The Socialism of Mr. Shaw

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There is nowadays
a tendency to regard Mr. George Bernard Shaw as somewhat a back
number; that is, as a person who has “done his stuff,” done it extremely
well, and is therefore entitled to grateful remembrance, but who
belongs to the past and has nothing much to say to us who are living
in the present. As far as his plays are concerned, this may or may
not be so; I do not venture any opinion about that, beyond observing
that the specific occasions which brought forth some of them, such
as Candida
and Mrs.
Warren’s Profession
, have now pretty well passed out of
a dramatist’s reckoning, so that interest in these plays is no longer

As pieces of
social criticism they now have no great point. As specimens of dramatic
construction, however, it is not easy to say how long an interest
even in these plays may last; and still less easy to forecast a
future for interest in plays which are not in this category, such
as Androcles,
Devil’s Disciple

But letting
it pass without argument that as a dramatist Mr. Shaw has no longer
anything to say to us, as an analyst and critic of society he has
a great deal to say. In this capacity he is far from being a back
number. On the contrary, his book published last October, Everybody’s
Political What’s What
, reveals him as distinctly a man
of today, full up to the minute; he is all there all the time; and
the chances are that he will go on being all there as long as the
constitution of human society remains what it is. His analysis and
criticism are applicable to any aggregation of incorporated humanity
of which we have record.

The essential
difficulties, the obstacles lying in the way of all attempts to
organize or to maintain a civil system that has a dog’s chances
of stability were exactly the same in the times of Shalmaneser II,
Pericles, Augustus, as they are now in the time of our Hitlers,
Roosevelts, Churchills. Mr. Shaw is miles ahead of the vast mass
of us in knowing just what those obstacles are, in understanding
them thoroughly, and in being able to discuss them not only competently,
but also with all his characteristic force and his engaging simplicity
of manner.

This is the
service which his book proposes to render and does render, and it
is a service of the first magnitude. When you have an object in
view, no matter what, from frying an egg to laying out a railway,
the first thing you have to consider is what stands in the way of
your getting to it. You must first know that the obstacles are there;
and then, second, before you try to overcome them you must understand
them, get their measure, discover how formidable they actually are,
and in what directions. This procedure is the commonest kind of
common horse sense. We all follow it in the course of our public
affairs; yet, obviously the failure to follow it in public affairs
entails by far the more ruinous consequences. Suppose we go in for
a certain political theory as we went in for republicanism, for
example, after the war of 1776. Will it work? Is it practical? Will
the institutions founded on that theory stand up? To get even a
provisional answer to these questions, the first and all-important
thing is to know what obstacles confront the theory, and then to
go as far as we can towards understanding them.

The question
of what to do about getting over or around those obstacles is secondary.
If we don’t know the things are there until we hit them, and then
don’t know anything about their nature or their degree of obstructive
power, but merely try to extemporize some “practical” way of dealing
with them as they stand, we are sure to make a sorry mess of it;
just such a mess as our erring brethren in Washington have made
with the practical working out of their fantastic political theory.
They did not know there were any obstacles in the way of their theory,
let alone knowing anything about such obstacles; hence, as Henry
Adams put it, they were “like monkeys monkeying with a loaded bomb.”


So in reading
Mr. Shaw’s book the reader must understand clearly what he may expect
to get out of it and what he may not expect. He will never find
anywhere a more lucid, able, penetrating, and outspoken analysis
of the difficulties which social architects must overcome before
they can erect a politico-economic structure that has the faintest
chance of stability. Mr. Shaw has long been foremost – I am
tempted to say he is now the only one – among the few writers
who know what the word discussion means. He is able to see all sides
of a question and to work his way around it, putting everything
into its right relation with everything else as he goes, and presenting
the sum-total as an orderly whole. He impresses one as caring relatively
little what people think of his presentation, provided only that
they think; really think, that is, think for themselves, not merely
think they think; or quite as idly, take their views as second-hand,
believing that they have thought about them, when in fact they have
done no more than memorize them more or less correctly. In his three
chapters on education, for example, Mr. Shaw seems much less concerned
with our accepting his view of “what to do about it” than he is
with our understanding exactly what the problem is and our perceiving
clearly how serious it is. Nothing could be more useful than this
method of approach; and Mr. Shaw’s consistency in the use and exposition
of it makes his book invaluable.

