Bryan Caplan  

Evil Shortage: Why the Evil Empire Fell

Market Failure... Alabama vs. the E.U....
Arnold says that the Soviet Union fell due to the "moral rot" of corruption.  As long as we define "corruption" broadly, as Arnold seems to do, I think he's dead wrong.  Soviet moral rot was worst in the Thirties, when Stalin's collectivization killed millions.  The regime was most stable when the elite was on its worst behavior.

So why did the USSR fall?  Because a new generation of half-hearted Communists like Gorbachev were allowed to take the reins - and they just weren't evil enough to retain power.  If Stalin had been in Gorby's shoes, he would have reinforced the foundations of totalitarianism by murdering a few million people - beginning with active dissidents and gradually expanding to anyone who'd ever visited the West.  And like Kim Jong Il, he would still be in power today.  Gorbachev's generation of leaders were far from saints, but as tyrants go, they were wimps.

P.S. Adam Gurri sends me a great supporting quote from Edmund Burke:
Tyranny and cruelty may make men justly wish the downfall of abused powers, but I believe that no government ever yet perished from any other direct cause than it's own weakness.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (23 to date)
David Thomson writes:

Bryan Caplan is right on target. Gorbachev simply was a not a ruthless killer. The Communist regime would most likely still be in existence had he been remotely like Stalin. I recently saw the 1989 documentary, Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall. There is little doubt but its demolishment would have stopped almost instantly had the East German guards shot a mere handful of people. The leaders of the West would not have done much about the killings. Life would have soon returned to normal.

Adam writes:

"Tyranny and cruelty may make men justly wish the downfall of abused powers, but I believe that no government ever yet perished from any other direct cause than it's own weakness."
-Edmund Burke, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity

Outlawyr writes:

Just like Tiananmen. Once the regime gains the will to kill, it doesn't take that much to reestablish control. It only took a few thousand deaths in a country of a billion to stop political reform cold. But for the refusal of a few Spetsnaz to timely act, Russia could easily have slipped right back under communist domination. (Of course, Russia is sliding back to authoritarianism today, but that's a different discussion). Revolutions generally happen when the pressure on dissent loosens up, not the other way around.

agnostic writes:

The macrosociologist Randall Collins predicted the Soviet collapse pretty well, based on demographic trends. In limited-access "natural states" (not his term, but Douglass North's), when the elite gets too big and there aren't enough rents to provide them all with a cushy living, the state collapses in some form of civil war.

There was a clear over-saturation of the elite in the decades leading up to the English Civil War, for example.

That's the bird's-eye story -- just another natural state that collapsed from elite over-reproduction, leaving aside particular details.

Todd Kuipers writes:

This definitely sounds like vocabulary disagreement.

Like Bryan says the regime was most stable at its moral worst under Stalin. But if you're looking at corruption of the ideology/system, i.e. the rot, it occured much later as cronyism-without-ideological-consequence happened with more frequency. I would suggest, based on what Marxism tends to operate like, that the leaders were on their worst behaviour later on - specifically WRT the ideology.

My reaction reading Arnold's post was that corruption was used in the non-moral sense - generally the way I use it.

I think you're both saying the same thing...

Zdeno writes:

JFK's quote about peaceable and violent revolutions springs to mind, though not in a flattering way.

Bryan is, of course, correct that the USSR could have opened fire on a few chanting crowds and reimposed order quite quickly, with Tienanmen Square serving as a useful counterexample. But if we accept this, what are we to make of the default Whig interpretation of the past few centuries of history? Surely the French, American and Russian revolutions, 1848, Chartism, colonial rebellions etc couldn't have been prevented with a stiff upper lip, right? It was the fiery will of the people! the flame of freedom, as impossible to extinguish as trick birthday candles!

Scaling this model up, what's the best way to enforce good (or at least tolerable) behaviour from other actors on an international scale? Engagement? Or manly resolve?

Stephen M writes:

I see both factors as mutually exclusive. Hayek pointed out in the Road to Serfdom that totalitarian states diminish economic power and emphasize political power. When political power is all that matters, rampant corruption is inevitable. Eventually the environment itself is so corrupted that collapse is likely.

I won't go so far as to say that if Gorbachev was more of a tyrant the USSR wouldn't have fallen. Killing a couple million could have actively affected what was left of the Soviet population, but it wouldnt have increased production or made the country any wealthier. They still would have been broke.

Rimfax writes:

Have you been rereading "The Prince"? Basically, his advice was to treat the populace with respect, but if you can't or won't, you must be completely ruthless and literally slaughter dissent in its cradle. At least, that was my take on Machiavelli.

Steve Sailer writes:

I suspect that Russians are among the most idealistic of all people. Gorbachev's big mistake was Glastnost -- freedom of the press. Once Communists were fully confronted with the sins of the Communist Party, they lost heart, went into a funk, and let power slip away without much of a fight.

I can't imagine the Chinese Communists doing the same thing.

Loof writes:

Saying Gorbachev's leadership was not evil enough means he was a somewhat “evil” leader, as well as a “tryant” to go and a “wimp” too boot. With militant irony and a little logical wit, Loof loofs backwards and even goes right round the bend but sees no wimp, more a courageous leader; no tyrannical leaning, more democratic leanings; no evil, just a generally good guy. But, then maybe L’m just a blind guy bent out of shape.

