In the concession speech marking the end of her presidential campaign, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann had this to say: “our country is in very serious trouble and … this might be the last election to turn the nation around before we go down the road to socialism to a burden of debt too heavy for our children to bear.” Whatever you may think of her campaign and her occasional gaffes, this particular comment is an important one and it has not received the attention it deserves in the press (no surprise there).
So let’s take a moment to look at socialism: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Please don’t stop reading until you get to the end or you may miss my point entirely. I don’t want you to think that I’m pro-socialist!
Like all utopian visions, socialism is idealistic. My study of history has brought me to the conclusion that it’s only practical when two characteristics are present. First, it must be embraced voluntarily (that means that a person can exit the system at any time). Second, it works only in small communities. As a Christian and a theologian, the most immediate example I can bring to mind is that of monasticism, small religious communities where monks join freely, pledging to own nothing as individuals and allowing all ownership to be placed in the community as a whole.
The monastic ideal is modeled after the description of the earliest Christian communities found in Acts of the Apostles. According to Acts 4:34-35, early Christians in Jerusalem sold their property and presented the proceeds to the Apostles so that the needs of everyone in the community could be met. This, admittedly, was a form of socialism in line with the slogan popularized by Karl Marx (though it predates Marx): “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we must grant that this is a beautiful vision for our world. What righteous person among us would not want a world where the needs of all are met and where everyone has a hand in bringing justice and happiness? As a Christian, I cannot deny the fact that true equality is a goal cherished as part of the mission and ministry of Jesus. It inspires the hope that the Kingdom of God will one day bloom upon the earth. Jews and Muslims, in their own way, have similar hopes. In fact, utopian ideals are common in many faiths, even in some of the earliest forms of religion.
Utopian visions, however, are just that: they are modeled after the fantasy land of Utopia dreamed up and described by Sir Thomas More in his book by the same name (he was the tragic Chancellor of King Henry VIII of England whose head was removed by order of that same monarch). What many don’t know is that More wrote Utopia in order to poke fun at the idea of a perfect society in this world. The imperfection of this world and of idealized social systems is also noted in the Acts of the Apostles, for it is in the beginning of Chapter 5 that we meet Ananias and Sapphira who tried to hide from the community some of their money. When confronted, the two spouses fell down dead (presumably by divine power).
Is socialism or communism an ideal that should be embraced by all, or at least by all Christians? No, not by a long shot.
Again, here’s a fact from history: except in the very limited cases such as monasticism or other vowed religious communities, socialism doesn’t work as an economic and political system. It is my contention that it won’t work for nations; to my mind this has been proved by the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. The current crisis among welfare states in Europe is proving it again.
Imposed from above by powerful people and enforced at the point of a gun, large-scale socialism robs human persons of dignity as well as inspiration and energy. Why so? Because there will always be those among us who are willing to do only as much as they have to do in order to get by. So they ride the system, allowing the worker bees around them to carry the extra load. In the long run those worker bees get tired or they lose heart. Or they revolt. Then the entire organization crumbles from below.
In socialist states the only ones who really had all that they needed were the powerful elites who cracked the whip upon the lower classes–or visitors from countries where free-market capitalism was at work (and those visitors were watched closely). The socialist ideal of a society without classes of people is nothing more than a mirage. I noted this for myself in the mid-1980s during a visit to Soviet-era Hungary. While purchasing train tickets from a stern-looking clerk my fellow seminary students and I were asked if we wanted to ride in coach or in first class. Being westerners, we were presumed to be able to afford the better seats.
The dirty secret is that in socialist states, those who have enough power and money always ride in first-class accommodations. They are the political elites. Is anything starting to sound familiar? As the President and First Lady graciously tell us to eat healthy, avoid salt, and cut back so others can have more, they enjoy the finest of accommodations and richest of elegant meals.
Capitalism is not a perfect system, but it is a much more effective means at spreading wealth than socialism. Reducing all but the powerful political elites to poverty is not a form of equality that I desire to see in the United States, but it’s happening now. Excessive government intervention didn’t start with Barack Obama but he and his Socialist-Democrats have raised it to an art form.
The printing presses for the dollar won’t stop anytime soon at the Treasury Department, but the money will eventually run out. When that happens you can count on even more government measures to seize private wealth. The first source for that private money will be retirement accounts. Does that sound crazy? If so, then you’ll be surprised to learn that it has already been discussed in the halls of federal congressional power. There are those among our leaders who can’t wait to get their hands on your retirement funds.
Thank you, Ms. Bachman, for your warning: “this might be the last election to turn the nation around before we go down the road to socialism to a burden of debt too heavy for our children to bear.” Removing Mr. Obama from office can only the beginning, or we’ll simply be postponing the inevitable. I hope it’s not too late.