Bryan Caplan  

When Do You Disbelieve a "Change of Heart"?

Lectures on Macroeconomics, No... Truth and Narrative...
When a Nazi announces that he's had a change of heart, I just don't believe him.  Take the infamous David Duke.  In his youth, he wore a swastika.  Now he has a book that's subtitled a "path to racial understanding."  But even if the book were a model of tolerance (and it's not), I would still believe Duke to be a Nazi.

On the other hand, though, when Communists in Western countries announced a switch to social democracy, I usually believe them.  Not always.  But when a guy pulls down his posters of Lenin, it's a lot more credible to me than when a guy pulls down his posters of Hitler.

Now this isn't because Lenin is less philosophically noxious than Hitler.  They're both creators of ludicrous systems of totalitarian hate.  So why am I more likely to disbelieve a Nazi's mea culpa?

My answer: This is a matter of psychology, not philosophy.  In most Western countries, people look upon Communists with bemused disdain; Nazis, in contrast, they view with horrified disgust.  Since the stigma against Communists is far weaker, the Communists manage to attract some vaguely normal adherents... or at least they used to.  In contrast, the stigma against Nazis is so intense that you have to be virtually psychopathic to join.  Once you send that signal, it's almost impossible to trust anything you say - even if you claim that you're no longer a Nazi.

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COMMENTS (33 to date)
OneEyedMan writes:

Is this testable in a context of other extreme tastes?

For example, since visiting prostitutes used to be more common in America than it is today, does that mean that over time you'd believe it was less and less that someone claiming to have given up on prostitutes had made a credible claim?

Constant writes:

I think almost anyone will react the same way that you react - it will be a gut reaction, and not the product of reasoning. I suspect your own reaction is also a gut reaction, and that you have rationalized it after the fact. I'm not saying the plausible justification that you offer is wrong - but I would warn that it's not all that hard to come up with plausible justifications of whatever a person wants to keep on believing.

Greg writes:

I think it makes sense, although for slightly different reasons. Big stigma = big incentive to dissemble. For this same reason, I find evangelicals unconvincing when they claim to have been cured of homosexuality.

Troy Camplin writes:

Get right down to it, the difference is that the Nazi-racist mentality is far more primitive a mindset than that of Marxism. We assume that a more complex psychology is capable of rational thought, and so can be persuaded by facts and evidence. I think either is as capable of growth -- but I also fear they are just as likely, which is to say, not very. We have the suspicion that the Nazi is tapping into more primitive elements, and we are right, but that doesn't make him any less philosophical than the Marxist.

Caliban Darklock writes:

I would further observe that the Nazi/Klan/racist mindset is about supremacy, where the communist mindset is about equality. If the communist mindset "wins", there is no "winner" - everyone is equal, although this does make many people into "losers". The lack of a winner removes any threat that might be felt otherwise.

bgc writes:

Troy Camplin said: "the Nazi-racist mentality is far more primitive a mindset than that of Marxism."

Maybe not - how about Heidegger (a Nazi) - arguably a more sophisticated (less primitive) thinker than any Marxist. Arguably the most sophisticated philosopher of the past coupla hundred years. And a solid, unrepentant Nazi - indeed a national socialist even before National Socialism.

And Germany was the most sophisticated society in the world leading up to the Nazis - far more civilized than any communist country.

While I agree that our instincts work in the way BC describes, I tend to regard this asymmetry as evidence of a pathology - the soft-on-communism pathology (because most of the Western intellectual elite are idealistic soft communists).

But maybe I have been reading too much Mencius Moldbug!

Brad Taylor writes:

Isn't the major difference that Nazis have crazy values whereas communists have crazy factual beliefs? Communists have some values you (and I) would regard as crazy, like believing in the intrinsic value of equality, but it is mainly the factual belief that market exchange is a zero-sum game that drives a belief in communism.

Communists basically care about human welfare. Nazis care about racial purity or the strength of the volk. Values seem less subject to change than factual beliefs, so communists are more likely to give up their ideology than Nazis.

