May 25, 2019

Albert Einstein and Socialism

Someone recently sent me an article noting Albert Einstein’s favorable view of Socialism. Knowing that I have been critical of socialist ideas in the past, he asked whether Einstein’s statements changed my mind. It was a fair question.

After all, Einstein is widely considered one of the great scientific thinkers of all time, so it is tempting to reason that since he was able to unlock some of the deepest mysteries of the universe, he must have been able to discover political/economic insights. Tempting, but mistaken.

Will Rogers once said, “There is nothing as stupid as an educated man if you get him off the thing he was educated in.” He may have overstated the matter, but he was essential correct—the chance for error increases significantly when people, even highly intelligent people, make judgments outside their areas of expertise, as Einstein did about Socialism.

Einstein said this:

…Under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

In the first sentence, Einstein’s term “private capitalists” is a bit ambiguous. A clearer term would be “private citizens,” or if one prefers, “rich private citizens.” The question is, is government control of information better than private control? To believe that it is requires faith that politicians or bureaucrats are inherently more virtuous than rich private citizens; also, that the adage “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” does not apply to government officials. Neither notion is defensible. History provides innumerable examples of corruption in government.

In the second sentence, Einstein suggests that managed news hinders citizens’ thinking. That is true enough, but in socialist societies, where government manages the news, the hindrance is even greater. When elected officials and bureaucrats have the power to decide what the public will learn, they can be counted on to make sure that their mistakes and malfeasance go unreported. The solution to managed news is not changing the people who do the managing but guaranteeing free-market competition. As the advent of the Internet and “social media” have shown, where competition in reporting exists, people can choose from a variety of news sources and the purveyors of information are encouraged to report more honestly.

Einstein also said:

Production is carried on for profit [in capitalism], not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an ‘army of unemployed’ almost always exists. . . .

The first sentence is at best confused and at worst ridiculous. “Production” realizes a “profit” only when it is “used.” In a free market system, the intention of the provider may be to grow rich and retire in splendor, but if the public doesn’t buy his product or service, he will not succeed. In a socialist system, the government can make the public buy the product or service, but that ensures only that its quality will decline. Everything made in the old Soviet Union was a joke; the service in restaurants was virtually non-existent and the products in stores were of Third World quality. The situation was little different in other socialist countries such as China, Cuba, and North Korea.

Einstein’s second sentence assumes that it is the obligation of employers to ensure the availability of work for all who want it. A more reasonable perspective is that it is the obligation of the individual to qualify him/herself and then seek out employers who need his/her skills. Having experienced the Great Depression, Einstein’s concern for the “army of unemployed” was laudable. His mistake lay in blaming employers for the situation.

Finally, Einstein said this about Socialism:

I am convinced there is only one [his italics] way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Stirring words and a noble goal, but alas, a utopian one. The prime example of a socialist, “planned” economy was the Soviet economy, and it failed miserably. The questions Einstein fails even to raise in this paragraph are: When responsibility and authority are taken from individuals and vested in a guardian class, who guards those guardians? Who plans and regulates the economy, the education system, and the distribution of work? Will people be able to choose their own careers? Who determines what portion of income constitutes livelihood? Will some get more pay than others? If so, what criteria will apply, and will anyone other than the “guardians” have a say?

Einstein either did not ask such questions or did not pursue them adequately. That is understandable. They are very different from the mathematical questions he was trained to ask and which he answered so brilliantly. But because he failed to address the questions about Socialism, he failed to realize that creating a guardian class, as Socialism does, restricts freedom and thus stifles the incentive to improve one’s lot in life. And the more that incentive declines, the more the guardians are inclined to control people’s lives and, in time, become tyrants.

It is in no way a repudiation of Einstein’s genius to say that his ideas about politics and economics were seriously deficient. It is, however, a reminder to all of us, particularly those less brilliant than he, of the need to form our opinions with care.

Copyright © 2014 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero