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The Spirit of Socialism vs. the American Spirit

By Abhi Samuel.
Remarks Delivered May 1, 2019 to students at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy, Boalsburg, Pa.

Last October I became an American citizen, and it was one of the proudest and most cherished moments in my life. I want to tell you today why I became an American. I want to tell you why I and millions of others leave their homeland, their families and friends, and the only place they’ve known, and come to a foreign nation where they often don’t speak the common language, or don’t have a good sense of its culture, and make it their home.

As you know by now, America is not the country of my birth—I was born and raised and lived most of my life in India. Most of you may know where India is, but some of you may not, so let me give you some context. It is a peninsula in Southeast Asia—surrounded by water on the southern, western and eastern parts and to the north are countries like Nepal, China and Pakistan.

You may also know that there are some similarities between America and India. Like America, India has mountains, rivers, deserts, beaches, cities, suburbs, the countryside. They have a form of governance—they have laws, a constitution, politicians, elections, and so on. In some ways, that’s where the similarities end.

One of the most important differences is in the ideas that built America versus the ideas that proved to be destructive in the country of my birth.

America is a capitalist country. Capitalism is the idea that individuals are free to pursue their own their own goals, free to hire the people they want, and produce what they want to produce. We are also a nation that is governed by the rule of law—this idea that everyone is equal under the law—the politician is the same as the citizen. India adopted a different model and one that is gathering popularity here—it adopted socialism.

We’ve heard a lot about socialism recently, as it has gained popularity in the media and among politicians that have labeled themselves, “democratic socialist.”  “Democratic Socialism” is supposedly different from regular “socialism” because it combines what its proponents think are the “best” parts of socialism with democracy. And by doing so, somehow avoids socialism’s pitfalls.

But let’s put some definitions in place. Socialism is a system where the government decides who gets what, based on what government bureaucrats determine is fair. The government, in essence, picks winners and losers. In this system, what you earn or build or create are not your own—it is all subservient to the “common good.”

A tempting prospect, but today I’m going to scratch off the sheen of this idea. Not by philosophical arguments but by telling you a story, or rather multiple stories.

I was born in India in the mid-1980s and lived there at a time when the country operated as a socialist democracy. The impact of those socialist policies and thinking on India are all over the internet. You can look them up. But I want to paint a more vivid picture.

I’m a Presbyterian and most of us like to cover things in three parts, so I’ll do the same:

  • First, what is the actual practice of socialism in a democracy?
  • Second, what is the spirit of socialism?
  • Third, how the American spirit is so unique in contrast?

Despite hashtags, bumper stickers, and rallies, the practiceof socialism is notsomething most Americans, especially young Americans, have any true perspective on.

There’s this sense among a growing number of us, especially in our cities, that socialism sounds great. A new congresswoman from New York and an avowed democratic socialist says that socialism guarantees a basic level of dignity.

After all, who can say “No” to a “basic level of dignity.” As a campaign platform, it’s perfect.

However, socialism in practice, which I experienced firsthand while growing up in India, was just the opposite. It was void of dignity.

Mine was a middle-class family—my father worked for a humanitarian nonprofit, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. As with most middle-class families, we lived in apartment complexes. Most apartments were small, took years to build, and often backed up to massive slums.

Let me be clear: America does not know slums like those that exist in India.

A slum is a cluster of homes made of straw, discarded plastic, aluminum roofs and mud, and often surrounded by cattle. Many of these areas also acted as landfills. When I was growing up, life expectancy in these slums amounted to about 40 years, and many died of terrible illnesses like AIDS and tuberculosis.

Since India’s independence in 1947, while countries like South Korea and Israel adopted largely capitalistic frameworks for their governments and blossomed, socialism brought starvation, poverty and disease to India.

Today’s socialists like to tout “free” healthcare for all. But let me tell you what this supposedly “free” healthcare looks like. I experienced it firsthand as a child, and it was gut-wrenching.

