Thursday, November 29, 2012

The moral basis of socialism

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.

If you do not know where that comes from, it is in the Bible, Exodus Chapter 20. Moses has led the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. God has given the people a short set of laws, the Ten Commandments. The passage quoted above is one of the ten.

Of course this law and the rest are bedrock values of Judaism. Christianity, too, has recognized the high moral value and divinely practical tone of the Ten Commandments. The laws of God via Moses, as transmitted through Christianity, have been profoundly influential in shaping the ways Western culture has looked at things.

Not coveting anything your neighbor has would seem to rule out the basis of 'redistributive social justice,' aka socialism. While both Christianity and socialism aim to help the poor, there is a fundamental difference. Christian charity is voluntary and inspired by love, or at least a sense of neighborly concern. Socialist redistribution is coerced. It uses the force of law and the might of the state to take from one and give to another. That is a big difference. Socialism, if it were not coerced, would cease to be socialism; it would then be indistinguishable from charity.

If one objects that people's charity is insufficient, they don't give enough, saying therefore that coercion is needed and the government is to decide how much everyone gives and to whom, it raises several difficult moral questions.

  • Politicians, who are only human, will tend to give the proceeds to those who vote for them. Another way of saying it is that they will buy votes. 
  • The 'moral hazard' of spending other people's money is ever present. Waste and fraud in the use of public money are well documented. People spending their own money, in what they perceive to be a high cause or a holy purpose, are more careful.
  • If you think your neighbors are not giving enough and must give more, would it not be a good time to lead by example and give away more of your own, voluntarily? Would it not be good to get up a drive, pass the hat, ring a bell beside a bucket or mail out circulars asking for donations?
The idea that the poor should trust in God and the mercy of their neighbors is anathema to certain people on the left, who openly say that faith in God is an obsolete superstition and only mankind can better the lot of man. With a stance like that, of course they are not going to believe that the collection plate is the answer and socialism is not. 

The trouble is that socialism is no answer. It always fails because it always must. Consider the contrast: Charity is initiated by the generous. Socialism is demanded by the covetous. After all, the usual line of argument in favor of socialism is that it is very wrong and unfair that some have a lot and some have only a little. Make it more fair: Give me yours or else. How can we hear, in such declarations, anything but the belief that what is their neighbor's should be theirs instead? Even if you know little of God's laws, and care less, there is an entirely down-to-earth and practical difference between charity and socialism. Generosity has its limits. Does covetousness?

Why does socialism fail? The vigor of the economy is lessened as people become, increasingly, takers rather than  givers. There is at first a seemingly endless supply of more and more that can be demanded from your neighbor. That illusion is sooner or later dispelled. 

Thomas Peterffy, in the clip below, makes a very cogent point. "Yes, in socialism the rich will be poorer. But the poor will also be poorer." He saw it happen in the country where he was born and he remains soured on the whole idea. Perhaps that is the way it has to work. The most committed anti-socialists are always those who have seen what socialism leads to, lived through the grief it causes.

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