This being
so, the reader can easily and gratefully afford to give all due
weight of respect to Mr. Shaw’s conclusions, even though he may
not accept them. Many of them are sound. Others are sound as far
as they go; they are provisionally sound; and it is to Mr. Shaw’s
credit that he always makes their provisional character clear. Others
again, and some of them the most important, are quite unacceptable
because he has left the determining factor out of the account. But
the intelligent reader will not boggle at any of this; he will thankfully
take the enormous benefit of Mr. Shaw’s analysis and criticism,
and will not be put off by any conclusions which he finds unacceptable
or even debatable.

Many such conclusions
appear in the references to Socialism which are scattered through
the book, and we can use them in a general way for purposes of illustration.
Mr. Shaw is a Socialist. In his view the extreme of collectivist
Statism is a cure for all ills, like the old grandmother’s pennyroyal.
In politics it will abolish the party system, simplify procedures,
and ensure the keeping of good and capable men in office. Mr. Shaw’s
State will establish equality of income, provide the right kind
of education for children, settle the land-question, control production
and distribution, keep everybody at work, and so forth and so on;
and all in the public interest. Mr. Shaw unsparingly diagnoses the
various ills to which the body politic is heir; his diagnosis is
complete and correct; and for each and every ill he prescribes the
one remedy – State action.

Now, one may
be glad to admit that if Socialism will do everything that Mr. Shaw
thinks it can do and will do; he is right from beginning to end,
and collectivist Statism is just the thing. It looks like a very
simple matter. All we have to do is to set up the right kind of
government, manned by the right kind of people, and there you are.
But there are a few little difficulties that must be dealt with
before we can do that; and curiously no on understands those difficulties
better than Mr. Shaw. He sees, for instance, that the conceptions
of Socialism prevailing at present are incompetent, which is true;
therefore we must oust them and re-educate ourselves to better ideas
of what Socialism really means. The milk of the Word, in short,
must be put through a strainer; and although Mr. Shaw takes this
rather lightly, it looks like the devil of a hard job. Another job
that will take a lot of doing is finding enough of the right kind
of people to run the Socialist machine, putting them all in their
places, and keeping them there – keeping them from being edged
out by pressure of the unfit. Mr. Shaw seems to think that when
we are all re-educated to an understanding of true Socialism this
problem will more or less settle itself. Possibly so; but meanwhile
things are beginning to look as if there would not be much human
material left capable of re-education, or that would have any interest
whatever in being re-educated in Socialism or indeed in anything.

In 1797, ten
years after our Constitution was drafted, Chief Justice Jay said
in a letter to a friend that every political theory which does not
regard mankind as being what they are (the italics are
his) will prove abortive. Just this is the root-trouble with Mr.
Shaw’s theory and with all other forms of collectivist Statism;
they do not regard mankind as being what they are. The first sentence
in Mr. Shaw’s book is a warning to his readers that if they believe
human nature is incurably depraved they should read no further.
But this is quite beside the point. Total depravity would certainly
invalidate Mr. Shaw’s theory – no doubt of that – but
only a most monstrous and preposterous extravagance would imply
that the wrecking of Socialist theory betokens total depravity or
anything like it. In fact, Mr. Shaw devotes a good deal of space
to showing that those who follow courses of conduct inimical to
Socialist theory and who we know would follow like courses under
any conceivable conditions, are not depraved persons; on the contrary,
measured by any standard except those of collectivist practice,
they are good, decent, conscientious persons, worthy of all respect.
Even after Mr. Shaw has put his theory through a refiner’s fire,
it still dissolves at the touch of a fundamental law of human conduct
which Mr. Shaw leaves out of account as completely as if he had
never heard of it. Economists have sometimes (rather inaptly, as
I think) called it the Law of Parsimony[1];
and its formula is: Man tends always to satisfy his needs and
desires with the least possible exertion.

This being
so, then obviously the easiest way of satisfying one’s needs and
desires is by exploitation; and hence the tendency towards exploitation
is a natural one for man in common with the rest of the animal world.
As one of my friends puts it, if self-preservation is the first
law of nature, exploitation is the second. In practice, as we all
know, both these laws admit of occasional exceptions, but the tendency
is universal and invariable. That man does always satisfy
his needs and desires with the least possible exertion is not a
natural law; but that he always tends to do so is a natural law;
and by consequence the same is true of the tendency to exploitation.
Moreover, as a matter of common experience we find that man, both
collectively and individually, does resort to exploitation with
almost unfailing regularity whenever the means are available.

