Forward to the Failed Past

Some politicians like to use the slogan, “forward.” Sometimes it is more emphatic: forward!

But one may well ask, forward to what? Time and the current of events are always moving us forward already, so evidently the forward-seekers want to change the existing flow sideways. The slogan “forward” has often been used by those who seek greater state-imposed collectivism. As propaganda, “forward!” sounds better than “leftward!” or “towards ever greater statism!”

Several publications of socialist parties during the 1800’s were titled “Forward.” Lenin continued this tradition when he founded the Bolshevik newspaper “Vpered” (or “Vperyod”), which is “forward” in Russian. German socialists had already published the periodical “Vorwärts,” and the German national socialists continued the use of the slogan. Several communist and socialist parties still use “Forward” as the title of their publications.

On April 30, 2012, “Forward” became a slogan of the presidential campaign of the Democratic Party, later enhanced with an exclamation mark. An editing war erupted in Wikipedia about the socialist roots of the slogan about deleting the socialist references.

The issue here is not about any political campaign, but the social concept of “forward.” Socialism is, first of all, a family of concepts. Some socialists seek greater statism, the control of society by the state. Other seek “social democracy,” whereby people vote on the major policy options. There are also socialists who seek to put the means of production, land as well as capital goods, in the hands of worker cooperatives.

Usually the “forward” thinkers seek, if not as an ultimate goal, then as the instrumental goal, a governmental control at least of the “commanding heights” of the economy: the financial system, the highways, education, medical care, and retirement pensions. Socialists seek strong controls on the remaining private production, and they also seek an equalization of wealth through a massive redistribution, with highly progressive taxation.

But the world has already experienced the results of “forward” policies in the failed economies of the old USSR, the China of the 1950s and 1960s, Cuba, North Korea, and Eastern Europe. The “forward” socialists seek a progression to the failed past. Of course they claim that their brand of socialism is different from that of the collapsed USSR, but the evidence of history reveals what was attempted in practice world-wide, even when it differs from hypothetical doctrines.

Even though American politicians who trumpet “forward” do not generally seek complete socialism, the greater interventions and state controls they do favor have been analyzed by many economists as ineffective and wasteful.

Instead of “forward,” a better metaphor may be “upwards.” Upward takes us to a higher place, and also to the origin of a flow such as a river. But how do we know which way is “up”?

We need to use a “Unified Field Theory of Social Policy.” A theory of “upward” policy needs to begin with ethics. The absence of a sound ethical foundation is the key flaw in most socialist thought, most of which does not even distinguish voluntary from forced human action. The optimal direction of reform has to be away from what is morally evil. The foundation for upward progress has to be a universal ethic that expresses the rules of natural moral law.

Next, a theory of upward progress requires a fundamental understanding of economic principles. The most important economic idea is precisely what is left out of almost all economics textbooks: the generation of land rent by the population, commerce, and public works of society. To that we add that land rent is based on the differing productivities of locations, and therefore that rent is an economic surplus that can be tapped for public revenue without harm to the economy; indeed the very collection of rent even enhances the economy.

But it is not enough to have this economic insight. Modern political economy studies how government operates, and concludes that our systems of mass democracy will not adopt the upward reforms prescribed by ethics and economics. Mass democracy requires mass campaign funds to pay for mass media. This inherent demand induces the supply of funds by special interests in exchange for the political clout that gives them subsidies. Modern economists ironically call these privileges “rents” without being aware that the greatest of all subsidies is the implicit generation of land rent by government’s public goods.

Therefore it is not enough to preach ethics and economics as though to a benevolent despot. A political movement to progress upwards needs to also include the reform from mass democracy to small-group democracy, where voting is decentralized to a human scale. Anarchists such as Bakunin have long recognized the principle of bottom-up voluntary association.

Our cultures have frequently looked up to the sky as heaven, and thought of downwards as the various versions of hell. People naturally seek to move up, and so “upwards” as a slogan would have great appeal, but it would only be worthwhile if we move up from a sound foundation.

[Editor’s note: this essay first appeared on Dr. Foldvary’s blog, the Foldvarium, on Nov 11 2012]

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