The history of socialism is a history of destitution, destruction and death. So, why, then, is it still so attractive to some people?
---No rational study of human history can conclude that government has a role to play in our lives beyond its core functions: the protection of life, liberty and property; and the provision of infrastructure. Everything else is better handled by the private sector, in whatever form of association we find appropriate: for profit, not for profit, corporate, cooperative, confessional, secular...
When we can choose without government intervention, we can thrive without limit.
The record of government failure stretches far back in history, to the times of the Old Testament when the Israelites demanded a King with more powers than Judges had. The despotism that plagued Europe throughout the Middle Ages suppressed human potential; rare exceptions such as the decentralized government of the Vikings only reinforced the failure of more tightly controlled and oppressive regimes.
With the philosophical discovery of the individual, in the late Middle Ages, and the subsequent definition of the "art of government" during the Renaissance, Europe began its long journey from the Dark Ages into the modern era of freedom and prosperity. The separation of the individual from the state was followed by a complete redefinition of the relationship between the two: in the libertarian tradition that began with John Locke, government powers, not individual freedom, are enumerated.
The formulation of economic freedom emerged from the same tradition, with French King Louis XIV asking a group of merchants:
"What can We [Maiestatis Pluralis] do to help you thrive?"
The answer, succinctly:
Let us go about our business unregulated and unrestrained.
Capitalism emerged from the combination of regulatory absence, low taxes and strong property rights. One would have thought that the success of this socio-economic organization would have trumped any government-reliant alternatives. Not so: beginning in the early 19th century ideas of economic redistribution set root in scattered corners of an increasingly prosperous Europe. Early on the communities that endorsed the idea were not much more than eclectic experiments in collectivism (and in some instances moral depravity) but with the rapid growth of industrialized production in, primarily, England in the mid-19th century the differences between wealth and poverty grew sharper.
Karl Marx exploited the social conditions of industrialized England in order to formulate a destructive theoretical fantasy. However, it is important to also note that much of the first volume of Das Kapital was actually an almost anthropological tour of life in factories and working-class neighborhoods - and it was not a pretty picture he painted. While capitalism was feeding more people, and feeding them better, than any other socio-economic organization in history, it did not come without serious problems. It was easy to see the factories in 19th century England as mega-machines where labor was no more important an input than the textiles, metals and wood they made into clothes, tools and furniture.
That was, of course, not true. People migrated from the countryside to the cities not because they were forced to do so by some oppressive government, but because the wages that the furnaces, factories and shipyards paid were so much better than what you could make as a farm hand, or even a farmer. Nevertheless, the new economy did come with new problems, ones that capitalists in some cases were too slow to recognize. Recessions became more pronounced, with a higher concentration of unemployment in urban areas than in the countryside.
Despite the emergence of unemployment benefits - "insurance" in modern parlor - public understanding of the consequences of those new business cycles was limited, and the willingness to study them was limited. Karl Marx was among those who exploited that, proposing an "economic theory" that supposedly would save the working class at the expense of capitalism itself.
It was not until the early 20th century that Marxism became a platform for systematic policy. In its first iterations it rode on the backs of violent revolutions, destroying freedom and prosperity with one swift stroke. After the Soviet Union had begun bringing socialism into disrepute, some of Marx's disciples outside the Stalinist empire formulated a "democratic" version of socialism.
We know it as the welfare state. Like its openly undemocratic twin, "democratic" socialism has also failed miserably. Its failure has been slower and more convoluted, but it is nevertheless there for everyone to see.
The early socialists deserve credit for one accomplishment, namely having raised social awareness among capitalists. However, their solution - government coercion - has caused more far problems than it has solved. Non-socialist alternatives have not been given enough credit over the years.
That said, given the depressing track record of socialism over the past century, why are people still attracted to it?
This question was put on its edge recently when Panera Bread decided to close its Panera Cares program. It consisted of a number of restaurants where people were allowed to pay whatever they wanted, for whatever food and drinks they desired. Panera Cares was created as a microeconomic experiment to show that socialism actually works, ostensibly with the idea that richer customers would pay more in an effort to redistribute their money to those who had less.
In reality, the predictable happened. Said Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich:
I can literally remember a couple of kids - local kids walked into our store in Clayton, Mo. And they walked up to the counter kind of laughing. And they said, I'll have three smoothies and a two roast beef sandwiches. And here's my dad's credit card. Put three bucks on it. I just wanted to jump over that counter to grab the kid around the neck and whack him. And I just wanted to say, don't you get it - right? - somebody else has got to pay.
In this short paragraph, Ron Shaich captures the entire problem with socialism. There are no free lunches, literally or figuratively. Hopefully, Shaich has learned at least one lesson about socialism: it only works under coercion. Maybe, just maybe, this means he won't write another check for Democrats like Bernie Sanders.
But why, then, are people attracted by socialism?
Two reasons. The first is simple: a young person, typically a teenager, is looking for a purpose in life. To help those in need and those who are victims of some injustice - real or perceived - is a good way to find that purpose. The second reason is more cynical: a lot of intelligent people are fascinated by complex intellectual systems. We all know the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment of having solved a tricky crosswords or sudoku, not to mention winning a tough, long game of chess.
The affinity for complex systemic thinking sometimes spills over into politics. Marxist economics is a good example of a complex theory that it takes time to unravel. Since it is not founded in reality, but a purely metaphysical concoction, you cannot be guided into its inner workings by experience or empirical reference. This makes understanding it an even higher level of challenge - and the sensation of reward, once understood, is equally high.
People in academia are attracted to Marxism for this very reason; they would never admit as much, but it is a matter of fact that none of them have found a way to successfully implement Marxism in the real world. Yet once an intelligent person with a Ph.D. understands Marxism, he automatically assumes that his very understanding of it also means that it can be duly implemented in the form of public policy.
This is not a complete answer to why people are attracted to socialism, but it accounts for one big chunk, namely why there are so many socialists teaching at our colleges and universities. This also explains the intellectual waste products that so many academics produce in the form of "scholarly" papers and books that have no meaning in reality.
Most of all, though, it explains why socialists keep reproducing new generations of disciples. Libertarians and conservatives need to learn to fight back - or else the academic sophistry of today will be the real-world tyranny of tomorrow.