The one incomparably
powerful means of exploitation is the State. It is also the safest
means, because it is irresponsible. It is exempt from all the basic
sanctions of ordinary morality. It is free to murder, cheat, lie,
steal, and persecute at its own good pleasure and without fear of
reprisals. Socialists who say that the smooth and honest administration
of great private concerns like General Motors shows that the collectivist
State can be smoothly and honestly administered, forget the determining
factor of irresponsibility. A top executive of the Steel Corporation
who in his official capacity is a proven liar, spendthrift, cheat,
and swindler, would not last overnight; any top executive of the
State can last indefinitely under those conditions. Moreover, officials
of the Steel Corporation, from top to bottom, have to show some
kind of competence; officials of the State do not. How many ranking
officials are there in the bureaucracy at Washington today whose
judgment you would trust in a commercial transaction involving thirty-five
dollars? Would it be Mr. Hopkins, Mr. Ickes, Mr. Roosevelt, Mr.
Wallace, for example? I doubt it.

What therefore
happens is this: A law of nature, mighty and august, keeps continually
herding into the State’s service a stream of incompetent and inferior
persons. Some desire power; some, prestige; some, a livelihood gained
by an easier and more unexacting means than they could otherwise
command. These, in the natural desire to expand their own importance,
keep the ways open for others who are like them to swarm in. Their
irresponsibility brings on a regime of prodigality, waste, inefficiency
and corruption; the Law of Parsimony puts a high premium on these
vices; and thus the whole civil system progressively rots down.

There is no
evidence here, however, that mankind are incurably depraved. Probably
the proportion of incurable depravity is no greater among our jobholders
and jobseekers than it is elsewhere. The evidence is only that jobholders
and jobseekers are alike subject to a law which nature, perhaps
unfortunately, has made universal. Like all the rest of us, they
tend always to satisfy their needs and desires with the least possible
exertion. Hence in order to make his improved and titivated Socialism
practicable, it looks as if Mr. Shaw would have to devise some way
whereby we can get around this law, climb over it, or tunnel under
it; and this is no easy matter. Mr. Shaw sees that Socialism would
multiply indefinitely the avenues leading to exploitation. He states
the fact in the first words of his searching chapter on State Corruption,
and faces it manfully; but all he has to propose for dealing with
it is more and better Socialism, or in our vulgar parlance, “the
hair of the dog that bit you.”


T-Shirt Heather Green: $12



Mr. Shaw’s
criticism is at all points so sound, so penetrating and convincing,
that at the end of it one might be pardoned for suspecting that
any hope of a stable civil system on a national scale is illusory.
Perhaps mankind are going beyond their powers in projecting any
such thing, like the projectors of the tower of Babel. Perhaps their
collective mental and moral capacities won’t stretch to anything
over village-size or township-size, and nationalism will always
be the monumental failure that it has ever been and now is. If one
keeps the so-called Law of Parsimony in mind, one sees how a highly
plausible case may be made out for this view; and the evidence of
history alone is weighty enough to force the admission that it may
be so.

Shaw, moreover, has the excellent merit which virtually none of
our anti-collectivist writers has – the more shame for them!
– of being a whole-hogger. He does not make the slightest concession
to anybody. With him it is either clean-strain, eighteen-carat collectivist
Statism, by God, or nothing. One wishes our anti-Statist writers
had that much intrepid faith in their principles and as clear knowledge
of what their principles are; the only exceptions I have so far
heard of are Mrs. [Isabel] Paterson and Mrs. [Rose Wilder] Lane.
What completely vitiates Mr. Hayek’s work, Mr. Eric Johnston’s,
and a whole shoal of others, is that they concede a small and strictly
limited measure of State intervention – a sort of five-percent
Statism. Apparently, like Mr. Shaw, these writers never heard of
the Law of Parsimony, and have no idea of what it can do. If they
had even considered the history of this country’s twenty-five years’
experience under the Income Tax Amendment, they would begin to see
the reason why their notion is as absurd as the notion of a small
and strictly limited implantation of tuberculosis, syphilis, or
cancer. There is no such shuffling nonsense about Mr. Shaw’s work,
and the sooner anti-Statist writers take example by him, the better.

This review
appeared in the Economic Council Review of Books, Volume
II, no. 6, February 1945, published in New York by the National
Economic Council.


I say “inaptly” because the application of this name is rather fanciful
and inexact, but chiefly because the name has long been preempted
for another formula devised seven hundred years ago by William of

Jay Nock (1870–1945) was an influential American libertarian
author, educational theorist, and social critic. Murray Rothbard
was deeply influenced by him, and so was that whole generation of
free-market thinkers. See Nock’s The
State of the Union

Jay Nock Archives

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