Obenski: America’s hybrid system seems to work best

Socialism is a boogeyman for the GOP. The trouble with socialism is simple. However, there are some good ideas that are often called socialism, as if socialism was a synonym for totalitarian, stupid or criminal, but it’s not.

Liberal is not a synonym either. Socialism is a system based on two axioms. To each according to his need and from each according to his ability. For this to make sense we need to define a few things.


First, need: We’re taught necessities are “food, clothing and shelter.” Food must include water, and air is just assumed, but we sure cannot do without either for long. Food used to be very basic, whatever was available at the time. One can live on bread and water for a while. People have claimed to live on just whiskey for a week or longer. We want food to incorporate a healthy diet but struggle to define it. Everyone does not have the same need. Some swear they can’t live without meat, or Twizzlers.

Clothing and shelter are climate dependent. In the tropics some native people did without either much of the time. In the arctic, clothing may rank higher immediately than food, because without clothing at 30 below you are frostbitten on 30 seconds and dead in 30 minutes. Shelter is an extension of clothing and like clothing, the need is climate and location dependent. We have people in Hawaii living under a tree. Some by choice preferring to spend their resources elsewhere. We really need to examine the definition of affordable housing because the definition the government uses is unrealistic. A couple can be comfortable in 160 square feet and a family in 500. Necessity does not include things like TV, R19 insulation, e-glass and structure like a railroad trestle. On the other hand, telephone is essential if one is expected to work. So is access to transportation.

Many survive without medical care. The question is whether that is in the best interest of the greatest number. Who wants to work with sick colleagues who cannot perform, if they show up at all? Who wants to try to teach sickly inattentive kids? Who wants their family exposed to infectious diseases of their neighbors?

Ability is a hard one to define. In the bad old days people worked till they dropped at tedious menial tasks under the overseer who whipped them if they slowed down. Some were literally worked to death. Ability was how long one could endure the stress. Not only was this system cruel, it was inefficient. One person’s ability as slave labor may be very small, yet his or her ability as an innovator or professional very great. What use would Stephen Hawking, Steve Jobs or Stephen King have been as laborers on a plantation or collective farm?

Experience has shown that free people given the right incentives produce far more than slaves or serfs. They also can produce things no one else thought of. We can never know how many Edisons, Einsteins, or Mozarts labored undiscovered in antiquity. The incentives may be monetary or fall somewhere else on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (Survival to self-actualization). Very few, maybe none, are qualified to determine someone else’s ability. That does not stop them from trying, as every veteran knows.


Socialism fails as an organizing system because there is always something to covet: a better view, a shinier car, a prettier wife, smarter kids. Unlike a beehive, a human society is composed of individuals, quite distinct from one another. Hardly anyone is content to have exactly what his neighbor has, and more rarely content with less. Few are willing to work as hard as they can for the benefit of everyone else. The magic word for a productive society is incentive and that’s what socialist systems can’t provide. The American hybrid of regulated capitalism tempered with some socialistic safeguards seems to work best.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Send feedback to obenski@gmail.com