Bryan Caplan  

Did Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Laws Work?

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Lately I've been reading a lot about the politics of the German Empire (1870-1918).  I was already vaguely familiar with Otto von Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Laws, but I was surprised by the details.  The first of these laws passed in 1878; they lapsed in 1890.  Their purpose was to curtail the threat of socialism, but the Social Democratic Party (and its various predecessors) were never legally banned.  Instead:
[I]t aimed to cripple the organization through various means. The banning of any group or meeting of whose aims were to spread socialist principles, the outlawing of trade unions and the closing of 45 newspapers are examples of suppression. The party circumvented these measures by having its candidates run as ostensible independents, by relocating publications outside of Germany and by spreading Social Democratic views as verbatim publications of Reichstag speeches, which were privileged speech with regard to censorship.
Did the Anti-Socialist Laws successfully reduce the socialists' presence in the German Reichstag?  Here's a graph of their seats over the complete history of the Empire:
bismark.jpg
It's hard to tell using optical least squares, so I decided to run a simple regression.  Number of SPD/socialist seats is the dependent variable; the independent variables are a constant, a time trend, and a dummy variable that equals 1 during the years that the Anti-Socialist Laws were on the books (1878-1889), and 0 otherwise.  The results:

bisreg.jpg 

It appears, then, that Bismarck's laws worked in their intended direction, but the effect was fairly small: Under the Anti-Socialist Laws, the SPD were about 12 seats below trend.  That's roughly equivalent to turning the clock back by five years.  To actually prevent the socialists' rise to dominance would have required far harsher laws.  But perhaps if Bismarck had a time machine, he would have borrowed a quote from Coase:
An economist who, by his efforts, is able to postpone by a week a government program which wastes $100 million a year... has, by his action, earned his salary for the whole of his life.
P.S. Like Eugen Richter, I naturally would have opposed the Anti-Socialist Laws on libertarian grounds.  But I still think Germany and the world would have been freer and richer if German socialism had never existed.

P.P.S. I thank David Gordon, the World's Greatest Fact Checker, for correcting my spelling of Bismarck.  I can only wonder what the grader on my 1988 A.P. European History essay on Bismarck thought of me...


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
agnostic writes:

Is the time trend here linear, i.e. for each year forward we expect the SPD to gain just over 2 seats?

Eye-balling it, the trend is not linear but logistic, and there's a solid theoretical basis for using that as the trend: it models population growth up to a carrying capacity or the spread of a contagious disease up to some carrying capacity (becoming endemic rather than burning out). However you analogize this "filling up of a newly opened niche," the logistic is what you're getting at.

Logistic growth starts pretty slow (sub-exponential), skyrockets when near 1/2 of the carrying capacity (here, about 55 seats), then slows down again near carrying capacity (here, about 110 seats). It's hard to see that the anti-Socialist laws slowed down the SPD's growth, if we expect its early growth to be pretty slow already and compare to a logistic trend. It only looks like it had a strong effect if we compare the data against a linear trend.

Ak Mike writes:

I assume you are familiar with A.J.P. Taylor's celebrated work on Bismarck. His thesis is that Bismarck cleverly defanged revolutionary socialism by permitting the parliamentary socialists but banning all other socialist manifestations, thereby ensuring that power in the socialist movement was concentrated in those with the most stake in the non-revolutionary status quo.

The number of socialists in the Reichstag is therefore a measure of his success in converting socialism into a democratic and somewhat bourgeois movement and away from a revolutionary subversive force. Bismarck also undercut the revolutionaries by introducing the welfare state.

lukas writes:

The number of seats in the Reichstag is a poor proxy for the influence of socialist ideas. Only civilian males over 25 had the right to vote, and moreover districts were never redrawn, leading to underrepresentation of the growing industrial socialist-leaning cities to the benefit of rural, conservative areas.

Even so, the representation of the socialists depended a lot on how much the non-socialist parties were cooperating. Since each district selected one representative by simple majority, agreements between center-right parties to pull out all but one candidate could be effective in ousting a socialist (this is what explains the dip in 1907, when the non-socialist parties banded together to support a colonial war the socialists were unwilling to fund).

