November 17, 2017
“This item first appeared at 52 Weeks in Slovakia on November 15, 2017.”
It can be hard to talk to many Western Europeans about politics. They have such comfort with socialism. Some – a solid portion of the people of Vienna would be one such example – almost seem to lament that their land was unable to spend the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s of the last century on the same side of the Iron Curtain as the Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, East Germans, and the many other cultures trapped under that oppressive rule. It’s a terrible chapter in history that some portion of Western Europeans don’t adequately recognize the horrors of. Therefore, those same people enjoy flirting with the fringes of such inhumane and anti-human ideas.
That period behind the Iron Curtain was a rough time to be an advocate for freedom and a rough time to be alive if you wanted to be more than a sheep in the midst of the herd. “The grass that never grew tall didn’t get mowed down,” has been said to me time and again in different variations by Slovaks and others who lived under totalitarian rule. Individual excellence was frowned upon because individual excellence made you a target. Go to work, be mediocre, help out an authority figure when asked, go home to live your life quietly and privately, follow the rules and everything would be okay. Do not stand out. No matter how good of a reason you thought you had for standing out, from the thinking of many at the time who lived under totalitarian rule – it was always sure to be bad to stand out. Conformity was key.
The communist governments of Central and Eastern Europe excelled at this undermining of the individual. The socialist governments of Western Europe are not as effective at this, but are still effective at undermining the will of the individual.
Much writing has been done on how modern society so encapsulates the individual, rendering the individual effete and individual decisions so inconsequential that life has so little feeling and even less meaning. I turn to the existentialist movement, the writers of which have written tomes about this topic, or to many non-existentialists who wrote on the topic of human achievement as W.H. Auden did in his poem “The Unknown Citizen” or Hemingway in his grimly titled “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” or many others who saw the comfort and conformity of modernity as stifling to individual pursuits and restrictive to human development.
It is, after all, the outliers who achieve as outliers and eventually the mass of humanity comes along to follow them. It is not the mass of humanity that leads the way. No achievement happens from the guy sitting on his couch watching TV and drinking a six pack.
The guy on his couch, however, is part of the hard-to-stop, hard-to-redirect inertia of the status quo. His very existence, from the perspective of those seeking change, is to lend inertia. Inertia is okay. I don’t fault Joe six pack for that role. I do fault the philosopher, economist, or politician who advocate for a system that discourages individual potential and encourage more people to turn into Joe six packs.
It is additionally important to realize a consequence of so much comfort in the world – to make a stable, unchanging society even easier to achieve. If you could lock society into this precise moment in history and could make society as similar to now for as long as possible, is that the choice you would make? Probably not.
Some people mourn days bygone. Some people sit excited for the future. It’s hard to find someone who says “The world is absolutely perfect at this moment in time and should never change.” Yet, by supporting the socialist / democratic socialist / communist doctrines of contemporary Western Europe and seeking to advance them in America you do exactly that – you seek to solidify the present and to undermine change in mainstream American society. Additionally, you further isolate change agents on the fringes of society.
This is bad because it prevents the mainstream from being change agents. Also it prevents the mainstream from mingling with change agents. It further solidifies the status quo by removing change agents and pro-change-agent sentiments from the mainstream.
The impact of free market capitalism, to the contrary, offers incentives for every hobbyist to consider being an entrepreneur, every tinkerer to be a potential change agent. Change agents are not pushed artificially to the fringes of society in a free market – quite the contrary. When government steps aside, by stepping aside, government lowers the artificial governmental barriers to entry and that scenario makes it more advantageous for individuals to pursue their passions, perhaps some even doing so for profit. In a free market, human achievement is not artificially stifled in the name of leveling society and bringing egalitarianism.
There are things Western Europe is good at – working against development, solidifying the role of the aristocracy, sitting on their magnificent cultural laurels, giving bread (comfy pay checks), beer (awesome beer and wine), circuses (Eurovision and soccer), and leisure (35 hour work weeks) to their middle class to keep them content, and, of course, they are good at turning into an exploding powder keg of discontent every few generations then waging war on each other. It’s possible the war issue has finally been solved by the extensive bread and circuses, along with some cross cultural trade. Meanwhile, their aristocracy make their money overseas investing in places that are not so hardened by the layers of social plaque existent in Europe, a social plaque that stunts virtually all change or growth. America, “the new world,” is exactly that kind of place – where the European aristocracy invest and where society’s structure is not so calcified. They do business there and send their children there to learn the local ways. Other places in the world are similar – lacking in the burdensome social plaque of Western Europe – like parts of Central and Eastern Europe or parts of Asia – where individual achievement is praised, to an extent.
