Professor Richard Ebeling (Citadel) runs the reader through the argument: is the nature of man as a self-interested being fixed by nature, or can it be transformed by a new society? I spent four years debating this stuff in college, studying the various sources cited by Ebeling, from Plato to the Austrian school of Von Mises and von Hayek, but here's a short condensation of all of it, in an easy-to-read format.
Easy if kids can still read, and still will.
The idea of communism – the common sharing of productive property and its resulting output – is as old as the ancient Greeks and Plato’s conception of the ideal Republic in which the guardians all live and work in common under the presumption that a radical change in the social institutional setting will transform men from self-interested beings into altruistic servers to some defined needs of society as a whole.
This highlights a fundamental difference in the conception of man in the classical liberal versus socialist worldviews. Does man have a basic and invariant human nature that may be multi-sided and complex, but no less fixed in certain qualities and characteristics? Or is human nature a malleable substance that can be remolded like clay in the sculptor’s hands by placing human beings into radically different social arrangements and settings?
Classical liberals have argued for the former, that human beings are basically what they are: fairly reasonable, self-interested beings, guided by goals of personal improvement and betterment as the individual comes to define those for himself. The social dilemma for a humane, just, and widely prosperous society is how to foster a political and economic institutional order to harness that invariant quality in human nature so that it advances human betterment in general rather than becoming a tool of plunder. The classical liberal answer is basically Adam Smith’s system of natural liberty with its open, competitive, free market order.
Members of what was emerging as the socialist movement in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century argued the opposite. They insisted that if men were selfish, greedy, uncaring and insensitive to the circumstances of their fellow men it was due to the institution of private property and its related market-based system of human association. Change the institutional order in which human beings live and work and you will create a “new man.”
Indeed, they raised to the ultimate human societal ideal, a world in which the individual would live and work for the collective, the society as a whole, rather than only for his own bettered circumstances, presumably at the expense of others in society. Socialism heralded the ethics of altruism.
There you go: five paragraphs. Twelve more to go, and your child will have a better education in political philosophy than he or she will ever get in most colleges, let alone high school. The essay might be dismissed as a mere introductory survey lecture but I'm a believer in Father Guido Sarducci's "Five Minute University" - this short piece is all one needs to be intellectually armed and dangerous and set loose on campus to face the enemy.
The war continues