Tuesday, 4 June 2019

You can't argue against socialism's 100 percent record of failure

After more than two dozen failed attempts -- every time and everywhere it's been tried, records Kristian Niemitz in this guest post -- Socialism  has proven itself to be a disastrous economic and social philosophy, entirely unsuited to life on this earth.

Socialism is in vogue. Opinion pieces ordering us to stop obsessing over socialism’s past failures, to get excited instead about its future potential, these have almost become a genre in their own right.

Consider Bhaskhar Sunkara's recent example, penned for the New York Timesin which he claimed (as most such articles have to claim) that the next attempt to build a socialist society will be completely different:
This time, people get to vote. Well, debate and deliberate and then vote—and have faith that people can organise together to chart new destinations for humanity. Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. […] [I]t seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives.
So too Nathan Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs, who wrote in that magazine that socialism has not “failed." It has just never been done properly:
It’s incredibly easy to be both in favour of socialism and against the crimes committed by 20th-century communist regimes.
    When anyone points me to the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba and says “Well, there’s your socialism,” my answer […] [is] that these regimes bear absolutely no relationship to the principle for which I am fighting. […] The history of the Soviet Union doesn’t really tell us much about “communism” […]
    I can draw distinctions between the positive and negative aspects of a political programme. I like the bit about allowing workers to reap greater benefits from their labour. I don’t like the bit about putting dissidents in front of firing squads.
And Brit populist Owen Jones can declare, in print, that while Cuba’s current version of socialism is not “real” socialism at all—it could yet become "the real thing":
Socialism without democracy […] isn’t socialism. […] Socialism means socialising wealth and power. […]
    Cuba could democratise and grant political freedoms currently denied as well as defending […] the gains of the revolution. […] The only future for socialism […] is through democracy. That […] means organising a movement rooted in people’s communities and workplaces. It means arguing for a system that extends democracy to the workplace and the economy.

And then there's self-deluded Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig who wrote an article with the self-explanatory title 'It’s Time To Give Socialism A Try':
Not to be confused for a totalitarian nostalgist, I would support a kind of socialism that would be democratic and aimed primarily at de-commodifying labour, reducing the vast inequality brought about by capitalism, and breaking capital’s stranglehold over politics and culture.
Despite differences in style and emphasis, articles in this genre share a number of common flaws.

Flawed Arguments

The first and most obvious flaw is this: that as much as the authors insist that previous examples of socialism were not “really” socialist, none of them can tell us what exactly they would do differently. Rather than providing at least a rough outline of how “their” version of socialism would work in practice, the authors escape instead into abstraction, and talk about lofty aspirations rather than tangible institutional characteristics.

“Charting new destinations for humanity” and “democratising the economy” are nice buzzphrases, but what does this mean, in practice? How would “the people” manage “their” economy jointly?

Would we all gather in Hyde Park, and debate how many toothbrushes and how many screwdrivers we should produce?

How would we decide who gets what?

How would we decide who does what?

What if it turns out that we don’t actually agree on very much at all?

These are not some trivial technical details that we can just leave until after the revolution--as Karl Marx did. These are the most basic, fundamental questions that a proponent of any economic system has to be able to answer. Almost three decades have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall—enough time, one should think, for “modern” socialists to come up with some ideas for a different kind of socialism. Yet here we are. After all those years, they have still not moved beyond the buzzword stage.

The second great flaw is this: that the authors do not even realise that there is nothing remotely new about these lofty aspirations to which they aspire, and the vapid buzzphrases they employ. Giving “the people” democratic control over economic life has always been the aspiration, and the promise, of socialism. It is not that this has never occurred to the people who were involved in earlier socialist projects. On the contrary: that was always the idea. There was never a time when socialists started out with the express intention of creating stratified societies led by a technocratic elite. But, inevitably, socialism always turned out that way. It was not always the intention; but that result was always baked in.