Babinich writes:

Bryan states:

"In most Western countries, people look upon Communists with bemused disdain; Nazis, in contrast, they view with horrified disgust. Since the stigma against Communists is far weaker, the Communists manage to attract some vaguely normal adherents..."

Communists with bemused disdain? I believe more people need to take your communist test.

As a Pole I draw no distinction between Hitler & Stalin.

As a human being I draw no distinction between someone who worships Stalin or Hitler.

Isak writes:

I agree.

Nazis: "wrong" values
Commies: not *necessarily* wrong values (though certainly not Caplan-like values), but if not, necessarily wrong about the facts (which is more forgivable).

ringemann writes:

bgc nearly gets it.
germany is a perfect example for the difference between nazis and communists in advanced societies, because they had both.
the results were:
nazis+sophisticated science = industrial mass murder and communists+sophisticated science = a mild dictatorship by international standard.

so being a nazi in an advanced society really is worse than being a communist

Robin Hanson writes:

Well if once-Nazis had more extreme beliefs than once-Commies, it seems plausible to think it less likely they have moved all the way to normal, but I don't see why they couldn't have changed.

KDeRosa writes:

Let's do the totalitarian math:

The Nazi's killed about 20 million people.

Communists have killed 110 million people. The Soviet Union being responsible for 61 million.

(Compare that to 38 million who died in battle in wars in the 20th century.)

I'm not so sure that bemused disdained is the right outlook.

Jason Malloy writes:

"In most Western countries, people look upon Communists with bemused disdain"

No, no, no. It's much worse than this.

Speaking as a 20 something, I have never met anyone with communist sympathies or affiliation who was the least bit embarrassed to admit this in a crowd. And there is good reason for this; I have never been in a crowd that experienced any negative affect from hearing such a confession. In fact, any of the times I've seen such a statement met with opprobrium (always by some token dude. Not me, I've learned when to show my cards. :)), it is the one who challenges the communist who experiences social stigma (e.g. "McCarthyite", "red baiting", etc).

Sure if someone who is a "true believer" starts yelling at everyone about their Wicked Capitalist Ways, they get shunned, but this is true for almost all belief systems; people don't like to get lectured by evangelists. But people with passive Communist beliefs are seen as interesting, intellectual, or fashionable. This is certainly not true for fascism, or even mainstream conservatism.

Francis writes:

I agree with everyone concerning the 'bemused disdain': it is not my experience at all that communists are greeted that way.

In my opinion, we can believe a communist change-of-heart precisely because there is room for them to change their mind. That is, people usually start their communist mindset because the facts concerning the communist horror are not so widely known than those about Nazi horror, and there is still some 'romantic' view of communism circulating practically unhindered. (Take for instance the post above that says: "nazis+sophisticated science = industrial mass murder and communists+sophisticated science = a mild dictatorship by international standard"). Later on, those that are serious about making themselves an opinion will discover some facts and change their mind.

Not so for the Nazis: everybody knows what they have done starting grade 1. So, if someone was a Nazi despite knowing that, how can we expect him/her to change his mind? Discovering facts? There is nothing new to discover.

Jug writes:

So would you say Gunther Grass is a Nazi?

ringemann writes:

hey francis,

go read my post once again and then explain to me in which way I have romanticized the situation in GERMANY.

Les writes:

It seems to me that attitudes are often more hostile to Nazis than to Communists.

On the other hand, the facts are clear that both Nazis and Communists were mass murderers, and both were completely devoid of ethics.

So it seems to me that both fully deserve the utmost contempt.

Zac writes:

If you are ignorant of economics and have egalitarian values, you are naturally going to be sympathetic to Communism, especially if you are ignorant of their worst atrocities, which most people are. The "bemused disdain" is probably generated more from Cold War memories and current tensions with China and North Korea as economic and political rivals to the West than it is from a consideration of the evil of Communism.

