14. Capitalism v Socialism

Socialism has been responsible for the deaths of approximately 100 million people – most of them due to forced starvation, such as the tens of millions who died in the Great Chinese Famine and the millions who died in the Soviet famine of 1932-33 – whereas capitalism is largely responsible for the world poverty rate falling by 80 per cent between 19700 and 2006:

Decline in Global Poverty

If that doesn’t convince you, compare the relative economic growth of Cuba and Hong Kong. Before the socialist revolution in 1959, GDP per capita in Cuba was among the highest in Latin America – about 50 to 60 per cent of European levels. After the revolution, Cuba tumbled down the world income distribution rankings and current levels are below their pre-revolutionary peak. In capitalist Hong Kong, by contrast, GDP per capita was 87 times larger in 1997, just before it was handed over to China by the British, than it was in 1961.

Apples and oranges? Maybe. But the same couldn’t be said of north Korea and south Korea. Before 1948, when the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was formed in the north and the capitalist Republic of Korea was set up in the south, the two countries shared the same history, culture, people, etc. It might as well have been a randomized control trial designed to test the relative merits of socialism and capitalism. Seventy years later, it is clear which system came out on top, as this picture of the two countries at night taken from space makes clear:

Korea from space

The evidence, then, is absolutely overwhelming: people are better off under capitalism. Yet according to a poll carried out in the United States by YouGov last year, 44 per cent of millennials said they would prefer to live in a socialist society compared to 42 per cent who preferred capitalism. Here are some millennials protesting against evil corporations:

Millennials. jpg

You have to laugh at Extinction Rebellion

Column for the Spectator about what I learned after going to an Extinction Rebellion protest in Central London. It was published on 12th October 2019. 

ventured out into Westminster earlier this week to take a look at the Extinction Rebellion protest and it reminded me of the Edinburgh Fringe. I don’t just mean the sheer number of people in fancy dress, such as the Red Rebels with their red robes and white face paint, or the men in gas masks. I mean it was like a huge piece of political street theatre written by a brilliant satirist.

Wherever you looked there were little comic vignettes. At one point, having become slightly numb listening to one activist after another condemn ‘western consumerism’, I popped into Pret a Manger, only to be confronted by protestors politely queuing up to buy vegan baguettes. I could have sworn some of them were the very same people who’d been holding up signs saying ‘End Capitalism’ moments before. Then there was the hearse parked in Trafalgar Square, complete with a coffin in the back labelled ‘Our Future’, which immediately got a parking ticket.

Apart from that over-zealous traffic warden, the reaction of the authorities was a model of restraint. At first I found the police’s failure to enforce the law irritating — I joked to James Delingpole that if it were a group of Catholic nuns protesting about changes to the Gender Recognition Act, the riot squad would have been straight in with the tear gas. But I came around to this policy as the day wore on. Rather than turn the demonstrators into martyrs by arresting them en masse and dragging them into paddy wagons, the police stood back for the most part and let them make fools of themselves.

On the day I was there, first prize went to Mark Rylance, who gave a speech saying he’d been inspired to resign from the Royal Shakespeare Company by Greta Thunberg. Apparently, the 59-year-old actor hadn’t realised BP’s £7.5 million sponsorship deal with the RSC, which has enabled 80,000 young people to buy tickets for £5, was immoral. The 16-year-old oracle had opened his eyes (and the RSC has severed ties with BP).

For all the demonstrators’ talk of ‘science’ and their insistence on telling ‘the truth’, it could not have been clearer that this global movement is a religious cult. Several of the protestors seemed to be in an emotional fugue state, their eyes burning brightly, like evangelicals possessed by the Holy Spirit.

Many people have made this observation before, but the protestors’ apocalyptic moralism — their absolute conviction that the world will end in our lifetimes if we don’t purge ourselves of sin — is a textbook hallmark of millenarianism. It has a good deal in common with Christianity in its febrile, late medieval phase, with Saint Greta as Joan of Arc, but it’s also post-Christian in the way predicted by Chesterton. I’m not thinking of his supposed comment about people believing in anything rather than nothing when they stop believing in God, although there was some evidence of that, with different groups embracing paganism in various forms. I’m thinking of another quote: ‘The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.’

The odd thing is that none of the protestors was aware that they were in the grip of these religious ideas, even though it was obvious to any outsider. And this too gave the affair a rich comic dimension. The highpoint of my day was witnessing a speech given by the Guardian columnist George Monbiot on Millbank. It was dusk and he was surrounded by hushed congregants sitting in a circle. He stood on a small box and delivered what was, in essence, a religious sermon. He talked about how he and his fellow eco–warriors were kind, altruistic people, rebelling ‘with love in our hearts’ against an ‘avaricious’, ‘vampiric’, ‘necro-philic’ economic system kept afloat by ‘neo-liberals’ and ‘psychopaths’. ‘If we love ourselves, we must purge this toxic system built around capitalism from our souls,’ he said. The talk ended with some call and response, with George shouting out ‘Extinction!’ and the crowd replying ‘Rebellion!’ It was like a scene from a 21st-century equivalent of The Life of Brian, except in this version the protagonist has embraced his messianic status.

Am I being too flippant about what could metastasise into a violent doomsday cult in the same mould as Aum Shinrikyo, the group that carried out the Tokyo subway sarin attack? Probably. But for the time being it’s hard not to laugh.

The Dreadful Attraction of Egalitarian, Utopian Ideas

This is the transcript of a talk I gave on 8th October 2019 at the Tuesday meeting organised by the Taxpayers’ Alliance on the first Tuesday of every month.

I’m a classical liberal. I believe in the doctrine of inalienable natural rights as set out by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government and think the legitimacy of the state derives from its being the best guarantor of those rights. My preferred metaphor is the state as a gardener, nurturing an environment in which people are able to pursue their own good, in their own way, provided they do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it (to paraphrase J.S. Mill from the Introductory to On Liberty).

As soon as the state goes beyond that role and violates those rights in the name of some ultimate goal, it loses its legitimacy. Which is to say, I believe in equal rights, equal treatment and equal opportunities and celebrate the victories of the chartists, the suffragettes, civil rights activists and others who have compelled the state to recognise those rights. But I don’t believe in equality of outcome. As Hayek and others have pointed out, the difficulty with end-state equality is that the attempt to bring it about invariably involves the violation of our natural rights, and it rarely succeeds.

Never succeeds, might be more accurate. The standard Marxist justification for all the terrible crimes committed by Communist dictators is, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” To which George Orwell replied: “Where’s the omelette?”

When I say that the attempt to bring about end-state equality inevitably means the violation of natural rights, I don’t just mean that the creation of the socialist Shangri-La usually involves the confiscation of property by the state and the execution of the ruling class. Even after that initial levelling, it’s unlikely that the state will just “wither away”, to use Engels’s phrase, because natural abilities are distributed unequally.

Behavioural scientists have taught us that it’s just flat out wrong to think that varying levels of ability and success are solely determined by social, economic and historical forces. Rather, they are partly determined by individual genetic differences – and if you equalize the environment, you exacerbate the impact of genetic differences, as Robert Plomin and others have pointed out.

Incidentally, that might not be true of another species, in which there’s less genetic variation. The famous Harvard entomologist Edward O Wilson, who has devoted his life to the study of ants, said of socialism: “Wonderful theory. Wrong species.”

So it’s a dangerous fantasy to think that, once you’ve eradicated socioeconomic inequality, human nature will flatten out accordingly – that you can return to “year zero”, as the Khmer Rouge put it. On the contrary, individual differences between human beings, rooted in biology, will stubbornly refuse to wither away, which means that an egalitarian society can only be maintained by a brutally coercive state that is constantly intervening to ‘correct’ the inequities of nature.

This is a point well made by the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature (1974):

At the heart of the egalitarian left is the pathological belief that there is no structure of reality; that all the world is a tabula rasa that can be changed at any moment in any desired direction by the mere exercise of human will — in short, that reality can be instantly transformed by the mere wish or whim of human beings.

Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that nearly every hard Left socialist experiment has resulted in the suppression of free speech, the imprisonment and torture of political dissidents, economic stagnation and, of course, mass starvation, the main cause of the unnecessary deaths that occurred under Communist regimes during the 20th Century, estimated to be around 100 million.

This point was nicely illustrated by a recent exchange on Twitter. Chris Hayes, editor-at-large of the Nation, the American version of the New Statesman, tweeted: “The least sexy part of socialism is effective, efficient bureaucratic administration but the project lives or dies based on it”, to which some wag replied, “I would say the least sexy part is breaking into the zoo and having to eat the animals.”

