Where Are the Omelets?

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org. This essay has been adapted by the author from the original version that appeared in FEE’s journal, The Freeman, in October 1999.

On ne saurait faire une omelette sans casser des oeufs.” Translation: “One can’t expect to make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

With those words in 1790, Maximilian Robespierre welcomed the horrific French Revolution that had begun the year before. A consummate statist who worked tirelessly to plan the lives of others, he would become the architect of the Revolution’s bloodiest phase—the Reign of Terror of 1793–94. Robespierre and his guillotine broke eggs by the thousands in a vain effort to impose a utopian society based on the seductive slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

But, alas, Robespierre never made a single omelet. Nor did any of the other thugs who held power in the decade after 1789. They left France in moral, political, and economic ruin, and ripe for the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.

As with Robespierre, no omelets came from the egg-breaking efforts of Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini either.

The French experience is one example in a disturbingly familiar pattern. Call them what you will—leftists, utopian socialists, radical interventionists, collectivists, or statists—history is littered with their presumptuous plans for rearranging society to fit their vision of “the common good,” plans that always fail as they kill or impoverish other people in the process. If socialism ever earns a final epitaph, it will be this: “Here lies a contrivance engineered by know-it-alls and busybodies who broke eggs with abandon but never, ever created an omelet.”

Every collectivist experiment of the twentieth century was heralded as the Promised Land by statist philosophers. “I have seen the future and it works,” the intellectual Lincoln Steffens said after a visit to Stalin’s Soviet Union. In The New Yorker in 1984, John Kenneth Galbraith argued that the Soviet Union was making great economic progress in part because the socialist system made “full use” of its manpower, in contrast to the less efficient capitalist West. But an 846-page authoritative study published in 1997, The Black Book of Communism, estimated that the communist ideology claimed 20 million lives in the “workers’ paradise.” Similarly, The Black Book documented the death tolls in other communist lands: 45 to 72 million in China, between 1.3 million and 2.3 million in Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Vietnam, 1 million in Eastern Europe, and 150,000 in Latin America.

Additionally, all of those murderous regimes were economic basket cases; they squandered resources on the police and military, built vast and incompetent bureaucracies, and produced almost nothing for which there was a market beyond their borders. They didn’t make “full use” of anything except police power. In every single communist country the world over, the story has been the same: lots of broken eggs, no omelets. No exceptions.

Nobel laureate economist F. A. Hayek explained this inevitable outcome in his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom, in 1944. All efforts to displace individual plans with central planning, he warned us, must end in disaster and dictatorship. No lofty vision can vindicate the use of the brute force necessary to attain it. “The principle that the end justifies the means,” wrote Hayek, “is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals. In collectivist ethics it becomes necessarily the supreme rule.”

The worst crimes of the worst statists are often minimized or dismissed by their less radical intellectual brethren as the “excesses” of men and women who otherwise had good intentions. These apologists reject the iron fist and claim that the State can achieve their egalitarian and collectivist goals with a velvet glove.

But whether it is the Swedish “middle way,” Yugoslavian “worker socialism,” or British Fabianism, the result has been the same: broken eggs, but no omelets.

Have you ever noticed how statists are constantly “reforming” their own handiwork? Education reform. Health-care reform. Welfare reform. Tax reform. The very fact that they’re always busy “reforming” is an implicit admission that they didn’t get it right the first 500 times.

The list is endless: Canadian health care, European welfarism, Argentine Peronism, African postcolonial socialism, Cuban communism, on and on ad infinitum. Nowhere in the world has the statist impulse produced an omelet. Everywhere it yields the same: eggs beaten, fried, and scrambled. People worse off than before, impoverished and looking elsewhere for answers and escape. Economies ruined. Freedoms extinguished.

It is a telling conclusion that statists have no successful model to point to, no omelet they can hold up as the pièce de résistance of their cuisine. Not so for those of us who believe in freedom. Indeed, economists James Gwartney, Robert Lawson, and Walter Block in their survey, Economic Freedom of the World: 1975–1995, conclude that “No country with a persistently high economic freedom rating during the two decades failed to achieve a high level of income. In contrast, no country with a persistently low rating was able to achieve even middle income status. . . . The countries with the largest increases in economic freedom during the period achieved impressive growth rates.”

Perhaps no one explained the lesson of all this better than the French economist and statesman Frederic Bastiat more than 150 years ago:

“And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty.”

About the author

Lawrence W. Reed wrote 32 articles on this blog.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org. An economist and former college economics professor, Reed served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan before assuming his current position at FEE in September 2008. Full biography available on Wikipedia or at fee.org.

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Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org. An economist and former college economics professor, Reed served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan before assuming his current position at FEE in September 2008. Full biography available on Wikipedia or at fee.org.