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IPFS News Link • Philosophy: Socialism

How Socialism Killed Both the Left and the Right


They were so strong in their beliefs that there was a time when it hardly mattered what exactly those beliefs were; they all fused into a single stubbornness.

 – Louise Erdrich

As Western Civilization continues its entropy-riddled dance of death, the citadels of the political establishment help to maintain the carnival sideshow nature of the event. Like a recently beheaded chicken that flaps about in a bloody show, driven not by the mind but by automatic reflexes, there is little in our culture's demise that would appeal to intelligent men and women. Those who once turned to Abbott and Costello films for slap-stick comedy, now find academia, the mainstream media, and the political arena more entertaining sites.

I am intrigued by the charades put on by the two major political parties – the inaptly named "left" and "right," two wings of the birds of prey at work in most supposedly "democratic" systems. In my undergraduate college days, Sen. McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee challenged us to focus attention on our political identities. While I never fashioned myself a "leftist," I found those who embraced state socialism an interesting bunch of people. They tended to be intelligent souls with what appeared to be a well-thought out philosophy. The idea of the state planning and directing economic activity troubled me, however, for what may have been a genetic  defense of liberty on my part; but I kept discussing such concerns with my socialist friends. While I had read John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and a few other early philosophers with whom I found myself in basic agreement, there were no intellectual groups – whether on or off campus – that provided a coherent alternative to state socialism. Like adult men playing basketball against kindergarten boys, the socialists had an easy time of it. They could get away with providing simple-minded explanations for a simplistic system because their philosophy was in power not only within political systems, but on college campuses.

Those of us who had unfocused doubts about their collectivist ideology were confined to asking questions that produced unsatisfying responses. When my Keynesian economics professor informed us that "there is nothing bothersome about a national debt, because we only owe it to ourselves," I asked: "if we only owe the debt to ourselves, why don't we just repudiate it to ourselves?"  My question was dismissed with a snicker.  When we were expected to go into a self-righteous faint over the early Industrial Revolution practice of women working in mines, and children working in factories, my individualistic question about whether such employment was "voluntary," was met with "how can such work be considered 'voluntary' when it was needed for survival?" Years later, I had a discussion with a collectivist colleague, in which I informed him that the children who worked in early textile mills were able to avoid the high death rates that otherwise plagued orphaned children. "What if your children were faced with this problem, and had to work in a factory in order to survive?" His response was remarkable: "I would rather have them die, than to suffer the indignity of working in a factory!"

A monopoly in the marketplace of ideas provides little incentive for the creation of new ideas or even the transformation of established ones. Being left to my own inquisitiveness, and to the failure of superficial answers to satisfy the demands of what has always been my favorite word ("why?"), provided me with the greatest source of my understanding: the continuing refinement of my own thinking. It was not in answers coming from teachers, intellectuals, or revered philosophers that mattered, but in the quality of my questions. In this regard, I found the thinking of two diametrically-opposed thinkers helpful. One was Ayn Rand; the second was a philosophy seminar I took on Marxism, taught by one of the most respected of Marxist philosophers. The Marxist was one of the best teachers I have ever had; a man who used the Socratic method, and who never resorted to intimidation, name-calling, or other intellectually dishonest means. What made each  of them so helpful to me was that they were so precise and focused in their questions that I had to keep sharpening my responses, particularly those I was formulating within my own mind. While this worked to my intellectual benefit, the Left's monopoly on opinion began to atrophy. Like a paralyzed leg muscle, its lack of exercise in the face of an energized antagonist diminished its vibrancy.

In what has come to be known as the "Old Right" – which helped to provide the seedbed for modern libertarian thought – it found coherent principles expressed in the works of such persons as John T. Flynn, Leonard Read, Murray Rothbard, and Russell Kirk. I would also include newspaper publisher, R.C. Hoiles – whose California papers carried front-page headlines opposing, from the start, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. Old Right politicians were also found in such men as Sen Robert Taft, Warren Buffett's father Rep. Howard Buffet, and Sen Ken Wherry. Shortly thereafter, Sen. and Republican Party presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, novelist Ayn Rand, and F.A. Hayek began tapping in to anti-state sentiments long-buried beneath the surface of what the socialists had been successful in generating: the illusion of consensus-based social policies to be created and enforced by the coercive nature of the state.