Incidentally, that’s not an exaggeration. Two years ago, thieves broke into a zoo in the Western Venezuelan state of Zulia and stole two collared peccaries. A spokesman for the Zulia division of the National Police said, “What we presume is that they were taken with the intention of eating them.”

And in the same year, as some of you will recall, President Maduro urged Venezuelans to stave off hunger by eating their pet rabbits.

That is the story of all utopian socialist political projects: They begin with a vision of the universal brotherhood of man and end with people having to eat their own pets.

But that begs an interesting question: Given how unsuccessful socialism has proved to be, why do so many stubbornly persist in believing in it? Look outside the window. A new generation is demanding we end capitalism and replace it with an egalitarian utopia.

Incidentally, on my way here I popped into Pret-a-Manger and it was gratifying to see a group of Extinction Rebellion protestors queuing up to buy vegan baguettes and kale smoothies. Their placards saying ‘END CAPITALISM’ were neatly stacked up outside.

Why do so many apparently intelligent, well-educated people believe that the reason the socialist experiment ended in disaster in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, Cambodia, Venezuela… literally, every time it’s been tried – isn’t because there’s anything wrong with the theory. No, it’s because that wasn’t real socialism.

And this isn’t just based on my own personal impressions. At the last General Election, Labour had a 35-point lead over the Conservatives among 18-24 year-olds. In the United States, a Harris poll in 2019 found that 61% of Americans aged 18-24 had a positive reaction to the word “socialism”, compared to 58% reacting positively to the word “capitalism.” That echoes the finding of a Gallup poll in 2018 that found 51% of 18-29 year-old Americans look on socialism favorably and only 45% view capitalism favorably.

That’s in spite of the fact that they have capitalism to thank for the iPhones in their hands, the designer watches on their wrists and the Starbucks coffee tucked under their elbows.

One theory is that it’s all down to ignorance. If only the humanities and social sciences departments of our universities weren’t so dominated by left-wing professors, then young people would have a more balanced view of the comparative merits of socialism and capitalism.

There’s plenty of data on this. According to some research carried out by the Adam Smith Institute in 2017, 11 per cent of academics identified as Conservative voters in 2015, compared to 46 per cent who said they were Labour. And of the rest, 22 per cent supported the Greens, and nine per cent the Liberal Democrats.

Right-wing academics are now effectively outnumbered by left-wing academics by a ratio of 7:1.

My favourite finding in that piece of research was that only 0.4 per cent of academics said they intended to vote UKIP in 2015 even though UKIP had won the European election the year before and polled 12.6 per cent of the vote at the General Election.

But while the left-wing bias of the professoriat is undoubtedly a factor, I don’t believe it is the main factor. What Jordan Peterson refers to as “the dreadful attraction of egalitarian, utopian ideas” is not primarily due to ignorance. Rather, it’s due to cognitive bias. As Margaret Thatcher said, echoing Murray Rothbard: “The facts of life are conservative.”

It’s not that people are unacquainted with those facts, but that they deliberately choose to ignore them.

Why?

When I spoke to Jordan Peterson about this last year, he attributed the survival of socialism to relative deprivation: Every human society has a hierarchical social structure and that inevitably leads to a sense of grievance on the part of the people at the bottom, as well as a sense of injustice on the part of people witnessing the suffering of those at the bottom.

“When you walk down the street in any major city and you see homeless people, it forces a part of yourself to cry out against injustice,” he said.

That may be true, but it begs the question: Why do people attribute the suffering of those at the bottom of the hierarchy to capitalism?

In a recent piece on homeless by Heather Mac Donald in City Journal she says San Francisco’s disastrous homelessness policy has been guided by three assumptions: homelessness is a housing problem; it is involuntary; and its persistence is the result of inadequate public spending.

All of these assumptions are false.

Homelessness isn’t caused by a lack of housing, but by mental illness and drug and alcohol dependency; many homeless people refuse offers of public housing; and increased public expenditure, at least in San Francisco, has exacerbated the problem, not relieved it.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that if you care about the suffering of those at the bottom of our society, you should embrace capitalism, not socialism.

Since 1990, more than a billion people across the globe have been lifted out of extreme poverty as countries like China, India and Indonesia have embraced the fundamental principles of the free enterprise system.

In 2013 alone, 114 million people saw their incomes climb from below $1.90 a day to above $1.90, the international poverty line.