When I was 8, I contracted typhoid—a disease spread by contaminated food and water. I visited a clinic to get treated. These clinics were always crowded, and people with mild fevers were treated right next to people with infectious diseases.

In that environment, suffice to say, the wait time is not your biggest issue!

Then there was my education—another arena socialists claim they could improve. In India, people at all levels, whether you were rich or poor, agreed that government schools were not the way to provide your children with a future. In other words, socialism in practice delivered abysmal educational results—and everyone recognized this.

As much as imperialism took a beating, and for good reasons, the only place education in India flourished was in private schools set up by foreign missionaries for local communities. These schools were top notch, and families would save up every penny so they could pay for them. Indeed, the only way out of poverty and toward upward mobility in a culture steeped in the caste system was education.

Yet, far from bringing quality education to the masses, socialism drove the masses to private options.

What about “grocery shopping”? Grocery shopping as you know it never existed in India. Indeed, in the system that country adopted, it is divine grace that my family and I never went hungry. The experience of food “shopping” provided for us by benevolent socialist politicians was less than human.

Because food was rationed, families were expected to stand in lines at Fair Price Shops where they received their allocation of food. At the time, there were no big box stores and the government was the biggest buyer of grain. You’d often wait in line for hours without a roof over your head, as temperatures soared to 110 degrees. That experience, of course, is worlds way from how you and I shop at Wegmans or Walmart.

But that is what socialism brought.

As someone who still retains his tropical bones, when winter comes along I order my groceries on the Walmart app and pick them up while sitting in the warmth of my car. You should try it.

While I’m trying to be funny in drawing the contrast between these basic practicalities of life, indeed the most basic forms of dignity, the experience of socialism was not humorous or light hearted for me or the hundreds of millions who have suffered its good intentions. History is replete with their stories. If we would only be wise enough to listen, we would recognize socialism should neither be funny nor appealing to anyone.

Of course, it would be myopic and inaccurate of me to say that free-market capitalism cures all ills—it doesn’t. I believe, this side of heaven, no political contrivance of man ever will. Because man is fundamentally flawed, everything we do retains our flawed nature.

However, when the socialist spirit permeates culture over generations, it holds captive all the things that make us human and enable us to gain dignity — including ingenuity, creativity, risk-taking, finding purpose through our work, and even generosity.

My experience at an Indian university exemplified that.

Part of my college education was at a government school in India. Most kids were extremely bright, but nearly all of them wanted to work for the civil service. The civil service is the bureaucratic arm of the government. The calculus was easy—becoming a government bureaucrat guaranteed lifelong employment, a place to live, a car, and a pension, and this was far better than being an average citizen who sometimes didn’t have the same guarantees! In fact, the quest for government jobs was so strong that even though the civil services exam was extremely difficult and many of my classmates failed it multiple times, they retook the exam year after year. Some of you are possibly looking to go to college, and some of you may become mechanical or software engineers, others of you doctors or pilots, or musicians and artists, and some of you will do something new that hasn’t been done before. The possibilities are endless. While many of my classmates did at some point in their life want to do something new and creative, the limited options, the societal pressure to pursue security and not risk failure, is immense. Indeed, such mentality over generations stifles innovation and in many ways makes us less human. I remember vividly, my brother, who was different from most kids, told my father he wanted to start a business. My father’s retort to his dream was a stern “We don’t do those things.” Being a business owner, even today, years after the heavy cloud of socialism dissipates, has a negative connotation.

While it is trendy to call yourself a democratic socialist in America, it is telling that not one prominent politician heralding the benefits that democratic socialism will supposedly bring ever actually lived under socialism. Instead, they owe their achievements to the very capitalistic spirit they despise. This irony should not be lost to us.

The truth—coming from someone who experienced socialism firsthand, is that not only does socialism vastly miss the mark on what should be produced and who should produce it, but it also crushes the human spirit.

That is why the American Spirit is so unique in contrast.

