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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Socialism’s French Labor Pains

Social justice’s labors are still-born.

In Poetic Justice for French Social Justice, I noted that France is experiencing the unavoidable and unpleasant consequences of socialism, which Alexis de Tocqueville had foreseen at the outset.  Equal distribution of income means equal poverty in a nation of self-centered and unproductive gripers.

Today’s edition of the Wall Street Journal carries an opinion page article that adds more details to the demands of French citizens that no one be permitted to work more than 35 hours a week.

Even to socialists, after two centuries of failure, it should gradually become clear that socialism and its catechism of social justice are fundamentally flawed.  The actual results are so easily observed and so easily understood that apparently they can’t engage “subtle and nuanced” minds of people like Senators John Kerry and Teddy Kennedy, or French president Jacques Chirac.  Intellectuals evidently require more abstract food for thought.

Start with socialism’s assumption that the objective of political society is to equalize distribution of goods and services, without regard to whether one has worked or not, i.e., the welfare state.  However enthusiastically the first generation of socialists may embrace the idealistic vision of social harmony and productivity theorized by egalitarianism, the joie de vivre evaporates quickly. 

After a few years, everyone becomes aware that he gets what planners decree to be his entitlements, no matter whether he works hard, works effectively, or doesn’t work at all.  One of socialism’s most basic postulates is: from each according to ability, to each according to need.  Regrettably, human nature is not so altruistic and even-handed.  Workers who at the outset give it an honest try, soon feel cheated when they see their fellows who dog-it on the job, or simply fake illness or disability. 

Phase two is when workers who did their best in the early days of socialism become disillusioned, embittered, and cynical.  New Yorkers call it street-smarts, playing the angles.  In the Soviet Union, industry was plagued with one of the world’s highest rates of alcoholism.  Sweden today has the most generous level of benefits for disability in the world, and, hardly surprisingly, the world’s highest rates of people on fully-paid permanent disability leave.

Phase three occurs when labor unions and other special-interest groups come to realize that, even if they want to do the right thing by taking no more than what they truly need, it does no good.  Under socialism, if you don’t take benefits the government offers, your self-restraint doesn’t help society, because some other group will just add your share to what they take.  Rapidly it becomes clear that anyone who doesn’t clamor for more benefits and less work is a fool.

Phase four then comes into effect.  As individuals and special-interest groups do less and less work, while demanding more benefits, the production of the economy begins to shrink, if not in absolute terms, at least relative to other economies.  Soon it becomes apparent that the equality of socialism is simply equal distribution of fewer and fewer goods and services each year.  Equality means simply equally poor, and poorer each year.

At the same time, with decreasing per capita production of useful goods and services, there is less and less savings with which to finance even replacement of worn-out production facilities, let alone savings to finance new and expanded production.  Technological innovation disappears or become a sometimes phenomenon, and young people begin to leave the socialistic nation to seek better lives elsewhere.  Sweden and other Scandinavian countries today suffer from the so-called “brain drain.”  Before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and put a boot into the backsides of Great Britain’s oppressive labor unions, Britain suffered the “English sickness” version of socialism, and rising numbers of experienced scientists and bright young people emigrating to the United States became a major political issue.

Finally, contrary to socialistic theory, no economy contains great amounts of unused productivity that greedy capitalists are deliberately holding back from the populace in order to extort higher prices.  The presumably superior intelligence of state planners proves to be less efficient than the mechanism of the free marketplace in dealing with the normal frictions of weather, labor and material shortages, and changes in consumer demand.  When dealing with tens of thousands, if not millions, of continually and simultaneously changing factors in a nation’s economy, the free market’s many thousands of individual minds, reacting quickly, on the spot, are demonstrably more effective than any centralized bureau of intellectual planners.

My favorite analogy is the computer world’s experience.  Until the 1980s, when desktop computers became a fairly widely distributed resource, businesses, governments, and other organizations relied upon large, centralized main-frame computers.  Getting your research project run on the computer was controlled by the DP gate-keepers.  If results of running your project weren’t as hoped, you might have to wait days or weeks for a schedule slot to run a revised program.  Bottom line: some good ideas never saw the light of day; those that did could require months instead of hours to test and revise; and what did see the light of day was censored by DP managers or others who were compelled, sometimes arbitrarily, to establish criteria for main-frame use time.

The main-frame-only world, of course, is the analogy for state planning.  The analogy, equally obviously, for the free marketplace is the widely distributed computer power of millions of desktop computers, where workers can test ideas, get immediate feed-back, and immediately revise their hypotheses.  From this has come an explosion of technologies beyond the horizon of the wildest dreams of central planners.

That concept is the great contribution to the Western world of the English and American heritage, where individualism and ownership of private property stood alone, against the monarchial collectivism of Continental Europe, a Europe where socialism found its natural environment, one in which the individual had meaning only to the extent that he was, like a brick in a wall, a passive factor in the Will of the National State.

It is no accident that, during the very period when France was embarking upon the illusory flight of socialism, England and the United States, characterized by individuality, entrepreneurship, and private property, rose to dominate the world economically , scientifically, and culturally.  France, during this same time, drifted slowly downward, enduring more than a dozen different constitutions, half a dozen different socialist republics, restoration of the monarchy, a couple of empires, and finally the military coup of General Charles DeGaulle.

If the socialists remain in the saddle and France remains a secular and morally relativistic nation, future French diplomats may be reduced to pleading with third world nations to increase their foreign aid to help impoverished French workers, without which France will not be able to survive.

Of course, France may never fall to that level of depravity.  Their Islamic buddies may take over and add the Caliphate of France to the Great Caliphate of Mohammed, where they can enjoy the equality of submission to sharia.