A Socialist Think Tank?
"The ideas of the economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong," wrote John Maynard Keynes, "are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else."
Keynes was wise to include the phrase, "both when they are right and when they are wrong." It's all too true that good ideas must compete with bad ideas. Sometimes, at least temporarily, the bad ones win out. Worse yet, even a silly or superstitious notion that barely rises to the level of an idea can wield great influence. And in our midst are crackpots who dredge up discredited and discarded ideas, dress them up in new disguise, and hawk them all over again.
An article in the August 14, 2001, Washington Post announced that a new "socialist think tank," called the "American Socialist Foundation," was being formed in Washington, D.C. Its officials declared that they will "focus on contemporary economic and political issues and develop socialist analysis and policies to address them." Among other things, their secretary-treasurer was quoted as saying, "Socialists favor public ownership of the media."
I acknowledge that I am in the "think tank" business myself. A reader might easily interpret any skepticism about this group on my part as a bit of competitive pique. I want to say up front that it's not the competition that bothers me; rather, it's the preposterous assumption implicit in the very announcement of a "socialist think tank."
Putting those words in juxtaposition is no different from placing "fire" beside "ice" or putting "chaste" next to "Clinton." Use one or the other, but don't put them in the same sentence, please.
"Socialism" and "think tank" are mutually exclusive-even contradictory. Socialism does, however, produce lots of tanks: tanks to suppress people who actually do think. The one quintessential, unassailable truth that distills from centuries of experience with socialism is that when it isn't arrogantly bossing people around, it's stifling, strangling, or killing them.
Socialism is based on the ludicrous assumption that people who have a hard time planning their own lives and often fail at it can nonetheless plan the lives of not just a handful of others around them, but the lives of millions they don't even know! The result has been everywhere and in all times what Ludwig von Mises brilliantly described decades ago as "Planned Chaos."
State ownership of the media: now there's a winner of an idea, or so argues the new socialist think tank. In free markets, one can not only purchase at miniscule cost an almost infinite array of viewpoints, but one can buy a printing press or a bullhorn or a company and manufacture one or more viewpoints himself. What's the point of state ownership, financed by taxation?
Only an idiot would argue that state ownership broadens and multiplies available opinion; state ownership invariably exerts a coercive bias in the public square-limiting, if not ultimately monopolizing, opinion. What we need today is a press that is far less, not more, beholden to the state. There's already too much on-air reading of government press releases.
There are some settled truths in the world, derived from such things as science, economics, human experience, facts, evidence, reason, and logic. The sun comes up in the east. The earth is spherical. Markets are immeasurably more rational and productive than central planning and state ownership.
While it's tempting to cite reams of research, piles of statistics, and mounds of bodies to make the case against socialism, that's been done rather thoroughly now by countless others. I rest my case against it on the observation that socialism by definition does not rely on the free will and peaceful interaction of sovereign individuals to verify its efficacy. Indeed, the very fact that it reduces to force is testimony to its manifest failure. If I'm suspicious of any notion that favors the dragoons over persuasion, the club over the fist, then I guess I'm guilty of favoring civilization over barbarism.
Socialists take aquariums and turn them into fish soup. The endless socialist quest for whatever it is socialists quest for all adds up to pitifully little-nothing more, in fact, than what French economist Frederic Bastiat dismissed more than a century and a half ago as "legalized plunder."
So it is that this new organization in Washington, devoted to socialism, is not a think tank or I'm Florence Nightingale. It is a Ministry of Propaganda dedicated to advancing nonsense. Central planning, state ownership, lots of bureaucracy seizing and spending other people's money-the essence of socialism, in other words-should no longer be elevated shamelessly to the status of a respectable science.
Diversity of ideas is a great thing, a pillar of a free and enlightened society. No inane scribbling should ever be outlawed, no matter how unpopular. But that doesn't mean every inane scribbling deserves the status and esteem of an argument. Socialism as an economic system has no case. It's been tried a million times. It doesn't work, it steals from people, and it lays waste to both the land and the spirit. Get over it.
Lawrence W. Reed, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan and immediate past chairman of the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. A version of this essay will appear as his January 2002 column in FEE's journal, Ideas on Liberty. Send him MAIL, and view his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive.