27 February 2019 – Some ideas are just so beautiful that we try to hang on to them even after failure after failure shows them to be unrealizable. Especially for the naive, these ideas hold such fascination that they persist long after cooler inspection consigns them to the dust bin of fantasy. This essay looks at two such ideas that display features in common: the ancient Greek myth of the flying horse, Pegasus, and the modern myth of the socialist state.
The ancient myth of the flying horse Pegasus is an obvious example. There’s no physical reason for such a creature to be impossible. Actual horses are built far too robustly to take to the air on their own power, but a delicately built version of Equus ferus fitted with properly functioning wings could certainly be able to fly.
That’s not the objection. Certainly, other robust land animals have developed flying forms. Birds, of course, developed from what our ancestors believed to be great lumbering theropod dinosaurs. Bats belong to the same mammalian class as horses, and they fly very well, indeed.
The objection to the existence of Pegasus-like creatures comes from evolutionary history. Specifically, the history of land-based vertebrates.
You see, all land-based vertebrates on Earth evolved from a limited number of ray-finned fish species. In fact, the number of fish species contributing DNA to land-vertebrate animals is likely limited to one.
All land vertebrates have exactly the same basic body form – with modifications – that developed from features common to ray-finned fishes. Basically, they have:
- One spine that extends into a tail,
- One head appended to the forward (opposite the tail) end of the spine,
- Two front appendages that developed from the fish’s pectoral fins, and
- Two rear appendages that developed from the fish’s pelvic fins.
Not all land-based vertebrates have all these features. Some originally extant features (like the human tail and cetacean rear legs) atrophied nearly to non-existence. But, the listed features are the only ones land-based vertebrates have ever had. Of course, I’m also including such creatures as birds and dolphins that developed from land-based critters as they moved on to other habitats or back to the sea.
The reason I suggest that all land vertebrates likely hail from one fish species is that no land vertebrates have ever had anal, caudal or adipose appendages, thus we all seem to have developed from some fish species that lacked these fins.
“Aha!” you say, “cetaceans like dolphins and whales have tail fins!”
“Nope,” I rebut. “Notice that cetacean tail flukes are fleshy appendages extending horizontally from the tip of the animals’ tails, not bony appendages oriented vertically like a fish’s caudal fins.”
They developed independently and have similar shapes because of convergent evolution.
Okay, so we’ve discovered what’s wrong with Pegasus that is not wrong with bats, pterodactyls, and birds. All the real land-based vertebrate forms have four limbs, whereas the fanciful Pegasus has six (four legs and two wings). Six-limbed Pegasus can’t exist because there aren’t any similar prior forms for it to have evolved from.
So, Pegasus is a beautiful idea that simply can’t be existent on Earth.
Well, you could have some sort of flying-horse-like creature that evolved on some other planet, then caught a convenient flying saucer to pop over to Earth, but they wouldn’t be native, and likely wouldn’t look at all earthlike.
So, what has all this got to do with socialism?
Well, as I’ve intimated, both are beautiful ideas that people are pretty fond of. Notwithstanding its popularity, Pegasus is not possible (as a native Earth creature) for a very good reason. Socialism is also a beautiful idea that people (at least great swaths of the population) are pretty fond of. Socialism is, however, also not possible as a stable form of society for a very good reason.
The reason socialism is not possible as a stable form of society goes back to our old friend, the Tragedy of the Commons. If you aren’t intimately familiar with this concept, follow the link to a well-written article by Margaret E. Banyan, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Southwest Florida Center for Public and Social Policy at Florida Gulf Coast University, which explains the Tragedy, its origins, and ways that have been proposed to ameliorate its effects.
Anyway, economist Milton Friedman summarized the Tragedy of the Commons with the phrase: “When everybody owns something, nobody owns it … .”
The Tragedy of the Commons speaks directly to why true socialism is impossible, or at least not tenable as a stable, permanent system. Let’s start with what the word “socialism” actually means. According to Merriam-Webster, socialism is:
“any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”
Other dictionaries largely agree, so we’ll work with this definition.
So, you can see where the Tragedy of the Commons connects to socialism. The beautiful idea relates to the word “collective.”
We know that human beings evolved as territorial animals, but we’d like to imagine a utopia where we’ve gotten past this primitive urge. Without territoriality, one could imagine a world where conflict would cease to exist. Folks would just get along because nobody’d say “Hey, that’s mine. Keep your mitts off!”
The problem with such a world is the Tragedy of the Commons as described by Friedman: if everybody owns the means of production, then nobody owns it.
There are two potential outcomes
- Scenario 1 is the utter destruction of whatever resource is held in common as described at the start of Banyan’s essay.
- Scenario 2 is what happened to the first recorded experiment with democracy in ancient Athens: somebody steps up to the plate and takes over management of the resource for everybody. For Athens it was a series of dictator kings ending with Alexander the Great. In effect, to save the resource from destruction, some individual moves in to “own” it.
In scenario 1, the resource is destroyed along with the socialist society that collectively owns it.Everyone either starves or leaves. Result: no more socialism.
In scenario 2, the resource is saved by being claimed by some individual. That individual sets up rules for how to apportion use of the resource, which is, in effect, no longer collectively owned. Result: dictatorship and, no more socialism.
Generally, all socialist states eventually degenerate into dictatorships via scenario 2. They invariably keep the designation “socialist,” but their governments are de facto authoritarian, not socialist. This is why I say socialism is a beautiful idea that is, in the long term, impossible. Socialist states can be created, but they very quickly come under authoritarian rule.
The Democracy Option
The Merriam-Webster definition admits of one more scenario, and that’s what we use in democratically governed nations, which are generally not considered socialist states: government ownership of some (but not all) resources.
If we have a democracy, there are all kinds of great things we can have governmentally owned, but not collectively owned. Things that everybody needs and everybody uses and everybody has to share, like roads, airspace, forests, electricity grids, and national parks. These are prime candidates for government ownership.
Things like wives, husbands, houses, and bicycles (note there’s been a big bicycle-sharing SNAFU recently reported in China) have historically been shown best to not be shared!
So, in a democracy, lots of stuff can be owned by the government, rather than by individuals or “everybody.”
A prime example is airspace. I don’t mean the air itself. I mean airspace! That is the space in the air over anyplace in the United States, or virtually the entire world. One might think it’s owned by everybody, but that just ain’t so.
You just try floating off at over 500 feet above ground level (AGL) in any type of aircraft and see where it gets you. Ya just can’t do it legally. You have to get permission from the Federal Government (in the form of a pilot’s license), which involves a great whacking pile of training, examinations, and even background checks. That’s because everybody does NOT own airspace above 500 feet AGL (and great, whacking swaths of the stuff lower down, too), the government does. You, personally, individually or collectively, don’t own a bit of it and have no rights to even be there without permission from its real owner, the Federal Government.
Another one is the Interstate Highway System. Try walking down Interstate 75 in, say, Florida. Assuming you survive long enough without getting punted off the roadway by a passing Chevy, you’ll soon find yourself explaining what the heck you think you’re doing to the nearest representative (spelled C-O-P) of whatever division of government takes ownership of that particular stretch of roadway. Unless you’ve got a really good excuse (e.g., “I gotta pee real bad!”) they’ll immediately escort you off the premises via the nearest exit ramp.
Ultimately, the only viable model of socialism is a limited one that combines individual ownership of some resources that are not shared, with government ownership of other resources that are shared. Democracy provides a mechanism for determining which is what.