Is socialism on the rise (Bernie Sanders)? Or is it on the decline (Venezuela’s economic implosion, Brazil’s impeachment of their socialist President, Cuba and North Korea’s decades of abject poverty)? To be fair, one could likewise cite the relative success of China, Denmark, Norway, or Canada as proof of socialism’s success. Why the difference? Why are some putatively socialist countries not total economic basket cases whereas others clearly are? To uncover the answer we must understand why some groups of people come together and achieve their goals while others fail. In any endeavor there is a group of individuals who have tight control over the means of goal achievement. This allows them to direct those means so as to ensure an efficient operation that will achieve the desired ends. Does that not remind you of something else? Like say a business perhaps? The reality is that the modern nation-state is simply a really big company, with shareholders (citizens), a board of directors (congress/parliaments) and a president running the show. Unfortunately this is one corporate stock you can’t sell if you disagree with how the company is being run.

So if states are structured as a business, why do some fail and some thrive? For the same reasons any business might fail or thrive. Success entails the optimization of three factors: consent, control, and resources. All factors play a role, however any one of them can overwhelm the others. This is the reason we see very different outcomes in a variety of nominally socialist countries, e.g. Venezuela vs. Denmark. It is not enough to cite Cuba (excessive level of state control) as a failure and therefore close the case on socialism. Were that the case then one would be susceptible to charges that capitalism can’t “work” because sometimes a business goes bankrupt. However it is just as disingenuous for those on the left to cite oil-rich Norway (abundant resources) as proof of socialism’s success. If Cuba had Norway’s oil resources it would be faring far better. Or maybe not, as in the case of oil rich Venezuela which too suffers from excessive state control of the economy and is presently circling the drain.

Countries that exert a high degree of control (totalitarian) over their citizens will always experience less “success” than those that exert little control. Less control means greater freedom to innovate and solve problems from the bottom up rather than the top down. Formerly socialist/communist countries (China, Vietnam) that have embraced the benefits of freedom (that is, free vs. state managed markets) within their borders have seen improved standards of living relative to those that have not (Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela). As a country or business grows in size, efficient control becomes exponentially more difficult. This is due to the Hayekian knowledge problem. Stated simply it is the reason that a family farm runs smoothly but a state run collective not so much. Unfortunately, those in charge don’t realize they lack the appropriate knowledge and thus make sledgehammer style choices that only serves to undermine the endeavor. The solution to the size-control problem is to move toward less control and smaller size through decentralization. Large businesses with autonomous subsidiaries have mastered this problem well.

A critical and often overlooked factor in the success of a state is consent. Without consent the process will be crippled if participants undermine or refuse it. This is a key difference between business endeavors and state endeavors; states always compel those who do not consent to participate. Businesses cannot force people to work for them or for customers to buy their products. Apathy was not an option when it came to the rise of 20th century socialism. The motto of Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia: join us or die. Democracies maintain an illusion of consent that mollifies a credulous citizenry into the quiet acceptance of being ruled. They are better than dictatorships, but not by much, and fall far short of the benefits one would see with true pluralism.

To make America great again we must recognize that while our resources are substantial our size puts us at a disadvantage. The only way to overcome that disadvantage is to loosen, not tighten, the reigns of economic control and to foster true consensual pluralism by permitting those who wish to not participate in the dominant system to work toward building alternatives that will expand, not constrain, choice.