So I have to agree with Bryan. You could be somehow convinced about the labor theory of value and then read the Bible and determine that workers should own the means of production. The most common association anyone has with the Nazis is their plan for world domination and their rapid, mass extermination of Jews and other minorities. I don't know that you can come to Nazism for any reason other than bigotry and hate.

Phill writes:

It's totally awesome that economists also have authority in matters of psychology, guys.

Bob Murphy writes:

Since the stigma against Communists is far weaker, the Communists manage to attract some vaguely normal adherents... or at least they used to. In contrast, the stigma against Nazis is so intense that you have to be virtually psychopathic to join. Once you send that signal, it's almost impossible to trust anything you say - even if you claim that you're no longer a Nazi.

What happens if we replace "Communist" with "neoclassical" and "Nazi" with "Austrian"? I think anyone who was a die-hard Rothbardian in high school, but claims otherwise once he goes on the job market, is to be viewed with suspicion.

scott cunningham writes:

I like this explanation a lot. It reminds me of the story Gary Becker once told when he went to NY and visited a Black doctor because he figured a Black doctor must have a much higher marginal product given the environment of racism at the time.

I wonder, though, whether this is airtight. I'm thinking about Iannaccone's stuff on club goods. Fraternities, sects, religions all make members pay really high prices - even enduring social stigma - theoretically to reduce free riding and therefore increase the value of membership for people. One way to interpret this is the way you interpreted reformed nazis. But another way is to take that club good model at face value. Why can't you therefore apply the same kind of reasoning towards National Socialism?

Of course, the counter to that is that Iannaccone's model makes most sense for clubs where there are group activities and social externalities, and probably makes the least sense for ideologies where membership doesn't have the same kind of social externatlities. Although, maybe not. In American History X, Ed Norton's character is extremely agitated when in prison he sees so much diluting of the racist ideology when nazis are trading with blacks and hispanics. Purity in the ideology may fit that Iannaccone club good model, too.

So I'm sympathetic to what you're saying, and think it's probably true, but it doesn't seem like you can't also say it's not an extension of the club good model too, can you?

John Govneaux writes:

... conversely, one can declare himself a Nazi just for the shock value. (the desired shock effect of declaring oneself a Communist would be much smaller for the reasons you outlined in the last paragraph).

Valter writes:

I'll go with Brad Taylor, too.

It is not necessarily/only a matter of worse stigma as Bryan says (try convincing someone that Pol Pot had got it right) or of starting with beliefs that are farther away from normalcy as Robin says (ditto).

And forget what actual implementations of Nazism and Communism did. Look at the ideas in themselves.

Nazi: "our race is worth more than yours; we will enslave you and rule for a thousand years;" "we tried it in Germany; it was going very well, except that we lost the war."

What evidence can convince someone like this that s/he is wrong? Now try the Commie.

Commie: "inequality is bad; let's nationalize everything, put a few comrades at the helm of the Gosplan and we'll all live in the best of all possible worlds;" "oops, did not quite work in practice and now I see there are very good theoretical reasons why it was very unlikely to work in principle; I guess a social-democrat state will have to do."

J.V. Hovig writes:

I also agree with the dissenters like Brad Taylor.

Nazism is an institutionalized form of murderous prejudice. Socialism is an economic theory. You might compare Nazism to Maoism or Stalinism; and you might compare socialism to objectivism; but I don't think you can compare Nazism to socialism as such.

So I'd split your questions up and restate them like this: Would you trust an ex-Stalinist or an ex-Nazi more? An ex-socialist or an ex-objectivist? I think those alignments are more meaningful.

The Snob writes:

OTOH, I suspect the cost of unbecoming a Nazi is significantly higher. Leaving the communist fold nowadays the worst you face is social ostracism or perhaps career dislocation. Neo-Nazis, however, are often tangled up with some pretty violent criminal elements, who are not known to be friendly to apostates.

Gabe writes:

There must be a time component to your judgements since the stigma has changed over time...I assume you believe that Prescott Bush wasn't really a true nazi even though he helped fund their war machine at Brown Brothers Harriman? and thus his kdis are true blue wholesome patriots right?

