I recently debated a liberal on the issue of socialism versus free-market capitalism. Understand that my opponent had never had a job outside of higher education. Consequently, his understanding of anything I said was limited. This column summarizes some of the key points I made during that debate. One more thing before getting into the actual debate. This professor is familiar with a book I wrote on Teamwork that is used by colleges, universities, and corporations in the U.S. and abroad. His debating techniques was to conflate socialism with teamwork.

Proving they are poor students of history—among other failings—Barack Obama and his fellow liberals have used their political hegemony to tilt the American economy toward socialism. From his first day in office Barack Obama has attempted to transform America into his fantasy of a socialist paradise. As a nation, we have not yet moved far enough down the path to economic destruction to qualify as a socialist state, but the left has made marked progress in establishing statism as the new reality in America, and statism is the first cousin of socialism. Just as the teen years are the final phase an individual passes through on the way to adulthood—at least legally speaking—statism is the final phase an economy passes through on the way to socialism. When Obama finally steps down, he will hand over a statist economy to his successor.

Why is it important for Americans to understand what awaits them at the bottom of the slippery slope liberals are pushing our economy down? It is important because lurking at the bottom of this slippery slope is socialism, and history has shown over and over that socialism does not work. Writing for THE FREEMAN, Mark J. Perry had this to say about the ultimate failure of socialism wherever it has been tried: “While it promised prosperity, equality, and security, it delivered poverty, misery, and tyranny. Equality was achieved only in the sense that everyone was equal in his or her misery.”

Socialism is one of those concepts that looks good on paper but breaks down in reality because it eventually succumbs to the tenets of human nature. For socialism to work, people would have to be genetically hardwired to suppress their individual self-interest for the good of the larger group, something that rarely happens. Further, in those cases liberals like to cite where individuals put the welfare of the group ahead of their own personal wants, needs, and agendas they do so only by exception. This kind of behavior occurs at times, but not as a general rule. Human beings are hardwired to look out for number one.

Self-interest is one of the most powerful motivators known to man. It is a subset of the survival instinct. Some individuals will sporadically operate on the basis of group-positive altruism, but only a few and rarely on a consistent basis. In truth, it is the rarest of individuals who puts the group ahead of self on a regular basis and in a dependable manner. Rather, humans are programmed to follow their survival instinct. It is this instinct that makes capitalism the more viable economic system when compared with socialism. Capitalism is based on principles of human nature such as the survival instinct, while socialism is based on principles that require individuals to defy human nature.

Liberals, as one might imagine, are seldom happy with my musings on capitalism versus socialism. Consequently, they occasionally try to refute my claims by offering the example of teamwork (as did my opponent in the debate mentioned earlier). Liberals who use this ploy like to claim—inaccurately—that socialism is nothing more than teamwork on a grand scale. They use this example because they know that I am the author of a widely-used book on teamwork (Effective Teamwork, Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2004) and that I often help corporations that are trying to establish teamwork as the norm among their employees. However, if they took the time to read my book they would be exposed to an interesting irony that might help even the most ardent among them understand why their pet economic theory never works in actual practice.

A key point I make in my book is that teamwork as practiced in sports and in the workplace works—when it works—only because of the incentives provided to individual members of the team. Human beings are motivated by incentives. I teach corporate executives that they should not expect people to practice the principles of teamwork just because doing so will benefit their team. Good employees do want to benefit their teams, but they will be more determined to do so if benefitting the team also benefits them as individuals. A rarely stated truth about teamwork is that people practice it only when incentives are provided that make it worth their while as individuals. This can be done on sports and work teams, but it cannot be done with socialism. With socialism, supposedly everybody benefits (or fails to benefit) at the same level regardless of effort, and there is the rub. In reality, socialism just changes who benefits from those productive individuals and entrepreneurs who create wealth to government flunkies who consume it before it ever filters down to the people.

Teamwork falls apart most often because selected members of the team fail to carry their share of the burden. When this happens, other members of the team quickly begin to question why they should put forth any extra effort when team member X, Y, or Z is doing so little. The question upon which teamwork breaks down is this: Why should I work hard when someone else who doesn’t is going to benefit to the same extent that I do? Good question. This same question inevitably arises with socialism, and it is a question that completely undermines the concept. In any group, there will always be entitled freeloaders and lazy nere-do-wells who would rather watch than work and who want to benefit without the inconvenience of effort.

Work and sports teams are small enough that non-contributors can be easily recognized and, in turn, disciplined, rooted out, or otherwise dealt with. But socialism is a society-wide enterprise that allows non-contributors to conceal themselves by taking refuge in its vastness. But despite the protection of bigness, people in a socialist society still eventually become aware that some members of the community are benefitting without putting forth any effort. As a result, they begin to question why they should continue to work hard. If I can benefit equally by doing nothing, why work? Why not just go fishing and let someone else break his back? These questions succinctly summarize why the inevitable result of socialism is that it incentivizes sloth. Never forget that an economic system gets more of what it incentivizes.

Even in a long-standing socialist setting, if you change the rules and reward people according to their level of productivity they quickly become productive again. The problem socialists have with this approach is that if they change the rules and begin to reward people according to their productivity they have scrapped socialism begun to practice capitalism.  Whether socialists like it or not, human beings operate according to individual incentives. In any situation, they want to know what’s in it for them. They also want to know that if they produce more they will be rewarded more. There is nothing wrong with this, despite the strident screeching of socialists. This is how people are made.

If socialists don’t like people are made they need to take their objections up with a higher authority than the president or Congress. Unfortunately, few socialist believe in the authority in question, but that is their problem. Further, if they would take the time to think the issue through more carefully, socialists would learn that by producing more people benefit not just themselves but the larger group also. Free-market capitalism is based on this concept. It does more than just accommodate human nature, it harnesses it for the benefit of all. Socialism, on the other hand, tries to defy human nature, an approach that has never worked and never will.