What is Socialism? Part 2 of a 3 part series…
Last week I shared a personal experience on the difference between socialism, communism and capitalism. I also discussed the theoretical differences between the three of them. However, theories are meaningless until we can see how they work. So, this week I would like to explore a couple of situations where socialism and capitalism were put into practice. Although there are many examples, due to space I will limit my article to two countries: China and the early American settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. (Yep, you heard it right – we actually have tried socialism here too, and this is just one example)
The People’s Republic of China officially defined itself as a socialist state in its 1982 Constitution. But it began far earlier in 1949 under the Mao Zedong’s regime. Initially, they embraced socialism as a means to oppose European & Japanese imperialism. Their goal was to modernize and strengthen themselves so they no longer were a target. The totalitarian aspect of communism was also seen as the best way to give the government the power to impose socialist revolution and completely reorganize China. Unfortunately, along with this came a complete disregard for human rights. Between 1949 and 1975 there were over 40 million Chinese of all ages killed by their government. This occurred either directly by execution (murder of property owners and the rural and urban purges), or indirectly by allowing famine. Even today, China still requires their laborers to work long hours in poor working conditions, censors what is seen on TV, in the newspapers and on the internet, and violently squashes any expression of free speech or freedom of the press (remember Tiananmen Square?)
However, the Chinese have since learned that this forced change on the people not only created production problems, it seriously reduced the number of citizens available to work. It was becoming obvious by the end of the 1970’s that communism could no longer cut it. So China began a slow change from socialist communism to capitalism. Market incentives were introduced starting in the countryside. Some of the communes were broken up. The land was distributed back to individuals who were allowed to sell their production on free market terms. The result was more food. Free market reforms were done for small industrial projects, with the result being more and better production. Eventually, foreign companies were allowed in on a limited basis to set up factories. Production increased even more. While politically they are still socialist, it will be interesting to see if more Chinese start eventually demanding more political and personal freedom as they get a greater taste of economic freedom.
In contrast to China, the historic settlement in Jamestown, Virginia took only three years and 506 deaths before they changed from socialism to capitalism. In May, 1607, when the first 104 settlers arrived from England they found rich soil, abundant fruit, fish and wild game. Yet within 6 months, 66 people had died. Two years later, 500 more settlers arrived from Europe, and again, within 6 months, 440 of these died from starvation and disease. So what happened? Were they sickly, were they lazy? No, these were hearty souls that endured dangerous months of a long trans-Atlantic journey by boat. However, everything they produced was put into a common pool to be shared by all, including the investors that sent them there. So, each would work according to their ability and then take according to their need. Under the arrangement of communal property, the investors thought that any individual’s additional effort might merely substitute for the lack of industry of others. Unfortunately, it was found that even the able bodied took advantage of the idea of communal ownership by contributing less than their fair share.
Phillip A. Bruce, a late 19th century US historian, wrote of the Jamestown immigrants, “The settlers did not have even a modified interest in the soil. Everything produced by them went into the store, in which they had no proprietorship.”
Jamestown had encountered the age-old free-ride problem. So how did they solve the issue? Unlike China, forced compliance would be difficult without a formal police force. So, in 1611, when the ‘high marshal’ Sir Thomas Dale arrived from England, he quickly resolved the problem: he immediately canceled communal ownership. Each man received three acres of land and was required to pay a lump sum tax of 2 ½ barrels of corn (to the investors). Other than that, they did not have to contribute anything to a common pool. Immediately, the colony began to prosper. Not only did it prosper, but the new rules were now self-policing. Each individual who directly benefited from his own labor would also suffer personally if he decided to slack off.
Practically speaking, in terms of prosperity and the number of citizen deaths, capitalism seems to win out. However, is that the only thing we should measure? What about spirituality? Can a common spiritual socialism promote more success than a forced socialism? Well, in my research for this week, I also discovered that even the most religious socialist communes eventually failed too. So, there must be a key element that Karl Marx missed. Perhaps the Bible may have a clue to what that is? Stay tuned for next week’s article, where I will explore some biblical truths, and perhaps discover what God may have to say about the whole matter.