The Choice Between Capitalism and Socialism

The Choice Between Capitalism and Socialism

By Robert Tracinski - April 27, 2009

A few days ago, I happened to meet a doctor in our area who has an unusual background. He emigrated to America from Russia, and I heard from one of the nurses in his practice that he had to go back through medical school and earn a new degree in order to get his medical license in the United States. This, I thought, is a man who has uprooted his life to an extraordinary degree, all so that he can live and work in America. So when I had the opportunity to talk to him, I asked him why he did it.

He is a very quiet-spoken and reserved man, so much so that I felt sheepish asking him a personal question, and I did not expect much in return. Instead, I got an answer more thorough and profound than I could have guessed at.

"I came here," he said, "because of my son." His son is ten years old, and he moved to the US ten years ago. I thought perhaps this meant that his son had some rare medical condition that could be better treated in America. But that wasn't it. He came here, he said, because "they won't change"-by which he meant that Russia's culture had not fundamentally changed after the collapse of the Soviet system. I asked if he left because of Vladimir Putin, who has spearheaded the effort to re-impose an authoritarian political system in Russia. But he replied, "Putin is nothing. It is the system."

You can get by in the system and have a decent life, he explained, if you know the rules-that is, if you know which wheels to grease and which authorities to please, if you know the right things to say and the things you aren't allowed to say. "I grew up in the system, so I learned the rules," he continued. "But you ask yourself whether you want your child to learn the rules." That is a profound and courageous observation. It is not just the material effect of living under a corrupt, bureaucratic, tyrannical system that he feared; it was the soul-destroying psychological effect of having to learn and internalize the rules of that system.

His overall summary of Russia's culture of authoritarianism is that "They do not value human life." This was his introduction to the subject on which he was most passionate: socialized medicine. A major part of the reason he left Russia was because socialized medicine is just as intolerable for doctors as it is for patients.

Socialized medicine, he stated flatly, "doesn't work." Why doesn't it work? He explained that a doctor works for the state-not for his patients. So he spends much of his time filling out forms. "As long as the forms are filled out, no one cares what the patient says," how he is doing, or whether he survives.

He then went out of his way to point out that the current administration wants to move us toward socialized medicine. "If they move us just a little bit, it will not be so bad. But if they move us a lot, it will be a disaster." Keep that in mind during the coming debates over President Obama's plans for the de facto nationalization of our medical system.

After our conversation, I shook his hand warmly and told him we were happy to have him here. But that one question he asked kept haunting me. "Do you want your child to learn the rules?"

It struck me that this is not just the question he had to ask himself when he decided to leave Russia. It is the question we Americans ought to be asking ourselves right now. Do we want to live in a society where the state has such a predominant role that you get live a decent life if you know the rules? Do we want our children to learn those rules-the rules they will have to follow to show their proper subordination to the power of the government and those who run it?

That is what socialism is about.

But America is cherished the world over as the place where no one has to learn the rules. We have traditionally been a country where the average person can speak his mind and plan his career path without having to think twice about the arbitrary rules that might be imposed on him by some government authority. And when it comes to informal rules about social customs or the way things are done in the business world-well, we pride ourselves on being people who break the rules. The key to our dynamic society and our enormous productivity is that we are constantly rearranging "the way things are done"-and we are rewarded for doing so.

That is what capitalism is about.

Fundamentally, America is a place for independent men-which is why it attracts independent thinkers from around the world. But the current push toward a dominant role for government in our economy-with the government running automakers, hospitals, universities, banks, and who knows what else-threatens to change our culture at the deepest level, converting us into a population of compliant rule-followers.

So that's the choice we face, and you are going to have to decide where you stand. Do you want your children to learn the rules? Or do you want them to grow up as free men?


Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

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