Paradise and Perdition

Last week I wrote about the attitudes and ideas that we need to get straight before this nation can heal. This is the first essay in a series that will deal with those ideas.


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I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to PBS turn-of-last-century dramas – Downton Abbey, Mr. Selfridge, The Paradise. When it comes to these shows I’ve had to admit to being a cliché – an old woman with her knitting, totally absorbed in stories about afternoon teas and the wearing of corsets.

So imagine my horror as I watched sweet little Denise of The Paradise excitedly propose her first policy change as head of ladies’ wear -- all tips would henceforth be pooled and divided evenly amongst the clerks. Imagine my disbelief and dismay when all the young salesladies received that news with great glee – all but one, who gamely went along with the crowd in spite of her misgivings and her certain knowledge that she was the one who would lose in this arrangement.

It was just a piece of intrusive propaganda which anyone watching television ought to be used to by now, but it stuck out as such a sore literary thumb to have the spunky little heroine out-Marxing Karl decades before he ever scuttled onto the scene. The vignette had no place in the plot, has not been mentioned since and was apparently just there so that some writer could earn his socialism badge.

Were this a real department in a real store, we know what would happen to Denise’s silly little let’s-all-share plan. The sales girls would get sloppier and sloppier, would no longer rush to assist the pampered customers, and would instead stand back gossiping; both profits and wages would go down. We know this would happen not just from speculation, but
--   from history
--   from knowledge of human nature.

Let’s look at history ---

Share and share alike was the official policy of the Mayflower Compact and those settlers who landed in Massachusetts in 1620 had agreed to the following:
       “ The persons transported & ye adventurers shall continue their joint stock & partnership together, ye space of 7 years…during which time, all profits & benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remain still in ye common stock…
          ‘That all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provision out of ye common stock & goods…
           “That at ye end of ye 7 years, ye capital & profits, viz. the houses, lands, goods and chattels, be equally divided betwixt ye adventurers, and planters.”

The first winter killed nearly half the party and the following year treated them no better. Resentment grew with the fear and the misery. The Pilgrims, being human, were unwilling to work any harder than the laziest and most incompetent amongst them since no one could gain any advantage. They were not only unable to provide for themselves, but they were unable to repay the loan investors had made them. The colony appeared to be doomed. It wasn’t until William Bradford took over its leadership and threw out the communal aspects of the Compact did anything change. He gave each man a plot of land on which to grow his food – food not for the betterment of the colony, but for his own family.

The change was not slow and gradual, but immediate and by the seventh year the colony was not only prospering, but able to repay its backers. They succeeded where other communal colonies had failed. They had invented capitalism.  

Two hundred years later another group of Americans would attempt to construct another socialist commune – Brook Farm. Those who signed on made commitments similar to the Mayflower compact and worked together sharing the proceeds equally. The colony held together from 1840 until its collapse in 1847; it had never been financially stable.

Where has this communistic social organization been workable? In some ways the kibbutzim of the Zionist movement worked, though most of those have now been privatized. But communism failed in the USSR. Communist China has had to adopt many capitalist traits in order to feed its people, and still families are only allowed one child. Cuba has been in a state of financial ruin ever since Fidel Castro took over in the late 50’s. Venezuela is coming apart. North Koreans are starving.

So why doesn’t it work? Fairness, equality, sharing all seem so lovely, so calming, so fair.
We can answer that question by looking at human nature:

Communism (socialism, progressivism, liberalism – whatever the name, the concept stays the same) assumes that humans are all so much alike as to be merely building blocks, cogs on a wheel, mere molecules. But that’s not true. Each individual is just that – utterly individual. We all have a strong sense that each of us is unique.

Each of us has his own abilities, flaws, dreams, idiosyncrasies. Each of us has her own sense of worth, of possibilities, of the preciousness of life -- at some level we all value our own existence. Jesus told us to “… love our neighbors as we love ourselves.” As a child from a large family, drilled endlessly on the virtues of selflessness, this commandment puzzled me, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that we can’t really love another unless we understand our own value – our value to ourselves, to others, to God.

If God values us, then we should value others; they must be worthy of our care and concern, worthy of our enjoyment, of our encouragement. If He created each of us as irreplaceable one-offs, then any society we form must recognize that or it will not function. A car engine will not run if made entirely of pistons. A cake will not rise if there’s nothing in it but flour.

The communal understanding of social order does not recognize the exceptionality of each person and sees us, instead, as mere game pieces to be shoved around as necessary. This point of view sees some as being of more value than others – those in power -- and yet, nonsensically, insists that we sacrifice our uniqueness on the altar of equality, to the ugly god of identity politics.

God designed each person to take care of himself, to blossom, to use his creativity and his personal drive to build something for himself. We thrive when we are rewarded for that effort. But when social order thwarts personal expression (“You didn’t build that.”), when no one gives credit for production, for exceptional performance (i.e. no merit pay for teachers), then the human soul shrivels and a society of shriveled souls is unsustainable.

A shriveled soul does not work hard or generate great ideas. A shriveled soul does anything it can to ease the pain of the shriveling – sex, drugs, violence – anything to stop the misery of having no way to fulfill longings. The socialist order of things destroys much more than the economy; it demolishes the heart of man.

The United States of America opened the door to the possibility of life without withering, profitless toil; that is why everyone wants to live here. Capitalism, far from being the bad guy, is the biggest, most generous golden goose ever invented. But America has wandered into the perdition of a faceless, lock-step existence and the end of freedom on Earth.

I’d love to watch a TV drama that extolled the virtues of a free market system, but until then I’ll just keep talking and reminding people that America has the capacity to be paradise.

Lessons for today:
    Television rarely tells the truth.
    Policies that ignore human uniqueness will fail.
    There are really only 2 ways to organize an economy – free market and central control or socialism, which interestingly enough has to change its name every few decades to keep people ignorant of its ugly realities.