There are some in America who would love to mitigate exactly that. They propose the same failed policies that restrict individual achievement and promote the same type of social plaque that exists in Europe. Anyone who cherry picks the seemingly positive points of Europe to advocate for a greater level of government and ultimately to advocate for stepping toward socialism is guilty of exactly that – promoting the stifling social plaque that restrains Europe and pushes America toward that same stifling environment.
America plays a special role in the world. It is the experimental engine of growth. It is a place where entrepreneurship is uniquely promoted. It is a place where business is treated as the entity for social betterment that it is. There is great freedom to take risks. There is also great freedom to fail or succeed. It is a truly beautiful equation that needs no tweaking. It only needs to be left alone to work at its best.
Yes, in America we have a huge homeless population, and more billionaires live in America than anywhere else, and even more than that made their fortunes through American innovation. It is an engine of human achievement and growth. It is a land that generally allows for great success and great failure. That lack of social restriction and that lack of a social safety net, two items that are one in the same, has been a prominent distinction in American history. And the two sides of the coin, as far as human kind has proven, are necessary for that ultimate engine of human achievement. Some level of scarcity seems to be needed. Some level of risk seems to be needed.
That is how it has worked so far. Perhaps that scenario will change. Perhaps there will be other ways to allow for human achievement without leaving so many to fend for themselves. I am open to that. I respect new experiments from people endeavoring to live their own lives better and convincing others to voluntarily do the same. Despite all that hopefulness, it is obvious where that new model of social change won’t come from. It won’t come out of the tired and constantly proven wrong governmental methods of egalitarianism – see Plato, see Marx, see Lenin, see Mao, see Stalin, see the contemporary Western European counties, see the mainstream of American politics, see the frighteningly popular Bernie Sanders.
These examples all fit the tired and staid Europe. These examples, in which a portion of society that has earned enough to support themselves is being forced to pay for those who did not earn enough to support themselves, have repeatedly failed us as a society. They have failed humanity.
These broken, yet popular methods of social organization have limited human development through history. The examples are plentiful.
Some historians even go so far as to point to the bubonic plague as a scenario that could only happen under the oppressive, cruel governments of the time. The point out that human existence was so downtrodden and malnourished as a result of such high limitation on human freedom and development that it was possible for an illness to sweep through the downtrodden, unhealthy populace. It just happened to be that particular bacteria – Yersinia pestis – that swept through the population and the accompanying illness than decimated them, an illness and bacteria that continue to exist today and do not decimate populations. Because the populations of Europe were left so impoverished and weak by such terrible policies, any of a list of illnesses could have easily come through and been just as effective of a killer.
In recent memory, there were people in the West who could not get enough calories to survive. We are beyond that time. An over-abundance of calories has become a far greater threat to survival. Over generations, through technology and trade, we have banished hunger in a portion of the world. The calories may not be the most healthful calories, but 2,000-3,000 calories daily is possible for every adult who wants to put in the effort to seek those calories out. For $5 a day you can even obtain those calories somewhat nutritiously from a fast food establishment like McDonald’s. This is not ideal from my perspective, but this is a vast improvement on the post World War II poverty that was rampant across Europe. Could any swollen bellied child of the time imagine that one day, with twenty or thirty minutes of work, anyone would be able to buy a warm, delicious sandwich that was made from high grade beef, soft bread, and fresh vegetables?
I strongly dislike McDonald’s. I haven’t eaten a Big Mac or breakfast sandwich in perhaps ten years now. That doesn’t change the fact that McDonald’s is the preference of many people around the world. McDonald’s provides a relatively stable high quality experience across countries, cultures, supply chains, and currencies. Many people deservedly got rich building McDonald’s into the organization that it is. It drives down local prices and drives up local levels of quality. It even provides a fairly decent entry level job. The people who made that happen deserve to be rich.