Compare this with the effect of the socialist economic policies introduced by Hugo Chávez, whom Jeremy Corbyn hailed as “an inspiration to us all”. Venezuela was once tipped to be among the richest South American countries, thanks to its abundant natural resources; now it is among the poorest.

When Chávez came to power in 1998, 48 per cent of households were living in poverty; last year, that figure was 82 per cent.

Since 1990, the global infant mortality rate has more than halved, from 64.8 deaths per 1,000 live births to 30.5.

Venezuela’s infant mortality rate, by contrast, increased by 30 per cent in 2017.

But, of course, that isn’t real socialism.

Incidentally, the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has suffered no adverse consequences from enthusiastically endorsing Hugo Chavez is another example of socialism’s extraordinary ability to survive contact with reality.

There has literally never been an ideology with a more miserable track record, and yet in 2017 40 per cent of the British electorate voted for a party proudly proclaiming its allegiance to this failed doctrine.

It wasn’t as if Corbyn and his outriders acknowledged that all previous attempts to create a socialist Shangri-La had failed and explained why it would be different under him.
There was no fancy talk of “post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory” or “pre-distribution”, as there had been by his two predecessors.

No, he was selling exactly the same snake oil that every left-wing huckster has been peddling for the past 100 years, and in exactly the same bottle.

Corbyn reminds me of a pharmacist trying to flog thalidomide to an expectant mother while making no attempt to hide the fact that it has caused the deaths of at least 2,000 children and serious birth defects in more than 10,000 others.

And yet, nearly 13 million Britons bought this snake oil at the last General Election.

To try and solve the puzzle of socialism’s enduring appeal, we have to turn to evolutionary psychologists and in particular Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two of the leading thinkers in the field. They contend that we don’t come into the world as tabula rasa, ready to take on the imprint of whatever society we happen to be born into.
Rather, we are more like smartphones that come pre-loaded with various apps, including a set of moral intuitions.

The problem is, these apps haven’t been updated for 40,000 years. They were designed for small bands of hunter-gatherers rather than citizens of the modern world and prompt us to look more favourably on socialism than free-market capitalism.

Why?

Because in hunter-gatherer societies, where the pooling of resources is essential for survival, the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” makes perfect sense.

This is why we have such difficulty grasping the idea that people acting in an individual, self-interested way can create huge communal benefits, as it does under capitalism.
Back in the primeval forest, our survival depended upon distrusting people who acted like that. In hunter-gatherer societies, goods are finite. If someone has more than his fair share of meat, there is less for everyone else.

That’s not true of capitalist societies, where successful entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs create wealth without taking anything away from others.

But because we’re programmed to think of resources in a zero-sum way we cannot easily grasp this. Instead, we’re inclined to believe people like Corbyn and Bernie Sanders when they tell us the rich only got that way by stealing from the poor. All property is theft.

This zero-sum thinking doesn’t just explain why people cannot readily understand the concept of wealth being created under capitalism; it also explains why seeing people with more than us can lead to envy and resentment.

We look at their lavish property and, on some primitive, hunter-gatherer level, believe they’ve only come by what they have by depriving us of what we’re entitled to.
This thinking can often lead to a desire to tear down the person in question, to reduce their status so it’s level with ours.

The anthropologist Christopher Boehm believes that this violent impulse underpins all egalitarian ideologies, which might explain why intellectuals, Jews and middle-class property owners are often interned in prison camps and/or put to death in socialist societies.

Interestingly, Boehm points out that chimpanzees, with whom we share a common ancestor, are also prone to the same tall-poppy syndrome. I recommend his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior if you want to learn more about the pathological roots of socialism.

So what’s the solution? Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past? Hopefully not, but we need to tell a story about capitalism that is just as appealing to people’s 40,000-year-old moral intuitions as the sales patter of socialist snake oil salesmen.

Thank you.

The woke corporation: how campus madness entered the workplace

Cover story for the Spectator on the spread of Social Justice ideology in the private sector. Published on 9th March 2018.WokeCorporation

New employees at the British headquarters of Accenture, a global management consultancy, were slightly taken aback during a recent induction morning when the head of human resources encouraged them to wear rainbow-coloured lanyards declaring themselves ‘allies’ — not just at the meeting, but permanently. In addition, they were given the option of adding the word ‘ally’ in the same rainbow pattern to the footers of their company email addresses. Anyone confused by HR language — a reference to the second world war perhaps? — was referred to the company website, where the word ‘ally’ was helpfully defined: ‘An ally is someone who takes action to promote an inclusive and accepting culture regardless of their own identity and demonstrates commitment to an inclusive workplace. We currently have allies programmes for Mental Health, LGBT and People with Disabilities.’

