Bryan Caplan  

Explaining Socialism's Moral Decay

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I'm now finishing up a new introduction for a reissue of Eugen Richter's Pictures of the Socialistic FutureIn writing it, I identified three distinct answers to the question: "How could a movement founded to liberate workers from capitalist oppression end up shooting them in the back when they tried to flee the Workers' Paradise?"

1. The Actonian "power corrupts" story

2. The Hayekian "worst get on top" story

3. The Richterian "born bad" story

Here's my summary:

Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek have inspired the two most popular explanations for the crimes of actually-existing socialism.   While Acton never lived to see socialists gain power, their behavior seems to perfectly illustrate his aphorism that, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  For all their idealism, even socialists will do bad things if left unchecked.  Hayek, with the benefit of hindsight, suggested a slightly different explanation: Under socialism, "the worst get on top."  On this theory, the idealistic founders of socialism were gradually pushed out by brutal cynics as their movement's power increased.

Richter's novel advances a very different explanation for socialism's "moral decay": The movement was born bad.  While the early socialists were indeed "idealists," their ideal was totalitarian.  Their overriding goals were to engineer a new society and a New Socialist Man.  If this meant treating workers like slaves - depriving them of the freedom to choose their occupation or location, forbidding them to quit, splitting up families without their consent, and imposing draconian punishments on dissenters - so be it. 

What weight would you attach to these three theories - and why?  Am I missing any important alternative explanations?

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The author at The Republican Heretic in a related article titled On the Oppressive Nature of Socialism writes:
    Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy comments on a post by economist Bryan Caplan explaining three competing theories to explain the oppressive nature of socialism. Caplan’s summary: Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek have inspired the two most popular exp... [Tracked on April 8, 2010 8:01 AM]
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James A. Donald writes:

Socialism was born bad. Bastiat explained socialism several decades before Marx, and in his minds eye he had already seen the killing fields of Cambodia. "The socialist intends to sculpt human flesh as a sculptor sculpts in stone."

Socialism appeals to the desire for absolute power. If I and people like me have absolute and total power well of course we are going to use it to do good. Naturally. So anyone who opposes people like me having the power to take people's stuff and murder and torture at whim is obviously opposed to all the good stuff I would do. Lots and lots of good stuff.

Who are the socialists? Consider all those socialists that Stalin gave the tour to. He did not show them fake equality. Instead he showed them privilege and power, instead he showed them savage inequality.

He showed them what they wanted to see, he showed them the prisons and the slave labor camps, he showed them the luxury enjoyed by the nomenclatura, from which we can conclude that what they wanted to see, was fear.

Peter writes:

I believe all 3 to be correct. Socialism is an intrinsically evil idea that will tend to both attract the bad and corrupt the well-meaning and idealistic. The Bastiat quote from James A Donald puts it very nicely.

Randy writes:

Born bad sounds right to me. It is the explanation for why power corrupts and why the worst get on top. Break it down and the distinguishing characteristic of the socialist is a willingness to exploit human beings (theft, slavery, terror, homicide) in the pursuit of chosen objectives.

Brian Shelley writes:

Born bad sounds the most complete. Gardens vs. nature is a good analogy. The socialists live in a normative world, like a garden. One quickly realizes that some plants will have to be killed, cut or wiped out in the interest of the ideal. It's inescapable. It requires constant pruning and force. The capitalist lives in a positive world, where nature is appreciated as is. We revel in the majesty of its unguided beauty.

Kristian writes:

All three are correct, but Born Bad covers most. I believe a variation of that explanation was asserted by Rothbard in "Karl Marx as a religious Escathologist".

Chris Koresko writes:

I'd like to suggest a fourth alternative: Moral decay is *necessary* for socialism to work. If people are morally self-guided -- deeply religious, for example -- they will come into strong conflict with the leaders of any oppressive state. Witness the two most recent Popes and their relationship with the Nazi and Communist regimes in their home countries.

So the oppressor must either suppress or subvert the church and any other source of moral guidance, and seek to replace it as the sole arbiter of right and wrong. Once that is done, morality takes the definition of compliance with the will of the leader; any resistance is defined as evil, and rewarded accordingly.

NB: Not sure how this is relevant, but I heard recently that the American Communist Party (if memory serves -- may have been some other socialist organization) explicity sought to promote moral decay in the form of pornography and promiscuity as a means of easing their way into power. Vague memory but probably captures the essence of the truth; sorry, I don't have the cite.

Kurbla writes:

1. Power corrupts

Partly, but it doesn't explain why atrocities are the worst in early periods, when corruption shouldn't be that extensive.

