Franke: Rating Socialists by their Beer
by Mark Franke
I have this rule to avoid books that use either profanity or obscenity in their titles, with good cause. They generally double down on the offensive language once inside, no doubt to cover up the writing and thinking deficiencies of the authors. But I made an exception to this rule, and I am quite glad I did.
“Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World” (Regnery Publishing, 2019) by two rather irreverent Texans named Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell has me reconsidering my liborum prohibitorum.
I admit the beer glasses on the cover had something to do with it, but the main reason was the publishing house, one that I have come to trust to print books worth the intellectual heavy lifting required.
Still, the obscenities within are not totally gratuitous but still could have been avoided. Enough grousing, and on to the book. Lawson and Powell are unreconstructed libertarians, strong free market economists but also holding to extreme libertarian views on such things as totally open borders. Even so, their rather earthy condemnation of socialism of every stripe is made in a pithy way such that laymen will get the point — that being (sorry) socialism sucks.
The authors set out on a world tour of the garbage dumps and hell holes that socialism leaves behind and give a tourist’s view of why, or mostly why not, you will want to travel there. Make no mistake; you certainly won’t want to live in any of these places, except perhaps for the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia which is hurtling into the world of free markets.
They travel through Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea and see the horrendous human cost of socialism writ large. Actually, they just looked at North Korea from across the border for the most part, wisely not wanting to become permanent guests of the Supreme Leader. These are the worst cases, to be sure, but they are also the nations that proudly proclaim their socialist orthodoxy.
It is the chapter titles that tell the story: “Venezuela is Starving Socialism,” “Cuba is Subsistence Socialism” and “North Korea is Dark Socialism.”
The tour starts in Sweden, the chapter entitled “Not Socialism.” In spite of the tantrums thrown by AOC, the Bern and Mayor Pete, the authors make it clear that Sweden is not now nor never really was a socialist country. It is a capitalist economy that is heavily taxed to support a social welfare or nanny state. It is one that, to steal from Margaret Thatcher, recently awakened from its over-indulgence with a hangover and a New Year’s Day type of “we can’t do this anymore” resolution.
In fact, the chapter on Russia and Ukraine is entitled “Hungover Socialism” to describe those nations’ lurch-like attempts to allow markets while preserving the economic power of former Soviet apparatchiks. More successful at this hybrid approach is China, called “Fake Socialism” to recognize the fact that markets work at the village level as well as for the plutocrats.They really didn’t get into the western regions or Tibet, whose inhabitants might beg to disagree with the rose-colored glasses worn by the authors, but their analysis indicates why China represents both our major competitor and a key trading partner.
This is a serious book not written in a serious style. That’s what makes it so useful. You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand its points in glorious black and white. For example, they have their own ranking scale for these economies, one based on the quality and quantity of the beer selection. Hint to travelers: You don’t want to go to North Korea on a beer-tasting excursion.
For the coup de gras, the authors end the book attending a convention of American socialists and discover, no surprise here, that most don’t understand what socialism really is. Their interviewees equated socialism with abortion rights, free immigration or whatever the current left-wing gospel dictates.
An economic system wherein the government owns all the means of production? Huh? There were a few true socialists there, many apparently from my generation but certainly not from the Millennial herd. That newest “best generation ever” is supporting something they don’t understand or really believe in, but there you go. My student loans forgiven! Free tuition! Feel the Bern, baby. I despair . . .
Anyone who reads this book and still advocates more socialism needs to be, well, put on the ballot for the Democrat presidential nomination. Others need not apply.
Recommendation: It is Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” for the MSNBC and CNN crowd. A good primer for the Fox News groupies as well so they can at least hold their own at cocktail parties or in the neighborhood pub.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar and of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.