This use of the term ‘ally’ originated on US college campuses as a way for the beneficiaries of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and so on (e.g. straight white males) to signal that they’re on the same side as ‘oppressed’ minorities in spite of their ‘white privilege’. In a seminal essay by a Californian consultant called Frances E. Kendall entitled ‘How to Be an Ally If You Are a Person With Privilege’, often cited by diversity and inclusion officers at American universities, allies are advised to preface what they say with, ‘As a white person…’ This is to let others know you’re aware that ‘being white has an impact on how I perceive everything’. A good ally speaks up if there are no ‘women of colour’ on a panel and ‘identifying committees, decision-making teams and departments that are “too white”’.

This madness, which long ago infected university campuses, is now seeping into HR departments of large employers. The result is the rise of the woke corporation, and it might affect the way you work. Certainly, no one should assume that their own company, however sensible-seeming, is immune.

AIG's Unconscious Bias Training.jpeg

Crackpot ideas that used to be confined to neo-Marxist professors in grievance studies departments have been enthusiastically embraced by the giants of capitalism. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Coca-Cola are all on board and anyone who publicly challenges this new orthodoxy is not merely endangering their chances of promotion, but at risk of being fired.

This was demonstrated by James Damore, a software engineer at Google, who in 2017 dared to question company dogma about why more women aren’t employed as tech engineers by appealing to some rudimentary scientific facts about average differences in men and women’s interests. He was dismissed for ‘advancing gender stereotypes’ — a decision that was then rubber-stamped by the National Labor Relations Board.

No one would dispute that the shibboleths of America’s ‘social justice’ left have thoroughly penetrated British universities. A recent internal email at the University of Hertfordshire announced that the institution had set itself the target of ensuring that 10 per cent of its employees are LGBT and 20 per cent BAME, even though LGBT people make up only 6 per cent of the UK population and BAME people 13 per cent. Such stories are now as commonplace as they are alarming. But this thinking has now spread to the British workplace.

Take the Civil Service, where internal applicants for promotion have been advised that they will be expected during the interview process to ‘demonstrate insight into the link between the moral and business case for equality and diversity and achieving organisational priorities’ and explain how they ‘actively promote diversity and equality… inside and outside the Civil Service’. That’s right, inside and outside. So merely being culturally left-wing at work (‘the moral case…for equality’) won’t be enough. You have to demonstrate to the assessment panel how woke you are in your private life too. In this regard, the Civil Service may be following the lead of the Law Society of Ontario which now requires everyone in possession of a licence to practise law in the state to ‘abide by a statement of principles acknowledging their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion’ in their personal as well as their professional lives.

Government is often vulnerable to forms of political madness. But what’s new is the spread of this extreme ideology to the corporate world. The infection often enters the system via their HR departments, whose staff now parrot the theoretical gobbledegook that originated in trendy university departments — gender studies, queer studies, whiteness studies, etc. They have convinced themselves it is their moral duty to eliminate ‘white privilege’. And so off they go, zealously spreading the gospel of wokeness. The accountancy firm KPMG used to content itself with giving money to charities working with disadvantaged children, but not any more. It is currently advertising for an ‘Inclusion, Diversity and Social Equality Manager’. That’s right, ‘social equality’ — an odd priority for a company that advises firms on how to minimise their tax burden.

The recruitment website Jobbio, anxious to advertise how on board it is with this new agenda, has included a page entitled ‘What happens if toxic masculinity goes unchecked in the workplace?’ Apparently, ‘toxic masculinity’ revolves around outdated ‘masculine norms’ like not crying when you’re upset, drinking heavily and prizing ‘strength and endurance’. Such values place women and minorities at a competitive disadvantage, according to Jobbio. But fear not: help is at hand. The HR consultancy Jaluch advises its clients on how to combat ‘micro-aggressions’ like claiming to treat everyone equally — which cannot be true, obviously, because we are all in the grip of ‘unconscious bias’.

‘Diversity training’ designed to reduce ‘unconscious’ or ‘implicit’ bias is an $8 billion a year industry in the US — Starbucks recently sent its 175,000 employees on a ‘bias training’ day – and a growing sector in the UK too. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that having been on one of these courses reduces discriminatory behaviour. On the contrary, a 2015 paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Psychology found that people who’d undertaken bias training were more prone to racial and gender stereotyping, not less. According to Lee Jussim, professor of psychology at Rutgers University, there is lots of evidence that mandatory bias training backfires and makes things worse.