Liam writes:

"I still think Germany and the world would have been freer and richer if German socialism had never existed."

True Bryan, but at least it was better than the National Socialist German Worker's Party

MernaMoose writes:

But I still think Germany and the world would have been freer and richer if German socialism had never existed.

I don't know. If there was a way to test it, I'd bet money the Europeans would have to produced some other form of social brain rot if Marxism hadn't been the one that took root. It would seem that European society was almost crying out loud for something along those lines in that era.

But then somehow, 19th century Europe (especially the latter half) has been one chapter in history that I admit, I've never quite been able to grok. I read, read, and read again, but always walk away wondering "what where these people thinking?"

James A. Donald writes:

Bismark's aim was to encourage socialism to become social democracy. Thus the rise in welfare state policy and "socialist" representatives in the Reichstaag was a measure of the success of his anti socialist laws, rather than their failure.

Anti nazi laws and policies seem to be extremely effective in reducing the representation of ethnically organized groups of politically incorrect ethnicity. If desocialization resembled denazification, overt socialists would probably be as rare as overt nazis.

James A. Donald writes:

MernaMoose writes

19th century Europe (especially the latter half) has been one chapter in history that I admit, I've never quite been able to grok. I read, read, and read again, but always walk away wondering "what where these people thinking?"
My reaction is the complete opposite of yours: Before 1910 people and politicians were normal sensible people like myself. Their actions make sense. Some time around 1910, something happened, as if rabid mind controlling killer space bats from Sirius scooped out and ate the brains of most of the population, turning them into deranged zombies. Suddenly nothing makes sense any more.

The large rise in private crime and the enormous rise in governmental crime supports the rabid mind controlling killer space bat from Sirius theory.

MernaMoose writes:

I can't argue with your space bat theory.

I thought Americans made sense up to about 1910. But western Europeans?

btw, I didn't say they made sense again in the 20th century. By then, the space bats had clearly done their work.

MernaMoose writes:

I naturally would have opposed the Anti-Socialist Laws on libertarian grounds

The first thing I oppose on libertarian grounds is democracy as we know it.

There was a news article yesterday about how half the US population either doesn't pay any federal income taxes, or gets money back from the Fed. These people's votes should not be equally weighted as those who do pay taxes, they should be worth significantly less.

Otherwise the doors are wide open to tyranny of the majority. There are always more poorer people than richer, and sooner or later the poorer people will vote for making the richer people buy their lunch. Or their ObamaCare. Or both plus some other stuff, as the case may be.

Votes should be weighted in proportion to how much is paid in taxes. Those who pay the bills should have much more say in how the money gets spent.

I predict that in a weighted voting scheme like this, ObamaCare never would have stood a chance of getting on the congressional agenda, let alone passed. But then, that alone doesn't justify the approach.

Kurbla writes:

Bryan: P.S. Like Eugen Richter, I naturally would have opposed the Anti-Socialist Laws on libertarian grounds.

I'm afraid that libertarian grounds are not enough to oppose such laws. Maybe - as long as the socialists are not realistic threat to reach parliamentary majority. But when it happens, one would - on libertarian grounds - conclude that ban of socialist parties is lesser evil.

More of democratic grounds is needed for real opposition of such laws.

Tom Dougherty writes:

Bryan,

Your DW statistic is showing that your regression has a serious positive autocorrelation problem. That being the case the standard errors are being underestimated which is inflating the t values. Since the t and F values are not reliable it is difficult to say anything of value about the statistical significance of the Anti-Socialist Laws. After correcting for autocorrelation you may find that the ASLAW variable is not statistically significant.

Ben Southwood writes:

"I'm afraid that libertarian grounds are not enough to oppose such laws. Maybe - as long as the socialists are not realistic threat to reach parliamentary majority. But when it happens, one would - on libertarian grounds - conclude that ban of socialist parties is lesser evil."

What libertarian grounds allow unlibertarian measures due to "lesser evil" considerations?

Any decision based on lesser evil (e.g. support the Nazis against the communists) seems to me decidedly un-libertarian, and not even liberal in any sense.

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