It took me a while to understand why America is exceptional. Like many non-Americans, I lived in the contradiction of desperately wanting to come to America while at the same time disparaging it for its standing in the world. Yet, when I landed in Los Angeles and first saw the streets of Pasadena, California, I knew this is where I wanted to be. At the time, it was primarily the material opulence that wowed me, but I soon learned that there are a few characteristics deep in the fabric of this country that make it special.

  • First, in America we see work as something good, which gives us purpose. When I first arrived in Pasadena, my view of work was that it is simply a means to a material end. Something you had to do every day before finally retiring. It amounted to drudgery and had no correlation to doing something of value that brings fulfillment. To the contrary, finding purpose in your work is a goal every American child learns to strive toward. In my current line of work, where I constantly meet with business owners, it is not uncommon to find people coming into work well into their 70s, 80s and even 90s. Work is not simply a means to an end for them. It is a calling.
  • Second, Americans have this weird entrepreneurial zeal that is surprising, if not alarming, to other people. In contrast to my classmates in India, my classmates in America were positioning themselves to be in the private sector. Some of my American friends even had the gall to start their small businesses while in college. This is radical to the socialist spirit! But in America, entrepreneurs are unwilling to accept “it cannot be done” and pursue innovation and find solutions. I find this to be true every time I meet with an entrepreneur and hear the tremendous stories of how they took a risk to build something, and in the process employed tens, hundreds or even thousands of others. In socialist countries, where the government provides the answers, provides the goods, and mitigates risk, this drive is non-existent. America’s entrepreneurial spirit is one of our most valued and yet, most underrated qualities. Our success has been built on this entrepreneurial freedom and the belief that government’s role is to simply let the people do what they do best.
  • Finally, Americans are amazingly generous. It is almost universally taken for granted that America is the most generous nation on earth. In fact, the wealthiest and much-maligned top 1 percent in America give nearly a third of all donations made. Philanthropy is not an option to most wealthy Americans, but a duty. Americans care deeply about their communities, so much that they accept responsibility for the vibrancy of everything from schools and hospitals to homeless shelters and soup-kitchens – and everything in between. In America, we have this unique idea that government is not the first line of defense against the difficulties of life, you are. Each American citizen has an intrinsic sense of duty that is utterly absent in socialist countries where the better off can walk right past the poor without a second thought –because the government will take care of it. Of course, I’ve already shown how the government fails abysmally to do this.

Some of you may have heard the famous quote from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “Socialism works until you run out of other people’s money.” Well, I submit that she was wrong. The problem with socialism is far worse than simply running out of money. The planners and tinkerers of socialist states of the past not only failed, but their failures led to greater poverty, starvation, homelessness, disease, decay, and an utter crushing of the human spirit.

This isn’t because socialism wasn’t “done right” or because it was not “tied to democracy”. This is the core of socialism in every variation and by any and every name.  Do not be fooled: This was socialism in India. This is socialism in South America. And, this will be socialism in America if we continue allowing the ideas of socialism to permeate.

While the sapping of dignity, purpose, and spirit caused by democratic socialism is the lesson I wish you to take away today, it is not the note on which I wish to end.

For much of my life, my ambition was to work for a leading humanitarian nonprofit, and to one day end up at the United Nations. That was when I lived under the false assumption that well-meaning bureaucrats in formidable organizations were the ones who could and would fix the world. I was saved from that falsity and from my youthful ambition when I realized that free enterprise is the greatest poverty eradication program known to man. I am fortunate, now I get to advocate for that truth at Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs.

I hope that you too will come to understand the amazing significance of the ideas that built this country. I hope you will not let yourself become subject to the latest political craze of the day. I hope you will not simply recognize and appreciate the American spirit in others but also practice it yourself. And by doing so, you will also help ensure that we all continue to flourish.

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Abhi Samuel is the Director of Entrepreneur Engagement at Commonwealth Partners.