Another example of diversity and inclusion policies being at risk of backfiring is the relentless auditing of companies to discover their gender pay gap. Since no private firm wants to disclose a large gap, and their HR departments promise to abolish this gap by, say, 2025, they have an incentive to stop employing women in low-paying positions.

Sometimes, corporate executives try to justify their embrace of wokeness by claiming it’s good for the bottom line, but there’s scant evidence for that. As soon as companies stop hiring by ability, and prioritise other factors, they invite trouble. Once, fighting discrimination meant not asking any intrusive questions and judging people on their merits — on the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin, to paraphrase Martin Luther King. But the woke corporation asks employees about social class (‘Have you ever been privately educated?’) and even whether they prefer men or women as sexual partners. Telling them it’s none of their business is unwise, to put it mildly. But if this relentless focus on diversity and inclusion doesn’t improve performance, why are Britain’s leading FTSE companies bending over backwards to out-woke one another?

Part of the reason is that their twentysomething employees are importing this culture into the organisations, having been immersed in it at university. The strange thing, though, is how willing their bosses are to do their bidding when they demand ‘safe spaces’ and gender-neutral toilets. Credit Suisse, for instance, has a ‘Reverse Mentoring’ scheme whereby recent graduates are encouraged to take older employees under their wing and coach them about diversity issues — presumably their ‘heteronormative privilege’ and so on. At some large firms the atmosphere is reminiscent of the ‘struggle sessions’ that took place during China’s Cultural Revolution in which grey-haired professors had to sit quietly, heads bowed, while angry students lectured them on how to comply with Maoist ideology.

It may be that business leaders of the baby-boom generation, particularly straight white men, are relishing the opportunity to curry favour with their children’s generation. It used to be the case that young political radicals demonised bosses as members of the hated ‘one per cent’ and held them responsible for all the world’s ills. However, one of the peculiarities of the ‘social justice’ left is that it’s less focused on old-fashioned, vertical equality between individuals and nations, and more on horizontal equality between different identity groups. Provided multinational giants such as Procter & Gamble have sufficient numbers of women and minorities in senior management positions and at board level, and provided they regurgitate woke orthodoxies from time to time — like Gillette’s ‘toxic masculinity’ ad — the new generation of progressive activists don’t seem to care about the gap between the highest- and lowest-paid employees. In effect, the left has made its peace with capitalism and the upshot is that the multimillionaire panjandrums of the private sector can proudly stand beside their old university chums in the public sector and claim that they, too, are doing their bit to make the world a better place.

Or perhaps these wily businessmen are embracing the nostrums of Generation Woke for more mercenary reasons. The American journalist Ross Douthat recently suggested it’s all about insuring against the risk of the Democrats regaining control of the White House — and fear of a Corbyn government may be playing the same role here. Douthat refers to this as ‘the Peace of Palo Alto…in which a certain kind of virtue-signalling on progressive social causes, a certain degree of performative wokeness, is offered to liberalism and the activist left pre-emptively, in the hopes that having corporate America take their side in the culture wars will blunt efforts to tax or regulate our new monopolies too heavily.’ He points out that one of the side effects of wealthy capitalists becoming holier-than-thou Social Justice Warriors is that it drives America’s already alienated working class completely nuts, thereby making Donald Trump’s re-election more likely — which also serves their corporate interests. It’s win-win for the woke one per cent!

Whatever the explanation, the spread of ‘social justice’ orthodoxy to the business world is a sinister development. The workplace is becoming ideological in a way that makes people worry what they say in the evenings, or at the water cooler – even in the pub after work. Whether you work in the public or private sector, it won’t be long before you’re assigned a ‘reverse mentor’ and have to endure a ‘struggle session’, assuming you haven’t already. In the recent past, the corporate sector was either apolitical or conservative, which provided a counterweight to the spread of left-wing dogma in virtually every other area of life. Now, there’s no escaping the new commissars of progressive ideology — the wokerati.

The final frontier in the culture war has been breached. It’s true of America and it’s true here: we’re all ‘allies’ now.

Of course the young like socialism – they’re taught to

Column for the Spectator on why millennials are so sympathetic to socialism and hostile to capitalism. Published on 27th September 2018.

