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The Soul of Man Under Socialism

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Reflections on how a Victorian dramatist thinks the world should be run.

For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses.

This past week, I read Oscar Wilde's essay, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism." I must confess myself surprised by a central point of Wilde's treatise: Socialism is the best economic system for advancing Individualism. By freeing man of the burden of possessions, he can focus on perfecting himself.

Wilde's argument makes for an amusing read, but seems to betray a fundamental failure to understand a basic economic fact: without a reward of some sort available, few persons, if any, would engage in activity that would result in the kind of economic value-add needed to build wealth. The building of wealth is precisely what is needed for members of a society to be "relieved," as Wilde put it, of poverty.

No society can tax itself into prosperity.

Wilde acknowledges that no Authoritarian Socialism will do, but fails to offer any explanation on how authoritarianism is to be avoided. At some level, there must be some administration, some bureaucracy that sees to the affairs of the society. History has shown us that bureaucracies have a nasty habit of outgrowing their original purpose and moving to protect themselves rather than the organization they were created to serve.

I'm reminded of the admonitions and promises that Lenin and his followers offered the people of what became the Soviet Union. Nado rabotat'! (We must work!) -- the society must be built, and the glorious revolutskij mir (world revolution) will spread the utopia over all the Earth.

It would appear that during the Soviet experiment, no great rise of individualism could be found. In fact, nearly ninety years after the Bolshevik Revolution, identity -- a rather critical component of individualism -- is still unresolved among many Russians.

Granted, Wilde did not benefit from so ready an example of a socialist society. Nevertheless, we have seen the soul of man under socialism, and do well to remember what it was like.

We also have contrary examples worth consideration. There is a curious relationship between the freedom of the markets and the freedom of the people. Indeed classic Liberalism -- not to be confused with the sort of tripe that now carries the L-word label in American society -- advocates what the late editor emeritus of the Wall Street Journal, Bob Bartley, summarized as, "Free Markets; Free People."

Anyone who confuses himself with his posessions is pitiable, but there is no freedom in disincentivizing the producers whose wealth-building economic activity raises the standard of living for all around them. Such a "solution" adds nothing, only taking away what would otherwise be present. Socialism is no solution.

Wilde's argument that Byron was able to make his literary contribution because he never had to work for a day's wage does not follow. One of the most prolific and certainly the best-known of the figures in English language literature, William Shakespeare, produced both art and economic value. Wilde is, in effect, saying that he should be spared the tedium of work, that he should be allowed to create his art independent of anyone else's influence -- all while relying on their economic activity to fund his existence. This argument sounds like the sort of thing Algernon would say to Jack in Wilde's own The Importance of Being Earnest. I'm inclined to respond as did Jack, "Oh, that is nonsense; you are always talking nonsense."

Created by cmcurtin
This article originally appeared on Sunshine Poultry.
Last modified 2004-08-23 04:01 PM


Posted by Ratatosk at 2005-08-25 01:57 PM
The RICH economy <a href=""></a> has, as of yet, been the only 'semi-socialistic' economic idea that I've given a second thought to. Within the RICH economy, unemployment is percieved as part of the business of economics. As technology increases, the need for a common laborer decreases. If technology replaces laborers, then the company should be able to do more with less (as the technology would not require coffee breaks in the morning, ciggerette breaks every hour, bathroom breaks when the stomach flu hits and 8 hours of sleep). Based off of the use of technology to replace common workers, the RICH economy then adds the ideas of Buckminster Fuller and Ezra Pound regarding "The National Dividend", which would make all citizens 'shareholders' of the GNP.

I think the main failure of the RICH economy is that it relies on corproations and the government to act in the interests of the citizens, as opposed to acting in their own interests. Based on the society we live in today, I doubt that would be possible.


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