I was born in the USSR and was once a dedicated communist.
I would love to be able to trace my conversion to a single, defining point in my life. I would love to be able to say that at a certain cliché gathering of friends, I was staring at a certain plate of oranges when suddenly all of time and space came together to strike the opening chords of some brilliant socioeconomic revelation. I would love to say that this symphony even materialized via a James Horner piece. Unfortunately, my life is not a Ron Howard film. No, this conversion to conservatism was a culmination of several psychological battles that played out over the course of a year.
Realism v. Idealism
An English professor of mine once defined tragedy as “an event which occurs when a perception of reality does not correspond with reality itself.” At some point, I started asking myself: could we really have equity-driven policy, altruistic leaders, and homes and jobs for everyone? The economic reality is that we cannot.
People are not driven by altruism; they are driven by incentives. People seek to maximize their own good – or, as economists term it, utility. Everyone having everything is impossible. There is scarcity in the world because we have fixed resources. This scarcity implies the existence of trade-offs; you cannot have one thing without giving up another.
You are reading this right now, but you are giving up the time that you could spend doing the laundry, studying, or watching television. In short, I realized that I’d been working towards a utopia in a world with no hope of attaining it. My idea of reality was faulty. I concluded that a workable system must accept imperfection as a premise. It must accept the truths of scarcity, opportunity cost, trade-offs, and incentives. Economic equality is just not natural. I concluded, then, that it could only be achieved by coercion. That was strike one for communism.
Reason v. Sense
I saw a collapsed housing market. The United States was on the brink of a “Great Recession.” People were losing their jobs and their homes. Corporate greed, government bailouts, golden parachutes, and rising inequality were everywhere I looked. The genius of science is that it makes reason conquer sense. The world looks flat when looking at the horizon, yet mathematicians as far back as ancient Greece proved that it was not. Time, experienced by everyone, seems to be an absolute. Yet, physics has revealed that it is purely illusory.
Capitalism looked pretty bad during the recession. However, the charts told a different story. They told the story of free markets gifting us with a higher standard of living. The ubiquity of television, refrigeration, telecommunications, and transportation is unparalleled. Even in the midst of harsh economic times, we are undoubtedly better-off now than we’ve ever been.
I looked at the nations I glorified. The former USSR, China, North Korea, and Cuba could not hold a candle to the progress of free markets. That was strike two. I allowed reason to tame my biased senses. If I was going to disparage capitalism, I would have to admit that humanity was better off 150 years ago than it is today. Despite the recession all around me, reason gave me a sense of proportion. Just look at the data. Look at all that growth in just half a century! And look how puny the last recession was in comparison with capitalism’s accomplishments.
Humility v. Conceit
I used to talk haughtily of equality, virtue, and the common good. At one point, I had to accept that there is no consensus on these terms. People define equality, virtue, and the common good in different ways. However, these are the goals of communism. If consensus can’t be reached, then any party or leader coming to power preaching these values is assuming that they have the “right” definitions. Naturally, some will not agree. The ruling party will dub the dissenters’ definitions as “wrong” and demand that they submit to what they perceive are “true” equality, virtue, and common good.
Rapidly ascending to power and preaching absolute values is a slippery slope to oppression. We’ve seen this before. This fanatic preaching of seemingly altruistic values will only end, and has ended, in tragedy. My own conceit dawned on me. I actually thought I knew what was best for someone living in Utah, Florida, or Texas. I learned to be humble and accept that my definitions are no better or worse than others’ so long as they do not clash. Communism is oppressive because it forces its definitions on a population. Strike three.
A system which avoids oppression must be humble and adopt policies in which individuals can develop their own definitions, not be coerced into following some party’s definitions.