A Review of William Starr Myers' Socialism and American Ideals 1919 [William Starr Myers, Ph.D., was Professor of Politics, Princeton University]
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This modest and unpretentious volume does not purport to contain an exhaustive study of the theory and practice of socialism, but it presents a remarkably keen, clear-cut, and withal good-tempered argument to show that the basic principles of socialism, and of its precursor, paternalism in government, are diametrically opposed not only to the American plan of government and the ideals out of which it grew, but also to the very spirit of democracy itself, and even to the foundations of the religion which most of us profess. The genius of American institutions is in permitting and encouraging individual effort and initiative. It is not universal happiness which is promised by our constitutions, but the right to pursue it, and this means equality of opportunity for each individual to seek and achieve the destiny which suits him best. The theory of socialism, on the other hand, represses individuality, allocates activity, professes to help all the members of the body politic, but does so in spite of themselves, and so, as Professor Myers aptly says, “inevitably pauperizes and atrophies human character.” For the result of socialism as a permanent policy, as he states, “means the substitution of government or official judgment and initiative for that of the individual. The whole process would be one to deaden and atrophy the powers of the people in general, with the result that there would follow a leveling down to a plane of mediocrity rather than a leveling up according to individual capacities and ambitions, exercised through equality of opportunity.” Nor is this all. For “in a socialistic state, inevitably there would be formed a bureaucracy of selfish office holders. Although, owing to the impetus of our previous free democracy, the first socialist officials might be men of ability who had gained their places through successful experience, yet a close corporation of officials would follow them and retain the exercise of power. The people gradually would sink to a level of servile conformity.”
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And although socialism dons the shining armor of democracy, and cries aloud in the name of the “plain people,” the “common people,” the “toiling masses,” and so on, it is but a pretender and is false to the very standard it holds aloft. For socialism “is essentially undemocratic. A democracy means a government by public opinion and this opinion is the result of the co-operative impulse or community feeling of the people of a free country—a people who are given the opportunity to think for themselves, and are not thought for by a divinely constituted government. As Thomas Jefferson maintained, liberty is not a privilege granted by a government, but government is a responsibility delegated to its officers by the people. And on this distinction hangs all the philosophy of democracy.”
The first step in practical socialism would be the assumption and operation by the government of the most important public utilities, particularly the agencies of transportation and communication and some of the processes of production. The results of such a policy are no longer a matter of surmise or even of argument. The experiment has been tried in various countries of Europe, and Professor Myers points out in one of his most interesting chapters that the invariable consequences are disastrous inefficiency, waste, extravagance, and deterioration of service. For that matter, the experiment has been tried in the United States; and if the American people have not read the lesson which is written plainly across the face of governmental operation of the railroads, telegraphs, and telephones, then they would not give heed though one spoke to them from the dead.
But society is not static, and undoubtedly we are faced with new problems and must devise new processes. Professor Myers believes that the better way, or, as he calls it, the true antidote to socialism, lies in the direction of the free and successful use of cooperation, not only in the new relation of capital and labor, but in the processes of production and in the purchase and distribution of commodities. "Cooperation" is a term which the socialist especially likes, but one to which he has no manner of right. For "cooperation is a social movement, the impulse for which comes from within the human heart, while socialism is essentially a working together only as the result of outward direction and dictation. The first is the act of a free man; the latter results from the obedience of a political and mental slave."
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