Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A new look at the intellectuals and socialism

Some years ago I wrote a short article for FEE (The Foundation for Economic Education) entitled Recycling Discredited Ideas. I was referring then, in 2009, to the renewed embrace by economists and others of discredited Keynesian ideas for dealing with the recession. I had naively thought that the overwhelming evidence against the efficacy of these ideas was sufficient to establish their permanent demise. Not so. Clearly we are doomed by the re-embrace of failed ideas to repeat the mistakes of history. The Keynesians were reborn and are alive and well.

Even worse, however, is the resilience of the idea of socialism. If ever in the history of human affairs there was decisive evidence against something, it is the evidence against socialism, especially as compared with the history of capitalism. Yet, somehow, the faithful refuse to be deterred by the facts and remain undeterred by the mounting dismal failures of socialism and the absence of even one single example of success. Meantime  the benefits of competitive capitalism are spectacularly obvious for anyone who cares to see them. The resilience of the belief in the virtues of socialism is nothing short of miraculous, a testament to the capacity of human beings to create their own reality, a major refutation of the assumption that the scientific method will always win out in an argument involving intelligent, well-meaning individuals. It is not stupidity or meanness that is to blame. It is something much deeper and more insidious; it is the power of hard-wired human presumptions to endure in the face of massive evidence to the contrary.

The presumptions of socialism are intuitive and appealing. The logic of capitalism is counterintuitive and harsh (at least harsh-sounding). In the course of modern human history they bounce against each other and wax and wane. Just a little while ago very few politicians would have been prepared to adopt the label ‘socialist’. To call someone a socialist was widely regarded as an insult, an accusation of untenable extremism. Suddenly it is completely different. While self-proclaimed socialists have all the while continued their prominence in our academic institutions, hardly diminishing over the years, socialism’s cause has most recently been taken up by our youngest, most ignorant and inexperienced voters, with the result that young politicians and other demagogues, sniffing the opportunity, have risen to national prominence on the socialist banner. The young cannot remember the horrors of socialisms past, they were not alive. And they pay no attention to the lessons of history because studying history takes effort and we have told them it is unnecessary and all wrong anyway. So, in part, it is a failure of collective memory and the downgrading of knowledge about history that is to blame. These, indeed, it seems to me, are important explanations in the re-embrace of Keynesian doctrines as well. But, they cannot be all there is to it when it comes to socialism. Those intellectuals who cling to socialist dreams are neither short on memory nor ignorant of history. Quite the contrary, some of our most intelligent and well-informed intellectuals are among them.  

Now, every day, we get news reports on self-identifying socialist politicians proposing to collectivize aspects of our economy – from healthcare to the environment and in between. How then does one explain this disturbing development?

A new book from the Institute for Economic Affairs (in London) provides an illuminating explanation and I highly recommend reading it. It is Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, by Kristian Niemietz, which can be downloaded for free from here. An informative subtitle for this book may have been The Intellectuals and Socialism were this not associated with F. A. Hayek’s famous article by that name. “Over the past hundred years, there have been more than two dozen attempts to build a socialist society” (p. 21). Niemietz provides chapters on seven of them – the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Cuba, North Korea, West Germany (the GDR, perhaps the most informative chapter), Albania and Venezuela.  Each chapter provides a brief outline of the history, followed by detailed evidence of the predictable pattern of intellectual assessments that were published at the time. That pattern starts with praise and optimism about the new attempt to create a ‘true socialism’, followed by disillusionment at what actually transpires after the honeymoon period, for which various explanations and excuses are offered, usually suggesting that those in charge failed to follow through, and this in turn is followed, once failure is abundantly evident and abuses are impossible to deny, with condemnation and explanation that this particular historical case was clearly not one of ‘real socialism’, so socialism as such cannot be condemned by it. It was driven by the wrong people or by people who were not able and willing to stay the course. It could have and should have been different. Commonly they point to the absence of democracy that seems to characterize all these cases.

This pattern is repeated over again, with variations, in each case of actual socialist experimentation. First the euphoria, encouragement and praise that accompanied pilgrimages to the new promised land by the intellectuals, including some of the western world’s most prominent intellectuals, then the backtracking by degrees and the making of excuses, followed finally by disillusionment and disavowal – although this last phase is also characterized by a remnant of unrepentants who continue to defend the integrity and the achievements of the experiment, its blemishes notwithstanding. For example, Jeremy Corbyn, who features in just about every chapter, continues to defend the Soviet Union in spite of the extermination of around 20 million people and the brutalizing and abuse of many more, as a noble experiment that was largely successful. According to him nothing good would come from the collapse of the Soviet Union (p. 88).

These case studies are found in chapters 2 through 9 and make up the heart of the book, a valuable source for those seeking an overview of each of these historical experiments. Bracketing these chapters are chapters 1 and 10 which can be profitably read even if the reader reads nothing else in the book. Chapter 1 lays out the problem. Socialist ideas are pervasive. There is a strong knee jerk reaction toward fixing things by putting the government in charge, nationalizing it, especially in vital areas like education, healthcare, and the environment, but in other areas as well. Zero-sum thinking appears to be the default. By contrast, a general understanding of how competitive capitalism works is seriously lacking. The contrast between the miserable failures of tried socialism and the achievements of actual capitalism have somehow produced the opposite of what might be expected, namely, a dissatisfaction with the latter and a hankering after the promises of the former. This, in spite of the fact that, as explained, socialism has been tried over and over again and always ends in disappointment and often disaster.

Some people point to the Scandinavian countries as examples of successful socialism. This borders on the absurd. In fact, apart from the fact that these countries have high levels of taxation and high levels of government involvement in basic services they are very capitalist in nature. There is no widespread state ownership of property. Private property and the pursuit of profit is the norm. Sweden experimented briefly with socialist style tax and regulate policies but abandoned them when they failed. It is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world and one of the most capitalist judging by the rules of production.

Chapter 10 explains this curious situation by indulging in a bit of social psychology, borrowing ideas from the work of Jonathan Haidt and Bryan Caplan.  The common brain evidently sees in the aims of socialism – equality of outcomes, comradery, compassion, the absence of scarcity, financial security, …, - a ‘cure’ for all the ills plaguing our society. And this perception gets insulated against refutation by various (conscious and unconscious) stratagems. For example, the intellectual case for socialism never actually spells out in concrete terms the specific social institutions that will have to be put in place in order to achieve the socialist nirvana and exactly how this is to be done. The blueprints are confined to the articulation of highly abstract outcomes. And then, with the failure of every ‘new’ attempt to achieve these socialist ideals, the attempt is declared not to be what socialism really is. At bottom every socialist experiment is judged to be socialist or not by its outcomes not by its objectives. So, the fact that there has never been a successful attempt to establish the objectives of a satisfactory socialism is not seen as a shortcoming of socialism as a set of ideas or policies, but rather as evidence that the attempt cannot be labelled as real socialism. It is a perfect strategy for keeping the faith in the face of a challenging reality.

The final chapter (Epilogue) catalogues the pronouncements over the decades of the newspaper The Guardian on matters socialist and makes for fascinating reading as to just how wrong you can be and yet keep going.

There is much more, read the book.