Ilya writes:

Oh my. 'Shortage of evil'. Is this what passes for analysis here these days?

Now, I don't think Arnold intends moral rot to mean murderous repression. His focus is small-scale, pervasive corruption which as I remember was indeed widespread in the Soviet Union. He has a point: the economy was in fact severely undermined.

Here is a question: does Bryan think that a collapsing, corrupt economy could be saved by murdering a few hundred thousand people? Would that not be destablising in itself? Wasn't it the case that the only reason why Stalin got away with it was industrialisation i.e. rapid economic growth in the 30's?

Adam writes:


Was there "rapid economic growth" in the 30's? Sure, output increased, but is that really a good measure in a country without a functional price system? Did consumer welfare really increase during the 30's?

Of course not. The 30's was the period of agricultural collectivization, during which mass famines occurred. On top of Stalin's outright purges, he caused numerous economic catastrophes.

I find it hard to believe that it's a coincidence that the USSR did not fall under anyone remotely as heavy-handed as Stalin, but instead under someone who sought to give its citizens more freedoms than it had enjoyed in over 70 years.

Rimfax writes:

Per Adam, it could almost be seen as a uniquely Russian phenomenon. Russian history over the past millennium has a pretty reliable pattern of mild reformers being assassinated/usurped fairly rapidly and brutal dictators ruling until they died peacefully in their beds.

I find this idea interesting, but not compelling. I have an insurmountable skepticism when it comes to the "our people are different" assertions (see China).

Adam writes:


With the Burke quote in mind, I would argue that it is most certainly not uniquely Russian. Burke was talking about the French Revolution, something that did not happen under the powerful Louis XIV but under the weak, open to reform Louis XVI. In the English Civil War, Cromwell threw out a king who had been antagonizing Parliament precisely because he didn't have enough funds to build up the army he needed to defend from the Scottish.

That's about all I can do off the top of my head; but the point is that history tends to make Burke's argument that it is not the righteousness of the uprisers but rather the weakness of the existing government that brings about an overthrow.

Richard Pointer writes:

During my MA I came up with the same theory as Bryan with a mechanism to boot! I call it the "third generation theory".

::Grandpa made a fortune running the family business.

Pa fell into it and had the good fortune to pay attention to what his pa was doing.

Me? I grew up running around the store but I couldn't tell you how the cash register worked if you held a gun to my head.::

It was the same with the first-generation communists. They were born in a fire. Second-generation had experience and nationalism driving them forward. Gorby may have been from the south but he was no Khrushchev.

Experience matters.

Outlawyr writes:

"Saved" - no, but power retained? Yes. See, e.g., PRC and DPRK; but see, Iraq (under Hussein) and Uganda (under Amin). The trick seems to be not losing a war with a foreign power that then occupies your territory. Amin was ousted by a foreign power after a war, as was Hussein (but only after a third lost war and only after he was occupied by a superpower). What level of deprivation and "instability" due to mass murder would cause the North Korean regime to fall? Absent significant internal liberalization (which has been occurring, but on a much smaller scale than in China and Vietnam), and given what we've seen over the last 50 years - it's hard to imagine.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Bryan, how did Gorbachev gain power without being ruthless or at least tough? Isn't there a filtering process in totalitarian states that should (in theory) prevent that sort of thing from happening?

Curt Doolittle writes:

" government ever yet perished from any other direct cause than it's own weakness"

We'll that's a tautological statement, isn't it? :)

When an elite is no longer capable of violence, or believes it is no longer justified in using violence, then it resorts to fraud (mythos). When and elite is no longer capable of fraud, it resorts to bribery (redistribution), and when no longer capable of bribery, collapses.

The only difference in history appears to be the rate of transition from violence, to fraud, to bribery, to collapse.

Why, like balancing a checkbook, or the power of compound interest, we don't teach our twelve year olds this kind of thing, is simply to perpetuate fraud. :)

Adam writes:


I wouldn't call it a tautological statement. it's just what Burke's personal beliefs on the matter were.

Steve Roth writes:

Absolutely right. Gorbachev let it happen.

What I have been struggling to understand: why/how did the apparatchiks allow Gorbachev to take power, or take the path he took?

I've yet to find a satisfying explanation. (Though I haven't searched assiduously, I've read a fair amount in the area...)


Mick Rolland writes:

A really brilliant insight which goes very deep indeed.

In fact, collectivist regimes which abolish monetary incentives find in terror the most effective method (and maybe the only workable one) of at least making some things work. Coming late to work in the USSR was punishable in the 40s with being sent to Stalingrad or Siberia.

The overseer of a slave plantation needs a whip if he wants any production.

A free market needs no whip because it is based on voluntary exchange.

P.S: Cuba is an excellent example of Bryan's thesis too. Why did not Cuba or North Korea fell along with the Warsaw Pact countries? Cuba collapsed economically with the fall of the USSR, but the leadership was fanatic and ruthless enough to repress dissent.

Nick writes:

Richard Pointer,

What you are saying is "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations" most cultures have some variation of this idiom.

jr. writes:

Bryan is wrong. Burke wrong too.

You guys are drawing too much a lesson from too few episodes in history.

Besides, there's such dynamics between "being evil" and "the ability of being evil". The two are not step-locked together, but are quite strongly related nonetheless.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top