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It beggars belief that Jeremy Corbyn can, with a straight face, announce that capitalism has failed and we’d all be better off under socialism. ‘The super-rich are on borrowed time,’ he said at the Labour party conference. He’s going to tax the rich until their pips squeak, overlooking the fact that the coalition government’s decision to lower the top rate of tax from 50 per cent to 45 per cent actually boosted tax revenues. The taxes paid by the top 1 per cent of income earners are now responsible for 28 per cent of the total tax take, higher than it ever was under Labour. Coincidentally, 28 per cent of the total amount the government spent in 2016-17 was on welfare — things like social security benefits, disability benefits, incapacity benefits, housing benefit, child benefit etc. In effect, the rich are paying for the services that sustain the poorest people in our society. Isn’t that an example of capitalism working as it should?

More generally, the superiority of capitalism to socialism when it comes to helping the very poorest is completely indisputable. Since 1990, more than a billion people across the globe have been lifted out of extreme poverty as countries like China, India and Indonesia have embraced the fundamental principles of the free enterprise system. In 2013 alone, 114 million people saw their incomes climb from below $1.90 a day to above $1.90, the international poverty line. Compare this with the effect of the socialist economic policies introduced by Hugo Chávez, whom Corbyn hailed as ‘an inspiration to us all’. Venezuela was once tipped to be among the richest South American countries, thanks to its abundant natural resources; now it is among the poorest. When Chávez came to power in 1998, 48 per cent of households were living in poverty; last year, that figure was 82 per cent. Since 1990, the global infant mortality rate has more than halved, from 64.8 deaths per 1,000 live births to 30.5. Venezuela’s infant mortality rate, by contrast, increased by 30 per cent last year.

I could go on. The 20th century was littered with socialist leaders who plunged their countries into economic ruin. Most scholars estimate the death toll from communism to be around 110 million, with those who didn’t starve to death or die from preventable diseases being worked to death in labour camps or executed by the state. The standard response of the ‘I am literally a communist’ types when confronted with this statistic is to engage in a bit of whataboutery — what about all those killed by capitalism?

In order to make that argument, they have to expand the definition of ‘capitalism’ to include the transatlantic slave trade and the most heinous examples of colonialism, such as Belgian’s conquest of the Congo, as if slavery and imperial conquest are unique to western capitalism. But even if the free enterprise system has been responsible — is responsible — for a certain amount of misery, it has also alleviated a good deal of suffering. Socialism just impoverishes and enslaves people.

Yet a majority of young people prefer socialism to capitalism. This is one of the great mysteries of the age. According to a Pew survey carried out in 2011, 49 per cent of 18- to 29-year-old Americans have a positive view of socialism and only 43 per cent a negative one. When it comes to capitalism, the vote swings the other way, with 47 per cent positive and 48 per cent negative. The same is true of British millennials. At the last election, 62 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted Labour. How to explain this? It’s as if, given the choice of getting into two cars, one a VW Golf and the other a 100-year-old jalopy held together with spit and glue, they’ll happily choose the deathtrap.

I blame the education system. In the past I’ve written about the left-wing bias of British universities. For instance, a survey of university staff in 2015 found that only 11 per cent intended to vote Conservative. But the imbalance in our schools is even worse, as we were reminded by the teacher at the Labour conference who claimed that if children get a ‘proper education’ the country ‘won’t have any Tories’. Only 9 per cent of British schoolteachers voted Conservative last year, compared with a plurality in the 1970s. That’s an all-time low. Is it any wonder young people believe capitalism is the font of all evil and the magic grandpa will create a socialist paradise? The poor bastards have been brainwashed.

Can evolution solve the mystery of why Jeremy Corbyn did so well at the last election?

Column I wrote for the Spectator on 23rd September 2017 in which I asked whether evolutionary psychology could solve the puzzle of why socialism remains popular in spite of its poor track record.

Corbyn

One of the mysteries of our age is why socialism continues to appeal to so many people. Whether in the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia or Venezuela, it has resulted in the suppression of free speech, the imprisonment of political dissidents and, more often than not, state-sanctioned mass murder. Socialist economics nearly always produce widespread starvation, something we were reminded of last week when the President of Venezuela urged people not to be squeamish about eating their rabbits. That perfectly captures the trajectory of nearly every socialist experiment: it begins with the dream of a more equal society and ends with people eating their pets. Has there ever been an ideology with a more miserable track record?

