Disastrous utopia

Thomas Sowell

12/5/2002 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

Socialism is a wonderful idea. It is only as a reality that it has been disastrous. Among people of every race, color, and creed, all around the world, socialism has led to hunger in countries that used to have surplus food to export.

Its economic disasters have afflicted virtually every industry. In its Communist version, it killed far more innocent civilians in peacetime than Hitler killed in his death camps during World War II.

Nevertheless, for many of those who deal primarily in ideas, socialism remains an attractive idea -- in fact, seductive. Its every failure is explained away as due to the inadequacies of particular leaders.

Many of the intelligentsia remain convinced that if only there had been better leaders -- people like themselves, for example -- it would all have worked out fine, according to plan.

A remarkable new book makes the history of socialism come alive. Its title is " Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism". Its author, Joshua Muravchik, is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a leading think tank in Washington. It is hard to find a book on the history of socialism that is either readable or accurate, so it is especially remarkable to find one that is both. The story told in "Heaven on Earth" is so dramatic and compelling that the author finds no need to gild the lily with rhetoric or hype. It is a great read.

This history of socialism begins more than two centuries ago, at the time of the French Revolution, with the radical conspirator Babeuf, who wanted to carry the revolutionary ideas of the times even farther, to a communist society.

It ends with current British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who brought the Labour Party back to power by dropping the core of its socialist agenda and putting distance between himself and previous Labour Party governments, whose socialist policies had so backfired that the party lost four consecutive national elections.

In between, there are stories of small communal societies, such as that founded in the 19th century by Robert Owen, the man who coined the word "socialism," as well as stories of huge nations like China and the empire that was known as the Soviet Union.

In all these very different societies around the world, the story of socialism has been a story of high hopes and bitter disappointments. Attempts to redistribute wealth repeatedly led to the redistribution of poverty.

Attempts to free ordinary people from oppression repeatedly led to what Mikhail Gorbachev frankly called "servility" to new despots. How and why are spelled out with both facts and brilliant insights expressed in plain words.

Human nature has been at the heart of the failures of socialism to produce the results it sought, even when socialist leaders were idealists like Julius Nyerere in Tanzania or Pandit Nehru in India.

Nowhere have people been willing to work as well for the common good as they do for their own benefit. Perhaps in some other galaxy there are creatures who would, but the track record of socialism among human beings on earth shows that this is not the place.

Worst of all, the concentration of political power necessary to try to reduce economic inequalities has allowed tyrants like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot to impose their notions and caprices on millions of others -- draining them economically or slaughtering them en masse or exploiting them sexually.

Mao Zedong, for example, had harems of young girls -- and occasionally boys -- for his pleasure in various parts of China.

There is no point blaming the tragedies of socialism on the flaws or corruption of particular leaders. Any system which allows some people to exercise unbridled power over other people is an open invitation to abuse, whether that system is called slavery or socialism or something else.

Socialism has long sought to create a heaven on earth but an even older philosophy pointed out that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.