The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, by Kevin D. Williamson

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
–Auden, “Epitaph on a Tyrant”

Having heard an interview with the author, I expected this book to be a basic economics lesson for the general reader, along the lines of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. The first three chapters are in that vein and good reading. Here’s his explanation of why central planning of prices is impossible, using milk as an example:

Some people, such as vegans or the lactose intolerant, consume no milk. But some households consume large quantities of the drink: those with many kids, those who use lots of milk products in their cooking, etc. Others may consume varying amounts; in July, when it’s hot and humid, a family might prefer lemonade, but it might consume a lot of milk in August if it’s whipping up a bunch of home-made ice cream for a big family reunion.

In addition to quantity calculations, there are various questions to answer, too: whole milk or skim, 1 percent or 2 percent? Do you prefer more expensive organic milk or cheaper factory-farmed milk? And if you prefer the pricier organic stuff, how much more are you willing to pay for it? What about soy milk? Chocolate milk? The delicious Pennsylvania Dutch treat known as vanilla milk?

There are 115 million households in the United States. If we imagine a weekly milk-consumption budget for each of them, that’s 5.98 billion household-weeks to plan for. Adding in a fairly restrictive list of variables–call it zero to twenty quarts a week, four levels of fat content, organic/nonorganic, soy/dairy, and three flavor options–you end up with around 6 trillion options to choose from.

No wonder the East Germans just stuck to one model of car–the Trabant–and so eliminated the problem of forecasting consumer choice.

The bulk of the book reviews various socialist or part-socialist regimes around the world–Sweden, North Korea, Venezuela, as well as the socialist aspects of American society, such as the public schools, public highways, and of course, in the last chapter, last year’s health care initiative. Public schools fit the definition of socialism from Williamson’s first chapter: “the public provision of non-public goods.” (“Public goods” are defined as those goods that by their nature cannot be easily provided by the free market, such as national defense and law enforcement.)

“Socialism” can be a fighting word, so the reader may disagree on whether something is socialism (such as public schools). Really, the question is whether the practice is a kind of socialism that can’t be lived with. Public schools certainly look socialist–the government decides where you’re going to school and how you’ll be taught. If you want a choice in the matter, you can move (maybe), or you can try to live outside the system entirely.

Williamson’s own views are clear–he doesn’t think that socialism works, and he doesn’t want to live under it. With the resignation of the clear-eyed man in the land of the blind, he knows, though, that socialism has its attractions for the masses, no matter how thoroughly he shows its errors.

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