Forty-five years ago this month, history's most notable attempt to resolve socialism's inherent contradiction began. It failed, as all attempts had previously and all have since. It failed because socialism fundamentally means repressing capitalism and capitalism remains irrepressible. Still, the attempt and its outcome are valuable reminders of how far the world has come, and how quickly it could regress.
On Jan. 5, 1968, Czechoslovakia's Communist Party elected Alexander Dubcek its leader. Over the next eight months, Dubcek would attempt to take what today appear mild steps toward political democratization and economic decentralization. He termed it "socialism with a human face," and in his day it was radical itself.
What came to be termed the "Prague Spring" was an effort to resolve socialism's inherent contradiction: a managed economy without a repressed citizenry. The left, despite every practical failure in this effort, has always clung tightly to the theory that this could, and will eventually, happen.
Dubcek's dream ended with Brezhnev's doctrine: On Aug. 20, 1968, the USSR intervened militarily to stop capitalism's advance within its sphere of influence.
Despite Russia's tanks, what ultimately undermined Dubcek's experiment was socialism's economics: "to build an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations." This oxymoronic goal also would undermine the USSR two decades later.
The problem is that socialism means thwarting capitalism, yet capitalism is the only sound economic foundation existing today. In order to work, socialism requires forcing the individual to avoid the natural inclination toward the marketplace. In other words, it can only exist through repression.
Since its rise, capitalism has proven the most powerful creative force history has ever seen. Far from sowing the seeds of its own destruction, as Dubcek's Marxist masters believed it would, capitalism has prevailed over every system that has tried to supplant it.
In order to force the economic system from its natural course, the state must apply force to its economic actors. Just as gravity continually asserts itself, so socialism's contradiction between economic theory and practice widens, and the need for political repression grows. A human face can never be put over that contradiction. It is for that reason that the most inhuman faces are sadly likely to be most successful in confronting the contradiction.
Forty-five years ago, socialism appeared ascendant. It extended from Berlin, across Eastern Europe, much of Asia, and made inroads into the rest of the world. Where it was not ascendant, it was still admired.
At its economic core, however, socialism was hollow. As a result, its political heart had to be equally hard.
Today, socialism is in collapse wherever it is not enforced at gunpoint or subsidized by concessions to free-market economics. State-managed economies have fallen, including the former Czechoslovakia, and extending westward into Western Europe's welfare states.
The problem we now confront arises from complacency, not socialism. So far has socialism fallen from favor that it becomes too easy to overlook capitalism's triumph. For those dismissive of history, it becomes equally easy to be dismissive of economics and politics.
A strong argument could be made that the Constitution's greatest gift to America was not political, but economic. It almost perfectly implanted the foundation for capitalism here from our nation's inception, putting America well ahead of other societies far more technologically, materially and even politically advanced.
Socialism's weakness is allowed to obscure our view of capitalism's strengths. The unprecedented creative power of capitalism makes too many feel it can always shoulder additional burdens. This results in the misperception that more regulations and taxes can always be accommodated.
We need to remember that while capitalism remains history's most efficient economic engine, it is not a magical one. After all this time, Dubcek's dream has never been achieved.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.