woody zimmermanSo what about socialism? Is it really so bad? Every new generation seems to ask this, as though it's a brand-new idea that has never been tried, or simply has not been "properly applied."

We're hearing these questions again, as it becomes ever clearer that Barak Obama is a genuine, far-left, "command-economy" socialist who intends to remake America's economic system as quickly as he can.  Mr. Obama wants government to take over banking and health care. He wants to tax carbon-producing fuels (like coal and oil) into oblivion. He wants to nationalize public education. His government plans to run General Motors. And he plans to triple the national debt, within a decade, with trillion-dollar deficits. This is just for starters, in his first two months in office. If that's not a serious socialist, I'd like to know what one looks like. (Maybe Josef Stalin?)

All this, Mr. Obama evidently believes, will level the economic playing field, spread the wealth, and ultimately save us from our capitalist excesses, before it's too late. Every tired nostrum we've ever heard about socialism, across its 150-year history, is being trotted out and applied at the highest levels of our government, in a mad rush to become the European Union, west branch.

The curator of Mount Vernon, George Washington's historic home on the Potomac River, says visitors once came there to find out how George Washington lived and what his times were like. Now, visitors want to find out who George Washington was. It is a time of historical ignorance.

Just so, socialism's comeback is partly due to poor education of younger people (and perhaps amnesia among older people). Millions seem clueless about what socialism is and, perhaps more importantly, what it has been. Socialism is not a brilliant, brand-new idea that hasn't been tried. It is a thoroughly discredited, anti-human-nature, utopian dream that has repeatedly been tried, but has failed every time. To invert G. K. Chesterton's famous observation on Christianity: socialism has not been found difficult and not tried - it has been tried and found wanting.

Massively applied in Russia, China and Sweden - and to lesser degrees in other countries - socialism has brought poverty, ruin and even violence in every case. Sweden - the very model of modern, enlightened "democratic" socialism - is going broke. China is moving inexorably toward capitalism and entrepreneurship, by degrees. (The Chinese are too smart to stay with socialism.) The USSR finally collapsed under its own weight when its supply side died. Russian friends say they had bushels of money that was essentially worthless because there were no products to buy.

Socialism has never worked - even under the threat and application of force - and there is no likelihood of its working at any time in the future. It fails because it is "systemically flawed" - a label that modern liberals like to hang on capitalism. Nevertheless, socialism rears its head in America every 15 or 20 years - currently under the rubric of "progressivism" - and makes a serious run for control of the country. Usually its champion is an attractive politician who promises utopia under a new, "compassionate" system where government takes from those who have "too much" and gives to those who have "too little."

Past liberal presidents - e.g., Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton - were either tepid socialists or unprincipled pols who implemented the ideology only timidly. Finally, though, we have elected a socialist president who outstrips all of his predecessors in confidence and conviction. He seems seriously determined to change the country, fundamentally, and he is on a roll to do it with the help of a radical congress, a stalled economy and a nation full of frightened people who have lost jobs and savings in a bank and stock-market crash that shook the country's foundations. The emergency has allowed Mr. Obama to run around the country spouting nonsense - e.g., "we're going to spend our way into fiscal responsibility" - without being called on it. Whether he can continue to get away with this remains to be seen. So far, he's doing pretty well at it.

Despite its copiously documented failures, socialism keeps coming back because it always sounds so good. Young people - particularly those ignorant of socialism's dreary history - are drawn to its promise of "social justice" - i.e., redistribution of wealth. As a young person, I often observed that salary and vacation are two issues that could easily turn young workers into socialists. Young people with young families never earn enough money or get enough vacation time from their jobs, while older people often have more than enough of both. Wouldn't this be an ideal place for the "haves" to give to the "have-nots"?

The socialist idea is great in theory. The difficulty is that fundamental facets of human nature simply will not let it work. To demonstrate this, I cite an anecdote that I found on the web. I can't attribute it, as no author was listed, but I think my readers will agree that it has the ring of truth.

An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student, but had once failed an entire class. That class had insisted that socialism worked; that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.

The professor proposed a class-experiment on socialism. All grades would be averaged, and everyone would receive the same grade. No one would fail and no one would receive an A.

After the first test, the grades were averaged. Everyone got a grade of B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy.  But as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little.  The second test average was D!  No one was happy. After the 3rd test, the average was F.

The scores never increased. Bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings. No one would study for the benefit of anyone else.  All failed, to their great surprise. The prof said socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great. But when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed.

A second anecdote originated in Russia. A close friend recounted it after his visit there.

An entrepreneur offered two menial workers - each earning two kopeks a day - a chance for increased pay. One of them would make four kopeks a day; the other would make eight kopeks. Both would have to sign up to make the opportunity work. Would they agree to it?

Their answer was "No." They considered it "unfair" that one of them should earn more, and they were willing to forego the higher pay on that principle.

It took over 70 years of Russian socialism to deform work-attitudes in this way. No one knows how long it will take to undo them. Now Americans are being moved in the same direction by the siren song of "fairness." Are we sure it's where we want to go? And are we really prepared for what the world will be like when we get there?