Brandon Minster, Staff Writer

In P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith, Ronald Psmith and Even Halliday have the following exchange:

“Do you mean to say you gave me somebody else’s umbrella?”

“I had unfortunately omitted to bring my own out with me this morning.”

“I never heard of such a thing!”

“Merely practical Socialism. Other people are content to talk about the Redistribution of Property. I go out and do it.”

I think of this quote often, as I move through the cocktail parties of the well-heeled set, when I am asked, “How can I tell a theoretical socialist from a practical one?”

The question is a valid one. The battle between theory and practice has been around as long as man. The serpent had a theoretical take on God’s injunctions against fruit consumption. God’s take was more practical.

Years later, Henry VIII renewed the conflict when he bypassed the theoretical argument of divorce with the practical solution of execution.

These instances highlight the difference between theory and practice of socialism. A person can tolerate much more theory than he can practice. If I have to choose an airplane seatmate, give me the one who makes theoretical claim to the armrest, because the one who makes practical claim will end up with a fork in his thigh; I will be wearing zip-tie handcuffs, and our flight will be making an unscheduled stop.
Some readers might wish to make a comparison of their own, only they do not know where to find theorists and practitioners. I recommend they begin their search on their own college campus.

College campuses are lousy with theorists. Ask three random professors for the time and they will begin with a glance at the sun and the murmur, “In theory . . .” Ask someone less versed in the ways of an academic, such as a freshman or a wise senior, and he or she will answer practically, by turning up the volume on his music player.

Politicians are scattered along the socialism spectrum, gravitating towards each end depending on the desires of their current golf junket’s financier. When it comes to the important questions of government, it is wise to use the linchpin of your political decision by asking the question, “Who’s picking up the tab for the mini-bar?” Those bottles of water and specialty chocolates are not cheap.

Presidents are usually the finest examples of politicians. If you take that as a compliment, you’ve misread it, and should back up to make sure you’re clear. Some presidents have parlayed theory into admiration, such as Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation theoretically freed slaves, but the slave owners were still in rebellion three months after its issuance.

Rumor has it that the original design of the Lincoln Memorial featured a larger-than-life marble statue of a slave asking the seated Lincoln, “Am I free?” and Lincoln responding, “In theory . . . ” The design was scrapped when planners realized carved speech bubbles might give the monument a cartoon feeling.

At least Lincoln lived in the days before golf junkets and mini-bars, when political decisions were harder to make. The current healthcare legislation before Congress will be entirely decided on the basis of which lobbying group knows the better steakhouses, insurance companies or trial lawyers.

In these days of corporate bailouts, bank bailouts, newspaper bailouts and my proposed – yet unattractive – grad student bailouts, the line between theoretical and practical socialism is worth noticing.

Wodehouse’s line helps guide the way. The chaps down at the coffee shop might talk a good game of income redistribution, but it is the person sneaking out your back door with a wheelbarrow full of stereo equipment that is the practical socialist.

If two socialists are giving you trouble figuring out who loves theory more than practice, it is helpful to remember to look at their hands. The theorist is the one with his hands in his own pockets; the practical socialist will have his hands in yours.