North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw Saturday's provocative rocket test, according to state media. KCNA/via REUTERS

“What fools these mortals be!” It applies today as much as in Shakespeare’s Puck’s time. After a century and a quarter’s time, despite examples from Russia’s communist empire, to Germany’s awful experiment with National Socialism, Cambodia’s skull piles, China’s Red Guard, just as the utter failure of socialism’s last miscarriages in Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea are being readied for disposal in metaphorical body bags, young politicians seemingly without any sense of history attempt to raise the dead.

Mumbling utopian magic formulas, they assert themselves in the US Congress, and tell the old lies about free stuff. Using the power of big government, their plan of action is to replace with commands from the state most private institutions where private persons seek material comfort as consumers and as well earn profit as producers. Power to make decisions is withdrawn from persons who would otherwise act out of free will, and instead, “social” entities (regulators, planners, government bureaucrats) coerce, cadge, tax, subsidize and in other ways, including legislation and ultimately brute force, they seek to nullify private choices, preferences and inclinations.

But “choices” made in the absence of free will – at least insofar as freedom is absent, and thus to the degree real choice is denied to the social actors involved – cannot really be called moral (or immoral). That is, to the extent that the state becomes the key player on the stage of human action, individuals are pawns being pushed around “the board” by force, by law, by socialist “bosses.” Without freedom of action, morality in the form of self-responsibility is lost to the entire community. Since “The Community” does not really exist, except in the imagination of socialists, social power falls into the hands of highly imperfect socialist “bosses.”

Socialism’s failure is in its moral implications. Power finds its way into the likes of Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Even worse, Kim’s henchmen throughout his “kingdom” can say (if they are ever brought to justice) “I was required to follow orders.” Interestingly, the only moral form of behavior left for ordinary folk is resistance. There is an ever-present requirement to defy the orders, because they are an affront to personal freedom, and personal responsibility, even when those orders may be technically efficient. Of course, since the best citizens are thus morally bound to not follow orders, simple-minded technical efficiency, if it ever had any chance of arising, is frustrated.

Socialism’s failure is in its moral implications. Power finds its way into the likes of Korea’s Kim Jong Un

David Hume said you cannot convince by pure logic the average human being to consider the welfare of others and so restrain the average man’s actions by logical arguments to even suffer as little discomfort as would be caused by a scratch on the actor’s finger. Human nature, controlled by emotion, says Hume, must be “tricked” into making the world better off (in the economic case by the self-interest a buyer has in getting a bargain, or a seller has in getting a profit). Voluntary institutions like the market must be introduced to induce imperfect human beings to behave with empathy and sympathy to persons who are at a distance from the actor. That is, my human nature will automatically, without teaching or trickery, induce me to be good to those that I love but be indifferent to persons who are at a social distance from me.

The institutions produced by socialism are very close to those of raw force, or else they are pure logic and therefore are unable to overcome the limits that human nature places on my generosity (or beneficence, to use David Hume’s word). So logical instruction, if not accompanied by force, cannot induce empathy. If force and coercion are employed to produce false empathy, socialism’s rules have adverse moral consequences. If market-driven “empathy” is also said to be false, at least it is voluntary and consistent with human nature. In any case, in the absence of telepathy, we cannot know if human action is motivated by true empathy. We must always settle for “it looks like empathy or fellow feeling or ‘the pursuit of happiness.’” The “it” here is the better, richer world produced by a free market.

The point is that morality thrives best in an atmosphere of freedom. We are talking about the freedom to act. Free actions take place in the absence of coercion by the state. (Of course, such “free” action is limited by voluntary contract and the rights of others.) It even seems that freedom is required if moral behavior is to characterize most human action. One proof is to consider how difficult it is to claim that oppression, compulsion and duress are consistent with freedom.

Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre tried to claim as much in a (self-serving) Atlantic Monthly December 1944 article wherein he attempted to defend himself against criticism that he chose to remain in occupied Paris for much of World War II. I don’t think he succeeded in fooling anyone: “Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces…. They deported us en masse…. And because of all this we were free.” He seemed to confuse the thrill of a fight with the serenity of freedom: “And that is why the Resistance was a true democracy; for the soldier, as for his superior, the same danger, the same loneliness, the same responsibility, the same absolute freedom within the discipline.”

A world without freedom, even if it is “the Resistance,” is a world where motives are unclear, morality is blurred, and choices cannot reflect free will. If the French “freedom fighter” (FF) wrecks a train, killing the women and children aboard because the train also carries ammunition used by the occupying forces, is the action heroic or murder? Is the FF a Nietzschean superman or a sociopath? If a Machiavellian prince who runs the socialistic utopia and who routinely breaks his word fights wars for more territory and raises taxes to bribe other princes a founding father or a tyrant?

In the absence of freedom, to be without property rights and when denied secure contracts all sorts of complicated personalities appear: heroes, supermen, dictators, cowards and statists. Ideas like morality, liberty and the pursuit of happiness lose their meaning, being replaced by National Interest, The People, Destiny, the need to survive and other shibboleths associated with socialism as it has appeared in the history of the world.

Freedom and liberty may make for a quiet, Sunday afternoon sort of civilization that yet proves to be much more congenial to good living than does the day-to-day oppression of ordinary socialism, or any of its more energetic alternative forms, however much such novelties may appeal to existential phenomenologists or half-educated American radical congressional freshmen.

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