Bryan Caplan  

The Writing on the Wall

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I've been thinking all day about what to write for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Here goes.

The conventional interpretation of the Wall: Socialism, a movement that began with wide-eyed idealism, was gradually corrupted.  The first socialists dreamed of freeing the common man; but once their intellectual heirs were drunk on absolute power, they ended up shooting anyone who tried to escape their Workers' Paradise.

My interpretation of the Wall: Socialism was born, lived, and died a totalitarian movement.  The first socialists were not idealists; they were wannabe dictators.  The later socialists practiced what the early socialists would have practiced if they got a chance.  The most amazing thing about the Berlin Wall is that the world didn't see it coming.

It's easy to dismiss this as hindsight bias.  But at least one man - the brilliant German classical liberal Eugen Richter - saw the Wall coming over sixty years before it went up.  In 1891, decades and revolutions before Orwell's Animal Farm, Richter published Pictures of the Socialistic Future.  It's a dystopian novel about what happens to Germany after a socialist takeover.  The chapter on emigration is positively eerie.  It begins:
[A] decree has been issued against all emigration without the permission of the authorities. Socialism is founded upon the principle that it is the duty of all persons alike to labour, just as under the old regime the duty to become a soldier was a universally recognised one. And just as in the old days young men who were ripe for military service were never allowed to emigrate without authority, so can our Government similarly not permit the emigration from our shores of such persons as are of the right age to labour. Old persons who are beyond work, and infants, are at liberty to go away, but the right to emigrate cannot be conceded to robust people who are under obligations to the State for their education and culture, so long as they are of working age.
Richter anticipates both the emigration policies and the rationalizations of the future DDR - although even he overlooked the fact that infants make excellent hostages.  Question: How did he see the ugliness of the socialist future so clearly? 

I submit that Richter repeatedly asked these "idealists" obvious hypotheticals like "What if a worker doesn't like your 'socialist paradise'?" and noted that the socialists responded with hysteria and evasion.  And if that's their response to critical questions before they have power, how do you think they'd respond to critical actions after they have power?

Richter's dystopian novel explains that the socialist state welcomed the initial flight of "class enemies."  But then:
[U]seful people, and people who had really learnt something, went away in ever-increasing numbers to Switzerland, to England, to America, in which countries Socialism has not succeeded in getting itself established. Architects, engineers, chemists, doctors, teachers, managers of works and mills, and all kinds of skilled workmen, emigrated in shoals. The main cause of this would appear to be a certain exaltation of mind which is greatly to be regretted. These people imagine themselves to be something better, and they cannot bear the thought of getting only the same guerdon as the simple honest day labourer. Bebel very truly said: "Whatever the individual man may be, the Community has made him what he is. Ideas are the product of the Zeitgeist in the minds of individuals."
Of course, the socialists say that the emigration prohibition is temporary: Once people no longer wish to leave, they'll be free to go!
As soon as our young people shall have received proper training in our socialistic institutions, and shall have become penetrated with the noble ambition to devote all their energies to the service of the Community, so soon shall we be well able to do without all these snobs and aristocrats. Until such time, however, it is only right and fair that they should stay here with us.
The chapter closes with the inside scoop on enforcement.  Let it never again be said that socialists don't believe in incentives!
Under these circumstances the Government is to be commended for stringently carrying out its measures to prevent emigration. In order to do so all the more effectually, it has been deemed expedient to send strong bodies of troops to the frontiers, and to the seaport towns. The frontiers towards Switzerland have received especial attention from the authorities. It is announced that the standing army will be increased by many battalions of infantry and squadrons of cavalry. The frontier patrols have strict instructions to unceremoniously shoot down all fugitives. [emphasis mine]
The twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a day for great celebration.  But the sad fact is that if the world had been perceptive enough to see the 19th-century socialists as totalitarian hate-mongers in idealist clothing, the Wall would never have been built in the first place.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Deanna writes:

Caplan's viewpoint is that if people could have seen what the Berlin Wall and its socialist creators would become then so much of its results could have been avoided. This view can also be applied to the economic depression that our country is facing now. If people had paid attention to the warning signs and had taken the appropriate measures to circumvent this crisis, then a great deal of hardship could have been avoided. Of course, this case, like many others, simply proves that humanity's hindsight is certainly much better than its foresight.

B.B. writes:

Wonderful post, Bryan.

Having had the chance to go through Checkpoint Charlie and see East Berlin in May 1972 after Nixon's agreements, I saw the face of socialist evil up close. I jumped for joy when the Wall was breached.

Here is a hypothetical. If we can imagine Marx coming back and seeing what Lenin and Stalin did to Russia, would he have been delighted or horrified? Would Marx have changed his mind about anything? Those may seem pointless questions, but they get to your assertions. If 19th century socialists were really totalitarian hate-mongers in idealist clothing, doesn't that answer the question about Marx's character?

But what about more modern socialists?

I recommend you read Ursala Le Guin's "The Dispossessed," which uses standard sci-fi lit to create a vividly portrayed idealized purely communist utopia on another planet, which she contrasts to a caricature of a capitalist society on a nearby planet. After reading it, I would like you to tell us if Le Guin is just a "useful idiot" or whether you regard her as the next generation of totalitarian hate-monger.

liberty writes:

It does not come down to semantics, I disagree with this characterization while at the same time I agree that socialism is totalitarian by nature. The difference is that I believe that most socialists do not understand this completely.

