders have a responsibility to propose solutions that work. Telling my employees that our business model is to lose a little bit on every sale but to make it up in volume is absurd. I don’t deserve to run the company. And condemning a nation to poverty, enslavement, and diminished opportunity because of a social theory that has never worked anytime or anywhere is not compassionate. At best it is malpractice, at worst it is opportunistic manipulation by the elite who will have the privilege of assigning the work and handing out the goodies.
Historically, there is no contest: the most successful social model has always been for wise and good people to be as free as possible. It organizes society by virtue and merit, calling upon and rewarding the best parts of our nature.
I hate it when people say, “Let’s have a national conversation about X.” They never really want a conversation. What they usually want is for everyone else to shut up, listen to, and agree with them. But if we are going to have a national conversation I suggest that we talk about how to unleash the creative and productive capacity of individuals by allowing them to be free. That means the freedom to fail, as well as to succeed. Unless we allow each other to grow up and take responsibility for ourselves, we will continue to devolve into a nation of adolescents.
© Greg Smith, 2013