A lot of young people have gotten bad information when it comes to socialism and communism. They have been taught that socialism is just when people choose to have the government provide things rather than using a free-enterprise system, but communism is when you have a brutal dictatorship. They have been taught that socialism is a benevolent economic system where everyone shares and take care of each other. Communism is death squads and tanks rolling down the streets.
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Karl Marx, the guy who came up with a lot of the theories behind these systems and was an early promoter, would disagree with these definitions. He would tell you that socialism and communism were sides of the same coin. In fact, he used the terms almost interchangeably. Socialism was just imperfect communism. It was a stage you went through when you were transitioning from capitalism to communism. It was the stage where the government took control of businesses and factories and started giving goods out based on an individual’s needs rather than based on who made the product and therefore had rights to it. He saw both as good. The death squads and the tanks are just the unforeseen outcome of socialism that keeps you from ever achieving communism.
To help explain socialism and communism, let’s say that you’re going on a campout. This is a scenario where socialism or communism could actually work because the scale is small enough and you might be lucky enough to only have good people involved. (With good, hard-working people, most economic systems will work.) Let’s see how a camp-out would work under each system.
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Camping under free-enterprise
Let’s first say that you’re camping under the free enterprise system. Here, each individual produces things and retains rights to whatever he produces. He can also trade with others if desired as long as the trade is considered fair by both parties. Neither party can be forced to trade.
Going into this camp-out, everyone would be expecting to need to supply everything that he or she needed, so everyone would plan and work towards getting what was needed. Each would also plan for some trading, so as long as an individual thought that it was likely that she would be able to trade something she brought or produced for something else, she might bring extras of things she specializes in and then expect to trade for other things she needs. For example, maybe someone has some extra tents, and therefore decides to pack extra tents instead of food, figuring that there will be lots of people who bring extra food and some will not pack a tent. Instead of spending time getting for to bring, she would bring the extra tent she had and just trade.
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There is no central planning for this trading. No one directs who should bring what. People just work to figure out what they can make or bring that will be needed the most and bring extra of that item. In some cases it will not work out well, where someone doesn’t predict the needs of others well, but as long as there are enough people going on this camping trip, everyone should pretty much be able to get what they need. If there are things like food and water that cannot be gone without, unless everyone pretty much knows there will be plenty of people supplying those things, people will bring their own. There will also be people who will know what the necessities are and plan on bringing extras of those necessities since they know they will be able to trade for other things they want. Just as you don’t really need to bring food with you on a trip because you know there will be restaurants and grocery store where you are going even though there is no central planner putting them there, on this camping trip there are things that you would learn that someone will be trading.
So, what are the advantages and disadvantages to this campout? You would know that if you brought extras of stuff that people would really need or really want, you would be able to trade for the things you need, so you could spend your time concentrating on the things you did well. There wouldn’t be a fallback plan if you weren’t prepared. If you forgot something and didn’t have something to trade for it, you would either need to beg others to provide to you or go without. It is also possible that there would be a surplus of some items and a dearth of others because there was no central planning, but if you kept having the campout people would figure out what was needed and find a niche for themselves. The better the communications among the participants before the campout, the less likely this situation would be to occur since people would get feedback on what would be needed and what was already being supplied in abundance.
Camping under socialism
Let’s say now that you are going for a socialist campout. Here certain individuals would be appointed as the leaders and planners of the campout. They would collect stuff from the people going on the campout and then decide who would get what. They would also collect money and go out and buy things like food and other supplies that people didn’t have readily available. These people would likely be chosen by the participants in the campout unless there were some individuals who just bullied the others into putting them in as the leaders.
The leaders would need to get together and plan everything out for the campout and then make adjustments as it proceeded. They might ask others for what their needs are by way of shelter, food, camp chairs, and so on, or they might just choose to make the decisions for them. If there were a lot of people going on the campout, the planners would probably standardize a lot to make things simple. If the planners thought that most people like macaroni and cheese, they might pick that for a meal even though there might be some who detest it or have a dairy and gluten allergy. It would just be difficult to get everyone something different, so they would get what they felt was best for the group on average and people who wanted something different would just need to deal with it.