One might ask: What of those that evaded the questions put forth by people like Richter and then went on to rule and quash dissent? Again, I think that well meaning and not fully comprehending individuals attempted to bring their bold new world. I would not call this the choice of a "tyrant" but the choice of a "fool" - sadly, a fool who may have led his people into slaughter.

Justin writes:

Of course, the socialists say that the emigration prohibition is temporary: Once people no longer wish to leave, they'll be free to go!

Actually, I think the argument is that once there is global revolution and the World Government (the UN?) institutions worldwide socialism then people are free to go. Otherwise you get the race to the bottom.

Zac Gochenour writes:

Deanna, I think that comparing the current economic crisis to the rise of communism is a bit of a stretch. The point here is not simply that if we could have foreseen the bad results of the future they could have been avoided - which is true for almost any unfortunate event - it is that the future of communism was apparent even to those such as Richter writing decades before socialist revolution happened in any country, and even now many believe the conventional interpretation that socialism was somehow corrupted in the USSR despite its idealistic, noble beginnings.

B.B. I'm curious about Bryan's response to your hypothetical re: Marx. My personal impression of Marx is that he was not a hatemonger or wannabe totalitarian. Those definitely describe Lenin, Trotsky, and other early socialist revolutionaries considered by some to be wide-eyed idealists, but not Marx. Marx was a philosopher and political economist, and I think a genuine idealist who just had the wrong ideas about economics and political philosophy. There's no indication that Marx had any designs on being a totalitarian dictator. For him to fully realize that not only was he wrong but his ideas would be used to justify the slaughter and impoverishment of millions - I say he would be mortified. Of course one can never know. In a similar vein, I don't think we can qualify people like Ursula Le Guin or Noam Chomsky as wanna-be totalitarians. They definitely fit the bill of "useful idiot." Well, maybe they hope they will become revered members of the future nomenklatura, but I think blind idealism is more likely.

Kurbla writes:

What's your claim? That some "socialist" countries closed borders or that closed borders are necessity in socialist countries.

In my opinion, first claim is trivial, and second is more interesting, but you do not have arguments for that. As far as I see, you have only this:

    "And just as in the old days young men who were ripe for military service were never allowed to emigrate without authority, so can our Government similarly not permit the emigration from our shores of such persons as are of the right age to labour. "

Sure, socialist country can prevent emigration. Just like capitalist country can start world war or it can start slave trade.

Kurbla writes:

Yes, I almost forgot - why do you believe those people were socialists? Because they said so? They said also that they were democrats. Do you believe that as well? If not - why inconsistency?

Steve Sailer writes:

Thanks, I'd never heard of this novel.

lukas writes:


there's a "not" in there. Unlike "can", "cannot" does not express an option, but rather an obligation.

Kurbla writes:

Yes, you're right, lukas, thanks. But, my claim is the same - Bryan didn't made argument that closed borders are necessity in soc. country.

lukas writes:

They may not be a necessity, but they are a plausible consequence of the implementation of socialism, as evidenced by the fact that Richter correctly predicted them. Richter's imagined socialist leaders believed they were necessary, and so did the real leaders of the GDR, 70 years later.

Jason writes:

Consider the wall purely as a metaphor for a reduction of liberty in the interest of socialist ideals. The basic reason for the necessity of a wall is that pre-existing resources are limited and socialism's inefficient distribution creates a scarcity of resources due in part to a socialist system that disincentivizes the more productive members within society, hence capital flight and brain drain. This brings the socialist government to a crossroads. Build a wall or an alternate form of government based on individual incentive. How often have socialists willing given up power? A real wall, of course, is an extreme, but it happened. There are many metaphoric walls being built in this country as we converse. So, to answer your question Kurbla, yes, some sort of wall is necessary for a socialist country to subsist and each new metaphoric wall constructed will more resemble a real wall until you finally have a real wall.

Kurbla writes:

Jason, you described problem of all relatively poor countries, where people who are motivated with wish to earn more tend to move to richer countries. There is no necessity that such countries close the borders - alternatives are numerous. In fact, even one EE country had opened borders, Yugoslavia. Particularly, there is no necessity for a socialist government to insist to stay on the power against will of the people - it is even contrary to the basic idea of socialism is - collective rule.

Lukas, it is true that Richter's paragraphs here described roughly, what really happened. But, what if I describe capitalism as society in which people are sold as slaves. It is logical: if horses and sheep are sold, then someone will offer people. And it really happened in all early European capitalist countries. So, do I have the right to dismiss capitalism as a system because of that? No - speaking about capitalism and slavery is like speaking that aeroplanes always crush. Once, it was true once, but it wasn't logical necessity, and people changed it.

Jason writes:

The reduction of civil liberties, property rights and self-determination is a necessary component of socialism.

Bo Zimmerman writes:

Kurbla -- "It is logical: if horses and sheep are sold, then someone will offer people. And it really happened in all early European capitalist countries."

Classical liberal Europe and the U.S. are NOT remarkable in human history for having slavery -- it predates liberalism to the beginnings of recorded history. What is remarkable about classical liberal Europe and the U.S. (what you call Capitalist Europe/U.S.) is that we were so concerned about property rights, especially peoples rights to property in their own bodies, that we ended slavery. That's the wierd thing to explain, imho.

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