Self-Help vs. Power-Hunger

I was recently on an NPR panel on “Capitalism” with a pair of self-identified socialists – Kristen Ghodsee and Vivek Chibber.  The hosts asked us a wide range of questions, including several of the form: “What would you say to a person with problem X?”  For example, they played a statement from someone who really disliked her job as a COVID nurse.  What should she do?

Literalist that I am, I tried to offer helpful, relevant advice.  I started with the First Law of Wing-Walking: Keep your current job, but intensively search for a better position.  As I’ve explained before:

Happily settle for your first tolerable job offer… but only temporarily.  Once you’re secure in your new position, at least keep your eyes open for a better opportunity.  Something’s bound to come along eventually – and when it does, you can bargain with confidence.

Better yet, virtually any job yields valuable experience and career connections.  As a result, you have more than happenstance on your side.  Month after month, year after year, the odds tilt more and more in your favor – especially if you strive to impress your whole social network with your professionalism.

Since the unhappy nurse disliked her irregular hours, I pointed out the wide range of nursing positions.  Some nurses have totally regular hours in a doctor’s office or school.  Others pull all-nighters at the ER.  Switching from one track to another takes time, but with determination and flexibility, any qualified nurse can probably pull it off in a matter of months.

The socialist panelists, in contrast, bizarrely claimed that such efforts were hopeless, and told the nurse that left-wing political activism and/or unionization were the only viable remedies.  When I pointed out that such methods are notoriously ineffective (when they don’t lead to total disaster), they doubled down.  I pressed them further.  If a young family member asked for career advice, would they seriously tell them that self-help is futile and steer them toward collective action instead?  As far as I recall, my counterparts refused to engage this challenge.

Late in the interview, one of the hosts asked something like, “Is belief in the efficacy of self-help the fundamental difference between you?”  The socialists quickly affirmed that it was.  I probably just said, “It is one important difference.”  After the recording session ended, however, this issue stayed in my mind.  Any individual obviously has the power to unilaterally mess up their own lives.  Just become a violent drunk on the job for a day and watch your career die.  How then can you imagine that the opposite path of self-improvement is a waste of time?

After a few days, however, the tension between socialism and self-help became clear.

Suppose you’re very power-hungry.  Do you want people to think they’re able to fix their own problems?  Of course not.  If individuals can help themselves by doing a good job, learning new skills, making friends, and keeping their eyes peeled, what do they need you for?  In contrast, if people believe that collective action is the path forward, the collectivity will clearly need leaders.  And who will fill these leadership positions?  The socialist activists, naturally.

Yes, this is a lurid picture: Power-hungry pundits push the absurd position that collective action is more likely to succeed than self-help – and then get to rule whatever collectivity they manage to inspire.  How many socialists consciously embrace this master plan?  Since I lack telepathy, I honestly don’t know.  Still, the frequency with which bleeding-heart socialists become bloodthirsty tyrants reassures me that I’m not paranoid.

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Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He is the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, named “the best political book of the year” by the New York Times, and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN.