Political Iatrogenics—Why Socialism Doesn’t Work

the lessons of medical iatrogenics translate into the political realm, and explain why socialism doesn't work

Socialism As Political Iatrogenics

Socialism is predicated on action.

When socialists see problems, they want to do something about them.  They want to take action.  Starving children?  Give them food.  Poor people?  Give them money.  Climate change?  Invest in solar panels.

The solution is always to add something.  Add food, add money, add technology and the problem will go away—just like how taking penicillin will cure your infection.

And if the solution fails?

Try again.

Send more food.  Spend more money.  Invent new stuff (just like you would take more penicillin).  The underlying assumption is that there is a solution for every problem, that politics is an equation that can be solved, a ledger that can be balanced.

And the bigger the problem, the bigger the solution must be.

But what socialists fail to realize is that by doing something, they often make it worse.

This is why socialism doesn’t work.

*This logic applies to everyone who tampers with complex systems, not just socialists—it’s just that they do it the most.

**Do not take this argument out of context.  This is not a diatribe against socialism wholesale: there are many conventionally socialist policies that have survived the test of time, and have therefore proven their robustness and utility.  Theory and logic must always take a backseat to empirical evidence—if something works, it works, even if it shouldn’t.  This argument is specifically against novel, large-scale social and economic engineering (of which socialism is most often, but not exclusively, guilty).

Political Iatrogenics & the Disruption of Complex Systems

Iatrogenics is not a common word, so let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.

Iatrogenics is a term that evolved in the medical context that describes (unexpected) harm caused by a physician’s treatment of a patient—it’s when the remedy makes the ailment worse (or creates a new, bigger problem).

leeching typifies historical medical iatrogenics
Would you stick your hand in there if the doctor told you to? I bet you would.

Although most of medical history is indistinguishable from the history of iatrogenics (until very recently, you were better off avoiding doctors), the best example is the leeching craze.  During the nineteenth century, physicians believed that leeches were a proverbial panacea, a cure-all—letting them suck your blood could heal your tuberculosis, your asthma, anything.

Of course losing significant quantities of blood when you’re ill just makes things far worse, but that didn’t stop doctors from prescribing leeching.

Physicians wanted to do something.  People expected them to do something.  Patients wanted them to do something—anything.

This drive to do something is why charlatans physicians existed for thousands of years, even though they often did more harm than good.

the righteous mind by jonathan haidt explains how political leanings are in our DNA
“The Righteous Mind” has a lot to offer in terms of the links between evolutionary psychology and politics. A good read.

People want to feel like they’re in control.  Helplessness is hopelessness, and people need hope.

This desire is inherent and ubiquitous in humans.

In fact, the desire to do something when confronted with a problem is probably hardwired into our very DNA.

As Jonathan Haidt points out in his book The Righteous Mind, many of the traits that influence our political tendencies are based on our biologically-determined mental heuristics.  To some degree, people are born leaning conservative or liberal.

Bottom line: the desire to do isn’t going away any time soon.

More importantly, this desire permeates our political choices and ideologies, and frankly, it’s why socialists are socialists.

Domain-Specificity & Complex Systems: Why Socialism Fails

But if the desire to actively solve problems is built into our DNA then it can’t be all bad—otherwise the trait would’ve died off along with the fools who thought that way.

It’s not.  In fact, it’s a very useful heuristic in everyday life: thirsty?  Drink.  Hungry?  Eat.  Tired?  Sleep.

It’s useful because our everyday lives are governed predominately by first-order causality—what you do will often solve the problem.

Have you ever had a good night’s sleep and woke up tired?  No.  There is a clear cause and effect relationship between sleepiness and sleeping.  We understand this type of causality intuitively.

Doing usually works.

The problem is that society,  the economy, or the environment are complex systems that are governed primarily by second-order causality: there are chains of effects that we don’t fully understand and can’t predict.

In complex systems X does not always lead to Y: sometimes X leads to Y and Z, or just Z—or nothing happens.

Complex systems are too intricate to fully understand a priori because there is a disconnect between causes and effects.

This means that doing something is a domain-specific heuristic—it evolved for simple systems, and it works in them, but the logic doesn’t translate to complex systems.

An Example of Complex Systems & Second-Order Causality

That was a lot to take in.  I’ll try to clear it up with an example.  Consider World War I.

An example of first-order causality is the relationship between Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his assassin.  The assassin knew that he could kill the Archduke by shooting him, and that’s exactly what happened.

Generally speaking, there are no surprises when it comes to first order causality and simple systems.  If I shoot you, you die.  Simple.

An example of second-order causality is what happened after the assassination—there was no predicting that Serbia would refuse Austria’s demands (in fact, it seemed much more likely that they would), nor that Russia would actually support Serbia, nor that Germany would support Austria etc.

world war 1 is a good example of second order causality in a complex system
Who would have thought millions of Germans and Frenchmen would die because an Austrian died in Bosnia?  No one.  That’s the beauty (and terror) of complex systems.

In the end, the entire Western world went to war, and millions died, over the death of one man in Sarajevo.

No one could have predicted World War I would happen because of an assassination in the Balkans—most experts at the time thought that if a war did erupt, it would be caused by scuffles in Africa, or on the French-German border.  That’s where experts focused their attention and analysis.  No one saw it coming.

And even after the assassination, no one could have predicted the rapid escalation of hostilities.

Second-order causality isn’t predictable as is first-order causality: you don’t know what will happen, and every action has many, if not unlimited, unintended consequences.

When dealing with complex systems, the best we can do is speak in terms of probabilities—and even that’s imperfect, since we can only estimate the frequencies of known events (we don’t know them for sure, since history doesn’t provide us with a large pool of identical samples), and we’re completely blind to unknown events (we don’t know their frequency, nor their impact).

These are called black swan events, and they throw a wrench in the machine (but sometimes that’s a good thing).

For these reasons complex systems are impossible to fully understand.

Therefore, tampering with complex systems should generally be avoided, because we don’t know what the impacts will be—there are massive downside tail-risks.

This is why socialism fails.  Socialists like to tamper with complex systems.

Socialism Doesn’t Work: 2 Examples of Socialist Iatrogenics

At this point I could easily write a book cataloging the failures of socialism, or any other interventionist ideology, but I won’t.

Instead, I’ll stick to two of the most spectacular failures of recent socialism: the green energy drive and the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

Socialism’s Solution for Climate Change Doesn’t Work

I’m not going to get into the science of climate change.  Let’s just assume climate change is real, and that it’s being caused by humanity’s carbon emissions.

To solve this problem, socialist governments (Germany, for example) have thrown the government’s economic might primarily behind solar and wind energy—the thought being that switching the power grid to renewable energy sources would eliminate carbon emissions.

For example, Germany spends billions every year on green energy, and consequently has some of the highest electricity rates in Europe—they protect solar power with a massive 100% tariff.

Many renewable energy projects are abject failures—anyone else remember Solyndra?

Or what about that crazy plan to re-freeze the Arctic ice sheet using thousands of wind turbines and refrigerating coils?

And even green schemes that look promising are financial disasters.  Tesla, for example, actually loses $13,000 for every vehicle it sells.  It’s only in business because of government handouts.

Elon Musk is, quite literally, a welfare billionaire.

Notice how the socialist’s solution to climate change is to spend billions inventing new technology, rather than simply reducing emissions by improving the efficiency of existing technology.

Why?  Because doing so is novel, it fulfills the need for action.

But in scaling up the integration of our power grid to smooth out the volatility inherent in green energy generation, we’ve exposed ourselves to massive (and hidden) systemic risks—greater integration exponentially increases the risk of contagion and collapse.

It makes the grid more fragile.

Beyond that, the reasonable solution for cutting emissions would’ve been to invest in our existing technologies, and make them more efficient, rather than invent something (solar cells) from scratch.

For example, we could likely have built enough dams and nuclear plants to power the entire country with the money we’ve spent making solar energy (almost) commercially viable—and we could’ve done it decades ago.

Heck, we could’ve done more for free by simply restricting the amount of land we burn to make way for ranches and new urban development.

Here’s a good video that discusses the opportunity costs of green energy, and why it’s actually not an efficient solution to the hypothetical problem of climate change.

Syrian Refugee Crisis & the Failure of Socialism

“Think of the children!”

We’ve heard that one before.  In fact, it’s become the battle-cry of social justice warriors whenever it comes to questions of alleviating suffering and hardship.  And we’ve heard what comes next:

“We have to do something!”

And by doing something, they mean in the most direct way possible: by accepting refugees.


Because the socialist tendency is to see only first-order causality: homeless people?  Give them homes.  But of course we can’t build them homes in Syria because it’s dangerous, so we’ll just bring them here where it’s safe.

If you think about it in terms of first-order causality, it makes perfect sense.  If your friend lost his home, you’d take him in.  Problem solved.

That’s basically what Europe has done.  For example, Germany’s has ushered 3 million migrants into Europe so far—only 168 million more to go.

But the problem is that society is a complex system that is governed by second-order causality.

Accepting refugees into Europe has done nothing to solve the underlying problem of the Syrian Civil War (which was ironically also caused by naive meddling with a complex system), and is therefore pointless in the long run—the war will rage on and create millions more refugees.  And the longer it goes on, the more likely it is to spread elsewhere, magnifying the problem.

Likewise, taking in refugees has disrupted the complex system that is European civilization in a way that very few predicted (although I count myself as one of those few)—least of all socialists.

For example, few intellectuals and academics foresaw that the influx of refugees would lead to massive crime increases in Germany and Sweden.

And few could have foreseen that the very integrity of Europe’s welfare states could be threatened by a relatively small number of refugees—just 318,000 migrants in Sweden has caused a tipping point that’s destroyed the viability of one of Europe’s most successful socialist nations.

Sweden now spends nearly 20% of its national government budget on refugees—no one thought it would be that expensive.  No one.

And of course, the fracturing of the European Union over the migrant crisis shocked the world: no one thought Britain would vote to leave, but they did.  Likewise, Eastern Europe’s refusal to accept refugees, and their stalwart defiance of EU regulations caught most off-guard.

Accepting Syria’s refugees didn’t seem like much to the socialists who supported it, and yet it’s causing the immanent collapse of European socialism, and the breakup of the EU—this is all because these people don’t understand complex systems.

Political Iatrogenics & Complex Systems Explains Why Socialism Doesn’t Work

Man suffers from hubris.  He thinks he can control natural order, complex systems.

But often he can’t.

This explains why socialism has a terrible track record: socialism is all about trying to fix problems by creating new solutions.  It’s about doing something.

Yet doing something isn’t always the best way to solve a problem: sometimes the best remedy is to stop doing something (ie. stop interfering with a complex system), and often the best solution is to do nothing.  Complex systems have a way of working themselves out.

For centuries, physicians used to shorten people’s lifespans, all in the name of action.

Now we’re doing the same thing politically and economically.  We’re screwing around with what works.

And this is why conservatism is often the best approach: it’s biased against change, and it has an inherent respect for history.  If something works, it’ll probably continue to work.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Until socialists learn this lesson, they’ll continue failing—and if they do learn, then they won’t be socialists.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll like this article on the virtues of pragmatism.

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About Spencer P Morrison 160 Articles
J.D. B.A. in Ancient & Medieval History. Writer and independent intellectual, with a focus on applied philosophy, empirical history, and practical economics. Author of "Bobbins, Not Gold," Editor-In-Chief of the National Economics Editorial, and contributor to American Greatness. His work has appeared in publications including the Daily Caller, the American Thinker, and the Foundation for Economic Education.