Socialists usually react with genuine irritation when a political opponent mentions an earlier, failed socialist project. They cannot see this as anything other than a straw man, as a cheap shot. As a result, they refuse to address why those attempts have turned out the way they did. According to contemporary socialists, previous socialist leaders simply did not really try, and that is all there is to know.

They are wrong.

The Austro-British economist Friedrich Hayek already showed in 1944 why socialism must always lead to an extreme concentration of power in the hands of the state, and why the idea that this concentrated power can be "democratically" controlled is an illusion. Were Hayek to come back from the dead today, he would probably struggle a bit with the iPhone, Uber and social media—but he would instantly grasp the situation in Venezuela.

Hayek's successor in this line of criticism, George Reisman, understood Venezuela's fate as early as 2007, and has explained in compelling detail why this is always and inevitably the endpoint of socialist government: why, in his words, "Marxism/socialism [is] a sociopathic philosophy conceived in gross error and ignorance, culminating in economic chaos, enslavement, terror, and mass murder."

This is the result of the third great flaw of the socialist system: that contemporary socialists completely fail to address the long-understood deficiencies of socialism in the economic sphere. Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk explained as long ago as 1896 that
Marx’s economics was disaster heaped upon blindness, was “contradiction … heaped upon contradiction,” and that “the great radical fault of the Marxist system at its birth; from it all the rest necessarily springs” was his blind attempt to force his economic theories to fit into the Procrustean bed of his formal “dialectic” methodology.

And Böhm-Bawerk's student Ludwig von Mises drove the final nail into socialism's economic pretensions by pointing out that that socialism could never work because (without a price system) it could never distinguish more or less valuable uses of social resources, predicting in 1920 that the system would always end in chaos -- Mises's arguments proved to be unanswerable.

Socialists ever since have talked a lot about how their own particular version of socialism would be democratic, participatory, non-authoritarian, and nice and cuddly. But they could never prove Hayek, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises et al wrong and magically make their version work. So inevitably, to make people work they were obliged inevitably to resort to threats and violence.

What starts in fantasy always ends in slavery.

Economics Matters

Many of today's socialists, just like those of the past, would prefer to be able to avoid the Gulags, the show trials and the secret police next time, the avoidance of which would obviously be an immeasurable improvement over the versions of socialism that existed in the past.

But even without those inevitabilities, socialism is still left with a dysfunctional economy, and no other way but threats to even try to make it work.

Contemporary socialists still maintain the fantasy however that a democratised version of socialism would not just be more "humane" but also economically more productive and efficient: reform the political system, and the rest will somehow follow. The key word is "somehow." Because there is no reason why it should, and nowhere it ever has done. Democracy, civil liberties, and human rights are all desirable in their own right, but they do not, in and of themselves, make countries any richer--and no strict socialist society has ever been able to enjoy these fantastic promises for very long.

A version of East Germany without the Stasi, the Berlin Wall, and the police brutality would have been a much better country than the one that actually existed. But even then: East Germany’s economic output per capita was only one third of the West German level. Democracy, on its own, would have done nothing to close that gap. (And East Germany never enjoyed that boon.)

A version of North Korea without the secret police and the labour camps would be a much better country than the one that actually exists. But even then: the North-South gap in living standards is so vast that the average South Korean is 3–8cm taller than the average North Korean, and lives more than ten years longer. (Even if they ever had it, democracy alone would not make North Koreans any taller, or likelier to reach old age.)

Ultimately, the contemporary argument for socialism boils down to: “next time will be different because we say so.”

After hundreds of millions dead in more than two dozen failed attempts, that is just not good enough.

* * * * * 
Dr. Kristian Niemietz is the British Institute for Economic Affairs's Head of Health and Welfare.
A version of this post previously appeared at FEE.


1 comment:

  1. If someone is not allowed to price their own economic contribution, contribute or withdraw their labour based on that evaluation we have a word for that:



1. Comments are welcome and encouraged.
2. Comments are moderated. Gibberish, spam & off-topic grandstanding will be removed. Tu quoque will be moderated. Links to bogus news sites (and worse) will be deleted.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say it, it's important enough to put a name to it.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.