Arnold Kling  

The U.S. vs. Communist Dictatorship

A Failure of Introspection... Strange Comment on Social Secu...

Now Bryan writes,

For example, the Soviet Union from 1956 on was clearly an institutional arrangement, run by many individuals with competing interests, which were resolved using rules that were viewed as more important than any one individual. Khrushchev was peacefully removed from power and died of old age.

Thus, contrary to Arnold, I don't literally think that government is a "single warlord." I just think that rule by a committee according to formal procedures is not fundamentally different from rule by a single man.

I think it's fair to say that one has to believe either one of the following statements:

1. The U.S. political system is fundamentally different from the Soviet system; or

2. The U.S. political system is only superficially different from the Soviet system.

Bryan sounds like he is arguing for (2). In that case, he ought to be aware of the difficult hole he is digging himself into. There appear to be a number of important differences. The results were clearly different.

Certainly, you cannot dig yourself out of the hole with rhetoric like this: "By most accounts, Lenin and Stalin lived like monks."

And Hitler was a vegetarian. So what? A dictator who does not value meat or does not value personal luxury is still a dictator. And politicians can be wealthy and greedy without being autocrats.

My own position is based on (1). I think that the checks and balances in our system are meaningful, so that our government does not act like a Communist dictatorship.

(By the way, the claim that Khruschev's removal from power was peaceful should not go unchallenged. I'll grant that he was not murdered. But don't make it sound like all it took to get him out of office was a simple committee vote.)

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The author at The Liberal Order in a related article titled Anarchy vs. The State writes:
    Bryan Caplan and Arnold Kling have been arguing over whether or not the state defaults [Tracked on December 19, 2005 4:07 PM]
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K writes:

Judging a public person's decency by their living conditions is useless.

Many extremely wealthy people live rather modestly. But you will read little about them. Donald Trump and his gold penthouses sell better.

Dictators show the same traits. Some display, some do not.

One's food choice changes even less often than surroundings as the person acquires wealth or power.

Khruschev very sensiibly did not execute his predecessor, Malenkov. Indeed Nikita was tough and tempermental, but not inhuman or mad. Years later K got the same retirement deal. But the credit should go to Malenkov who had introduced some decency into the Kremlin.

Arnold --

Suppose Brian were to persuade you that there is no fundamental difference between the U.S. political system and the Soviet political system. How would that change your policy prescriptions? Do you think PPA's would be any more viable than you did previously?

Max writes:

I have some problems with your argumentation, because indeed Communist countries were almost the same as western democracies, except for two things: No checks and balances (rather a unification of legislative, executive and sometimes jurisdiction) and there was no process of free vote.

They have also have constitutions, so this wouldn't be a difference. But in contrast to the western democracies, those constitutions were violated without any fear of repression. Also, the people had mostly no sense for freedom and individuality (the majority), because Russia had been an Autocracy even before Communism came. Many of the Easter countries who fell in face of Communism never had the same understanding of individuality. Perhaps the culture is a better indicator, whether the government can behave peacefully instead of being a warlord.

Bill Stepp writes:

Checks and balances are overrated. For example, Rothbard called the Supreme Court "an unchecked and unlimited tyrant." If it's checked and limited by anything, it's public opinion, which is a weak reed.
The executive branch is gradually becoming more tyrannical. Congress is simply a criminal class, as Mark Twain pointed out, and a self-aggrandizing one at that.
Public opinion is a cesspool of mostly public school-educated statism and toadyism.

Stalin didn't live like a monk; he had an expensive country dachu for example.

John P. writes:

A very brief defense of our checks and balances:

Congress, not the President, controls taxing and allocations, but the President controls the Army. The President thus does not institutionally have the wherewithal to buy the Army's allegiance, while Congress does not institutionally have the channels to run the Army. The Supreme Court has the final say, under a given version of the Constitution, as to the legitimacy of what Congress or the President does, but the Supreme Court does not have any executory apparatus and does not have the purse-power to build such an apparatus. The voters, the state governments, and Congress have the ultimate power to change the final authority, by amending the Constitution.

As others have pointed out, a big part of any system's success is the willingness of enough people to follow its rules. In the US, we've been fortunate that most people have been willing to follow the rules most of the time. Bush v. Gore, for example, did not degenerate into a civil war. At the same time, the rules themselves should get some of the credit, because they have managed to work with self-interest toward a prosperous and largely free society.

Matt writes:

I don't think the structure of our governmental institutions (i.e., checks and balances) can be the whole story on why we live in a much nicer society than most.

You can have very nasty dictatorships who still have checks and balances in their systems. For example, a few months ago, Robert Mugabe was angry because the Zimbabwe high court would not authorize some particular thing he wanted to do. Apparently Zimbabwe has a high court that is independent of the president, was willing to issue a ruling that Mugabe didn't like, and Mugabe felt bound to observe its decisions (at least to the point of threatening the court rather than just ignoring it). These checks weren't enough to stop him from completely destroying the economy and civil order, though.

I'd like to be wrong on this, but I can imagine a thorougly totalitarian system that had the exact same institutional structures as the US has presently. If there was something in it for them, I bet the North Koreans could set it up in a matter of months.

From the other side, I understand that Italy is institutionally unstable (compared to the US at least) and the government they do have is comparatively corrupt and ineffective. Yet they have a basically decent society with reasonable prosperity and security for the individual. Theodore Dalrymple wrote an interesting essay on this: The Uses Of Corruption.

James writes:

Hmm, let me see if I can summarize all this.

Arnold: Governments are different from warlords because they are institutional arrangements with rules.

Bryan: Institutional arrangements and rules are not sufficient to make governments different from or preferable to warlords. Take the USSR for example...

Arnold: But the USSR and the US are different from eachother...

How is that a response to Bryan's point? When given a counterexample to a categorical proposition such as "Things are better when people are bound by rules," no number of favorable examples can rehabilitate the proposition. All you can do is look at all known samples and establish a probabilistic description. How do the expected circumstances under a government compare to the expected circumstances without government?

Arnold, If you have some reason to prefer governments to the alternative, then say it. Even "I like governments because right now the government I have to deal with is tolerable to me" is at least an honest answer. Just realize that most people in human history have lived under horrible governments and if they applied the same reasoning, they would be anarchists. So far all you've really said is "I prefer the kind of arrangements I prefer because they have attributes that I prefer," without any justification for your ancillary claim that the attributes you like will be present with a government and won't possibly happen without.

Barkley Rosser writes:


I don't think one should give too much personal credit to Malenkov for the post-Stalin position. Rather, it was a collective decision of the new leadership, of which Malenkov was not a dictator. They collectively assassinated the one person who might have continued the Stalinist oppression, Beria. After that, the deal was that there were to be no more executions of Party leaders.

Deb McAdams writes:

I have to second James.

Just from reading this post, whether or not the US is fundamentally different from the USSR is not Brian's point.

The point is that there is one specific similarity between the two - neither is ruled by a warlord.

There is another specific point which is that rule in the USSR is worse than rule by a warlord.

So even if they are fundamentally different systems, if neither is ruled by a warlord then they disprove the contention that rule by a committee is necessarily better than rule by a warlord.

When one side subconsciously begins to shift the debate away from a losing point to the more easily argued "is the US different from the USSR" then that side should prepare to concede defeat.

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