2. Worst come on top.

No. The worst communist leaders were usually leaders already before the revolution. Their successors will be less cruel.

3. Born bad

Conclusions you made are typical for Leninists:

    Their overriding goals were to engineer a new society and a New Socialist Man. If this meant treating workers like slaves - depriving them of the freedom to choose their occupation or location, forbidding them to quit, splitting up families without their consent, and imposing draconian punishments on dissenters - so be it.

Other socialist currents do not accept such ideas. However, it doesn't explain how it happened that Leninists were so influential in XX. ct.... The answer is - they are very good revolutionaries. In peaceful times, such parties are usually small. Lenin's party was only the third strongest socialist party in Russia. But in the moment of crisis, foreign aggression, cruel domestic rightist dictator ... it turns that they are best equipped to start some national uprising - they are self-selected and thy prepare for that moment whole their lives.

fundamentalist writes:

I think CS Lewis had a fourth, and better explanation--self-righteousness. Lewis wrote that an evil dictator will occasionally have pangs of conscience and relent because he knows that he is doing evil. The self-righeous do-gooder never suffers from self-doubt because he assumes that what he does is righteous and best for all, even if a few must suffer horribly. So the evil the do-gooder commits never relents. Socialists are the most self-righteous people in the world.

Brian Clendinen writes:

I think all three come into play, however Richter position is the building block. Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek's position's would not exist and come into play if it were not for the underlying moral corruption. The moral sespool of Lenin-Marxism is a fertile breading ground for the other two positions. Many a person who once in power, and it told how wonderful they are, believe their demi-Godhood to know all and control all. The system rewards thoughs who are corrupt with more power and destroy's though's with any ethics.

Roger writes:

A master plan requires everyone else to follow it. There is no room for a diversity of views, opinions, values, goals and solutions. Variety and freedom just mess up and detract from the single, central and top down direction.

Unfortunately ( for central planners) people DO have a diverse range of goals, values and interests. Thus the people resist and the master planners must coerce them or lose control of the plan.

Oppression and shooting in the back are implicit in the dynamic of enacting a singular top down plan in a world of diverse goals and values. It is unnecessary to add views on the moral character of the leaders.

Joshua Macy writes:

It's a trifecta: born bad, then the worst people will come to lead the movement, and then power will corrupt them further. I think Acton's insight is crucial, though, since otherwise you might believe that however unlikely it has proved in practice, if you only got the right people in charge and were vigilant about them not losing power to wicked folks, you'd have solved the problem.

guthrie writes:


In the interest of building my book list, can you tell me where Bastiat wrote that?

@Kurbla, a few questions:

Am I correct in gathering from your post that the reason why Lenin and his cohorts were successful was because, along with random chance, they had more guns or better military tactics or were basically more aggressive?

Are you suggesting that if one of the other groups gained supremacy, things would have been different for Russia? In what way would you suggest?

Are you rejecting the idea that Socialism in general is totalitarian at its core? If so, why?

Eric Falkenstein writes:

I think the Hayekian 'use of knowledge in society' is fundamentally distinct and important in assessing socialism. That is, he suggested that because socialist decisions are centralized no decisionmaker ever sees all the varied, ephemeral data needed to make efficient decisions. Further, decision makers are not incented correctly via the Welfare theorem logic (ie, the consistency of profit seeking C.E. and optimal social welfare P.O.). The socialists do not appreciate the unintended order created by a marketplace, where competition and parochial self interest interact to produce efficient solutions. This is related to, but actually quite different than Mises's debate with Lange (which one might say was 'solved' via Russian Kantoravich's linear programming, but note its complete irrelevance today).

Socialist Idealist writes:

Look, I know what is good for you, and if you resist my knowledge, what moral choice do I have but to imprison you or put one in the back of your head? If I don't, then I am allowing you to lead others astray, and this is a moral failing on my part.

mulp writes:

Seems to me, these are the reasons capitalism is born bad:

1. The Actonian "power corrupts" story

2. The Hayekian "worst get on top" story

3. The Richterian "born bad" story

For example, consider European capitalism in Africa, Asia, and the Americas from roughly 1500 to the present.

One can't argue capitalism improved the lives of Africans, Asians, and Americans, when on the whole their property rights and liberties were taken from them.

I doubt the Dutch, who were the worst of these capitalists, would trade their self imposed socialism for their own capitalism of the past as exercised around the world.

blighter writes:

The problem with this sort of facile analysis is, as others have hinted above, that it elides the truth about socialism.

Socialism simply isn't evil or bad or wrong. Nor does it become so over time.