With the free enterprise system, people would be free to bring exactly what they wanted or search for someone offering what they wanted since there could be a variety of vendors, some catering to the smaller groups with different tastes while others cater to the most popular tastes. With central planning there would probably not be a lot of variety since there would only be a few people making the choices and they would probably not get a huge variety of things since so would take a lot more effort than just getting a few things.
A big issue with a socialized campout, which is the issue with socialism in general, is that the people doing the planning would have a huge amount of power. Because they collect all of the goods together and decide who gets what, they could decide to keep the best stuff for themselves and/or give out the better stuff to those who are willing to do them favors. If they were really wicked, they might even use their power to punish those who they did not like or who questioned their power. They might decide that someone who complained that the planners were taking the best stuff wouldn’t get a tent or food at all.
This is the biggest issue with socialism. Often the selling point is that items are distributed based on need, rather than based on contribution, so people who have advantages in strength or other abilities don’t end up with an excess while those who have a strong need go without. This seems like a noble idea, but because you give a few people the power to decide who gets what, unless you have people in charge who are extremely honest, they start taking stuff for themselves and use their power to get favors from others. In fact, it is to their advantage to keep people in need because then they can point to them if anyone tries to change the system. If someone decides to bring their own tent and not provide it to the pool to be given out, the leaders can point to guy who has no tent and convince others that the guy who brought his own tent was selfish and should have his tent taken from him.
Having a few people with a lot of power tends to draw people into leadership positions who desire this kind of power to abuse it. Honest people don’t want the responsibility of deciding for others. Dishonest people covet the power and don’t really care if people are happy with their decisions. Once people have this kind of power, they rarely want to give it up. This is where the dictatorships come from as people who get into power under socialism fight to keep that power. They use their power to punish those who go against them, either by rounding them up and brutally torturing and killing them, or by simply cutting them off from necessities. The brutal countries we see are socialist, not communist.
A communist campout
If you were going to a communist campout, everything people had would just be put into a large pile and people would take what they needed. No one would own anything except perhaps a couple of personal items, so people would just use whatever they needed but not have a claim on anything. There would be no leaders. Everyone would just take what they needed. Disputes would be decided as a group somehow.
The group would probably use larger tents since those would be more suited to lack of ownership than smaller tents that people would tend to claim ownership over. At night, you would just find an empty spot in a tent and use it. There might be some agreement to let certain people use certain spaces based on need. For example, smaller individualized tents might be reserved for couples who needed privacy or families might get mid-sized tents while those who were single slept in a spot in the larger tents. Older people might get a spot near the door to be able to easily use the outhouse at night.
For meals, everyone would just contribute what they had and then the group would share the meal according to how much they needed. There would be no planning, so people would just bring what they had and it would work out however it worked out. Sometimes there might not be enough food and other times there may be too much.
The biggest issue with a communist campout is that there would be no incentive to bring extra stuff or nicer stuff. If everyone going were very compassionate and wanted to make things good for others, it could be a very nice campout. It is more likely, however, that some people would bring as little as they could or nothing at all, figuring that they could just get what they needed from the pot. Once a few people did this, others would do the same thing on future campouts since they would find that there was no advantage to bringing more and the shortages would start to occur regularly.
Brutal dictatorships come from socialism
So, in summary, it is the concentration of power in a few hands that causes brutal dictatorships. With either free enterprise or communism, power is widely distributed since individuals only have control over a few goods so you would not tend to get dictatorships and wide spread abuse. It is true that you can get a few powerful individuals under capitalism, but this only happens when individuals are able to make the markets unfree. For example, business men who work with government to make regulations to keep competitors out of the markets. As long as you keep markets free to entry, more competitors will show up and correct abuses.
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