Why, then, did 40 per cent of the British electorate vote for a party led by Jeremy Corbyn last June? It wasn’t as if he acknowledged that all previous attempts to create a socialist utopia had failed and explained why it would be different under him. There was no fancy talk of ‘post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory’ or ‘pre-distribution’, as there had been by his two predecessors. No, he was selling exactly the same snake oil that every left-wing huckster has been peddling for the past 100 years, and in exactly the same bottle. He reminded me of a pharmacist trying to flog thalidomide to an expectant mother while making no attempt to hide the fact that it has caused the deaths of at least 2,000 children and serious birth defects in more than 10,000 others. And yet, nearly 13 million Britons voted for Corbyn. Could it be that they just don’t know about all the misery and suffering that socialism has unleashed?

That’s a popular theory on my side of the political divide and has prompted a good deal of head-scratching about how best to teach elementary history — such as that more people were killed by Stalin than by Hitler. One suggestion is to create a museum of communist terror that documents all the people murdered in the great socialist republics — and full credit to the journalist James Bartholomew for getting some traction behind this idea. But is it really historical ignorance that prompts people to invest their hopes in Corbyn? An inconvenient fact for holders of this theory is that those who voted Labour at the last election tended to be better educated than those who voted Tory.

To try and solve the puzzle of socialism’s enduring appeal, we have to turn to evolutionary psychologists and in particular Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two of the leading thinkers in the field. They contend that we don’t come into the world as tabulae rasae, ready to take on the imprint of whatever society we happen to be born into. Rather, we are more like smartphones that come pre-loaded with various apps, including a set of moral intuitions. The problem is, these apps haven’t been updated for 40,000 years. They were designed for small bands of hunter-gatherers rather than citizens of the modern world and prompt us to look more favourably on socialism than free-market capitalism. Why? Because in hunter-gatherer societies, where the pooling of resources is essential for survival, the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ makes perfect sense. By the same token, we have a great deal of difficulty grasping that people acting in an individual, self-interested way can create huge communal benefits, as it does under capitalism. Back in the primeval forest, our survival depended upon distrusting people who weren’t willing to engage in reciprocal altruism.

In hunter-gatherer societies, goods are finite. If someone has more than his fair share of meat, there is less for everyone else. That’s not true of capitalist societies, where successful entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs create wealth without taking anything away from others; but because we’re programmed to think of resources in a zero-sum way we cannot easily understand this. Instead, we’re inclined to believe people like Corbyn when they tell us the rich only got that way by stealing from the poor.

This zero-sum thinking doesn’t just explain why people cannot readily understand the concept of wealth being created under capitalism; it also explains why seeing people with more than us can lead to envy and resentment. We look at their lavish property and, on some primitive, hunter-gatherer level, believe they’ve only come by what they have by depriving us of what we’re entitled to. All property is theft. This thinking can often lead to a desire to tear down the person in question, to reduce their status so it’s level with ours. The anthropologist Christopher Boehm believes that this violent impulse underpins all egalitarian ideologies, which might explain why intellectuals, Jews and middle-class property owners are often interned in prison camps and/or put to death in socialist societies. (See Russia, China, Cambodia, etc.) Interestingly, Boehm points out that chimpanzees, with whom we share a common ancestor, are also prone to the same tall-poppy syndrome. I recommend his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior if you want to learn more about the pathological roots of socialism.

So what’s the solution? Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past? Hopefully not, but we need to tell a story about capitalism that is just as appealing to people’s 40,000-year-old moral intuitions as the sales patter of socialist snake oil salesmen.

Cartoons

D5LmgYhX4AAZfMv.jpg-large.jpegLimericks

There was an old bastard named Lenin

Who did two or three million men in.

That’s a lot to have done in

But where he did one in

That old bastard Stalin did ten in.

Charts

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world-gdp-over-the-last-two-millennia.png

Links

Capitalism used to promise a better future. Can it still do that? by Richard Reeves, The Guardian, 22nd May 2019

Socialism’s Endless Refrain: This Time, Things Will Be Different by Kristian Niemietz, Quillette, 30th March 2019

Almost without exception the freer the country, the more rapid its economic growth, and the higher its citizens’ income, HumanProgress, 28th September 2017

A majority of millennials now reject capitalism, poll shows, The Washington Post, 26th April 2016

The battle for history by Seumas Milne, The Guardian, 12th September 2002