Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News on Tuesday.
If you have not seen the Christopher Nolan film “Oppenheimer,” you should. It is a visually exquisite, beautiful piece of storytelling with fantastic acting. The movie deals thoughtfully with immense topics like nuclear proliferation, antisemitism, McCarthyism, communism, patriotism, and the horrors of war interlaced with the personal story lines of love, hate, betrayal, vengeance, egotism, mental illness, and the wobbling trajectory of a life of purpose.
All good art sparks thoughts and emotions that are often in search of a language to express them. One of the many thoughts that continued to percolate in my brain long after the movie ended was the intersection of theory and practice.
Relatively early in the movie, Dr. Oppenheimer moves into his classroom at Berkeley that is next to the classroom of Dr. Ernest Lawrence. Oppenheimer meets Lawrence as the latter is constructing what I presume to be a version of the cyclotron for which Lawrence won the Nobel Prize. In conversation, Lawrence opines to Oppenheimer that, “theory will only take you so far.”
This thread returns several times throughout the movie as the scientists are confronted with the limitations of theory in the development of the atomic bomb. In one scene, Oppenheimer and other scientists at Berkeley are excited by the news that physicists Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch had discovered nuclear fission in the experiments of nuclear chemist Otto Hahn. Fission was previously thought to be impossible, but Hahn managed to do it by bombarding uranium with neutrons.
In the movie, when Oppenheimer read the news, he reiterated that the feat was impossible and descended on his chalkboard to run the math to prove it again. Oppenheimer stood by his assertion that fission was impossible until Lawrence returned to tell Oppenheimer that they had duplicated the experiment. What was “proven” impossible by theory was proven possible by practice.
Is it not so with socialism? In theory, socialism should work. It is an economic system in which scarce resources are allocated by priority of need. The theory is that if everyone contributes according to their ability, and everybody consumes according to their need, then the society as a whole will achieve maximum efficiency and aggregate success, or, at least, aggregate satisfaction.
Socialism makes sense in theory, so why does it always fail in practice?
Socialism fails because it mistakes the fundamental nature of people. Socialism assumes that people are naturally altruistic and will act in good faith. In reality, altruism beyond one’s own family or community is a modern phenomenon. It has only been in recent decades, when food scarcity has abated (thanks to capitalism), that some people have lifted their eyes beyond their personal needs to care about the broader world. But even now, the vast majority of people are far more concerned about their personal self-interest and will behave accordingly.
So it is that in a socialist economy, people do not contribute according to their ability. They contribute as little as they must. And they do not consume according to their need. They consume as much as they can. To combat this, the system must be enforced by an ever more forceful central authority. The flawed, and often evil, humans who gravitate into the center of a socialist system tend to be those who are seeking to consume the most. The inevitable result is cruelty, cronyism, and collapse.
To preserve liberty in a political and economic sense is to not allow power to concentrate, because whenever power is concentrated, there will be cruel and corrupt people seeking to use that power for their own benefit. Our national founders fundamentally understood this, which is why they designed our federal government to divide and check power.
Every system of government is found along a continuum from complete decentralization of power to complete concentration of power. On one end we find anarchy. On the other end we find communism, monarchy, fascism, and other forms of totalitarianism. Socialism is the younger, more handsome, brother of communism while democracy is the older, less reckless, brother of anarchy. The United States has a republic, which seeks to protect individual liberties from the oppression from the majority (democracy) or the minority (totalitarianism).
No system is static. There are too many forces at play for it to be so. The tendency, in both economies and governments, is for power to concentrate. This is so because people of ill intent are pushing it in that direction for their own gain. As power concentrates, the progression accelerates until critical mass is reached, and destructive energy is released.
There is a reason why socialism is so often advocated by academics and opposed by those who have lived under socialism. Theory will only take you so far.