Do you think Operation Paperclip was a good idea even though it relied on nazi's coming to Uncle Sam's side?

I'm also curious about the implication for nazi/commies like the stasi? Was the Markus Wolf who ran the stasi a good pick to help train Chertoff and the Homeland Security folks? do you trust him?

MSG writes:

The historian John Lukacs criticizes zealous anti-Communism as stupid, because Communism is simply not very attractive. National Socialism, on the other hand, is potentially quite attractive, and therefore genuinely dangerous.

I think that most of us implicitly agree with John Lukacs, though I am not sure why we agree -- but I am not sure why roses are more attractive than dandelions, either. In any event, it is easier to believe that someone has given up an unattractive belief than an attractive one.

Mark Amerman writes:

Look guys, the big hole in this argument is the assumption that the
National Socialists were not popular in the early 1930s. This is
absurd. The truth is that within Germany they were all too popular.
Not universally, not by a long shot. But there were a heck
of a lot of educators that were fervently pro-nazi. There were a
heck of a lot of artists that were fervently pro-nazi. And among the
young, well, Nora Waln, in her account of her experience in germany
at the time, "The Approaching Storm: One Woman's Story of Germany
1934-1938", published in 1939, speaks of her difficulty in finding
just one german youth or even one young adult that was not a nazi

The truth is that in Germany in the 1930s, nazis were "cool."

The other hole in this argument, though certainly a more arguable
point, is the assumption that there is this big and profound difference
between National Socialism and Marxism. Look Adolf Hitler was a fervent
marxist up until the day he joined the then brand new National Socialist
German Workers Party. And by fervent, I mean that according to his contemporaries
he talked left-wing politics pretty much non-stop. The same could be said
for most (and quite possibly all) of the original nazi core group.

Arguably the big difference between National Socialism and Marxism
was simply that the Nazis were pro-German (and anti-Russian). How different
really was the program Hitler tried to run in Germany from what Lenin tried
to run in Russia? Look close and one might suspect that someone was trying
to imitate someone else.

Thorstein writes:

To what extent was Nazism (German Nazism) just Marxist notions wedded to a race-based theory of purity and superiority? It was after all National Socialist.

The Comintern talked a lot about how to promote communism in other countries. Hitler wasn't terribly interested in Nazism in other countries (unless he introduced it!). But all this means is that nationalism was more central notion in Nazism than Communism.

Frank writes:

Why was it called the "National SOCIALIST German Workers' Party"?

dj superflat writes:

yeah, i love how people ignore that the creators of fascism were leftists (hitler, mussolini). they look the same, smell the same, led the same place, they're both ducks. and communism arguably is more dangerous and/or reprehensible, because it has an intellectual veneer that idiots think somehow absolves it of blame for the truly unbelievable numbers killed in its name. yes, yes, there's never been true communism, etc. but if you've got an ideology that just somehow seems to lead to mass murder/deaths just about all the time, there's likely something wrong with the ideology, not just the implementation. so please, don't try to legitimize communism as compared to nazism, they're both absolutely reprehensible junk that folk should be embarassed to be in any way associated with (which is why you should look askance at your liberal arts undergrad education and the marxist professors who tried to indoctrinate you (yes, i'm bitter)).

Kurbla writes:

Equating communism with Lenin somehow doesn't work well. Communism is much older movement, older even than Marx, and communist ideas are even far older than movement. Real problem for anticommunists is: why do you believe that, say, Stalin was communist on the first place? Because he said so? Communism is meant to be collective rule, and where do you see that in Stalin's USSR?

Second, totalitarianism is not essential part of modern rejection of Nazis. People reject Nazis not because they made disturbing mass parades, but because of their extreme racism and imperialism. Both existed in very strong form in all powerful European capitalist countries of that time, totalitarian or not. These countries tried to conquer the world and were involved in numerous racist activities, including black slave hunt and trade, which is perhaps not as bad as genocide, but not far either.

CK writes:

This is a beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact.

Ugly fact (which is, in this case, beautiful--go figure) documented here:

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