It’s perhaps also worth noting that those who excelled in society and made a killing for themselves also brought great advancement in the quality of living to the rest of us schlubs who have never been part of the ultra wealthy.
Has Bill Gates improved your life or made it worse? You and the vast majority of computer users in the world have freely chosen to run his software. Your life is made easier by Microsoft at home and outside of the home in the vast array of companies that use Microsoft products to make your life easier and better. John Rockefeller made himself rich while making easy-to-access in-home energy, once an impossibility for the middle class, readily available to the middle class and ultimately even available to some of the poorest people in the United States. Steve Jobs made himself a billionaire by helping push forward some of the most life changing innovations of the last century – a user friendly well designed super computer in the pocket of every man woman and child, and a third party App Store that encourages amazing innovations for that tool. Henry Ford became rich innovating the car manufacturing process so well that some of the poorest Americans can have one, and put in place innovations that made it possible for even a relative child to drive a car.
The rich in America tend to make the world a better place through their business dealings. And sure it may feel unfair that someone like Warren Buffet, who is little more than a smart financier, a smart mergers and acquisitions guy, and a smart investor, has made himself and others so rich. On the surface, it appears like he hasn’t added a lot of value to society, because he hasn’t made anything or revolutionized any way of life. If I had to err on one side societally, I would much rather have the freedom for some people who don’t seem to add much value to get rich than to see even the slightest human advancements held back.
The more government will step out of the way of those seeking to bring advancement, the better off we are as a society. And it doesn’t just stop at the American borders – the better off we are as a human race.
This is a beautiful aspect that only America offers the world at this level and in this stage of history. One day I think a better world will have more room for that beautiful aspect that America offers, and hopefully many other societies will also offer the world.
There are those who act to restrain that development. Some don’t realize what they are doing – limiting human advancement. Some do realize what they are doing – their is a strange poverty mindset inherent in many such philosophies. Some eastern religious beliefs that developed under great poverty are such examples – to the extent that they appear practically pessimistic. They are hard to reconcile in the world of plenty that we have today. Stuck in that moralistic poverty mindset, such beliefs have a hard time providing pertinent messages for us in our time. Even the poorest Americans see much higher quality of life and enjoy higher life expectancy than people throughout much of human history. That development for some of the poorest is only improving as government steps out of the way and allows innovation to take place unchecked.
I so keenly favor this process that I have a hard time justifying government at all these days. When someone praises social security or the idea of universal basic income, I know I am speaking to someone who doesn’t understand markets, doesn’t understand US history and doesn’t see this vital part of what makes America so special in the world.
America is a unique place for its personal freedom and for its economic freedom. They are one in the same. The more I travel the world, write about the world, do business in the world, the more I recognize that to be true. And when I recognize it, the more aggressively opposed I become to anyone who seeks to deny the world that amazing font of humanity and human potential.
How much worse it is when they use a bad and thoroughly disproven Western European “democratic socialist” model as the format for doing that. At least be creative. At least step beyond Plato’s benevolent dictator or Marx’s own brand of that tired system of communism. At least recognize that you aren’t right just because you invented an idea. At least recognize when your own brilliant ideas is really just a regurgitation of another’s broken idea. At least read critically enough to know when your “brilliant” idea is just that and only that and to know how poorly it has worked for many eras of human existence, in many iterations, in many cultures, and in many situations. This is no coincidence. Your anti-human idea, your anti-individual idea is no better than all those other slightly tweaked failures. The world deserves that self-criticism from you before you seek to promote those anti-human ideas.
Do better than that if you seek to undermine the wellspring of human achievement in hopes of providing better for those who do not provide well enough for their own wants and therefore find themselves turning to others to care for them. You at least owe the world that much. But that we do not often get. Because reading is hard, especially reading with the level of humility it takes to be well-read. Meanwhile being convinced that your own harebrained idea on how to improve socialism is unique is very easy and therefore common.
Do better. You owe it to the world. Before you give even the slightest suggestion that you desire to destroy a system that has brought so much human happiness and development, you owe that much to the world.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.
Photo credit: Rebane’s Ruminations