In a country run according to socialism -- true, properly-understood socialism, that is, not the miscreant variants posing under that name that have been our only historical experience to date with the blessed system -- things would be run smoohtly & efficiently for the good of all. The workers would see this & appreciate it and so would have no desire to flee.

If the occasional misguided soul somehow felt put-upon at 'being forced' to live a wonderful life in a fully-realized utopia and wanted to leave, the leaders wouldn't imprison or shoot him. Not in a true socialist system. Rather, they would simply point out the error of his thinking, which would be self-evident, and he would no longer wish to leave.

It's a shame that there have been so many countless totalitarian hell-holes throughout history that tarnished the divinity that is true socialism through their vile & debased ways.

Hopefully someday soon a true socialist will come to power and show the world just what is possible when you have forthright, powerful, just progressive leaders creating the basis for a more perfect world.

The halting steps that Obama has taken in this direction have alone been enough to fire the hearts of true progressives everywhere but his unfortunate insistence thus far on remaining, however tenuously, within the archaic & arcane restrictions of the US constitutional order mean that we have yet only seen the barest glimpse of what is possible.

We can trust, though, that as the amazing benefits of the few common-sense progressive measures he has managed to force upon the great unwashed of this country come to fruition his path towards ever greater progressive reorganization will be eased.

It's enough to give us all hope of the bright changes to come!

Randy writes:


You're not completely off base. There are capitalist horror stories - though none so tragic as the horror stories from the political class. And, the way I see it, the horror stories about capitalists are really horror stories about political behavior (i.e., exploitation). If we start with the concept of free markets, then add political behavior, the result is what is commonly referred to as capitalism. Its why I greatly prefer the term "free markets" to describe the situation I would prefer.

Randy writes:


Re; "It's enough to give us all hope of the bright changes to come!"

I must ask that you not include me in your "all". Your idea of "bright changes" sounds like a horror story to me. Hell on earth, not heaven.

Troy Camplin writes:

All of those are good, but in the end, it just plain violates human nature. Well, more even than human nature...

We find the idea of property rights deep in evolutionary history, in the first territorial fishes. Most of today’s territorial fishes are lobe-finned fishes, and there is little doubt that lobe-finned fishes have been territorial for literally hundreds of millions of years. An example is the brightly-colored gobies, which are very territorial. "For many vertebrates, a clearly defined territory for offspring rearing seems to be fundamental. This involves aggressive behavior of a great variety on the part of the male (and sometimes the female too), usually of a ritual nature, but effective in defending an area" (John T. Bonner The Evolution of Culture in Animals, 86). These fish establish territories where they live, feed, mate, and protect their eggs from predators. Schooling fish, like herring, are simple in both coloration and behavior. Why spend energy on dangerous bright colors to attract mates when everyone releases their eggs and sperm at once, collectively? And why develop complex behaviors if there is no reason to, if there is no conflict, since there is no need to defend territory if you are a schooling fish in the open ocean? A great deal of energy is spent on making literally millions or even billions of eggs, let alone sperm – and there is only a limited chance that it will be either your sperm or your egg that survives. But with territorial fishes, the energy is put into protecting the fewer numbers of eggs, but those eggs are more likely to survive. And, more importantly for the individual fish, the female knows her eggs are protected until they hatch, and the male knows the eggs were fertilized by his sperm. Thus, there is a certain advantage to protecting territory, since it ensure that any particular individual fish has passed on its DNA to future generations. Herring can never know for sure.

One of the consequences of the establishment of territory by lobe-finned fishes was that complex behaviors has to evolve as well. This is due to the conflict created by the creation and defense of territory. The conflict comes about between the needs to aggressively defend territory and sexually reproduce. If one just defends, one runs off potential mates. But passive gobies lose territory – and cannot attract mates. What develops from the conflict between the straightforward actions of defense and sex is the mating ritual, a nonlinear feedback behavior designed to allow members of the opposite sex to enter one’s private space. It is a dance. It is a dance wherein linear elements conflict to create nonlinear systems, which reorganize the chaos created by the conflict into a new order. Ritual is the emergent system created out of the conflicting elements. It is a safe space in which the participants play out the conflicts, to ensure mating can occur. One result is that gobies differentiate between individuals. Territoriality (notions of private property) created individuality through the need to ritualize sex. More, it resulted in the creation of ritual itself, which led to more and more complex behaviors as different species evolved, including art and religion in humans. And it was, incidentally, the lobe-finned fishes that evolved into the first amphibians – and territoriality was carried onto the land, and into every land vertebrate. All amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals are territorial. And this includes humans.

Thus, evolution established property rights as a fundamental way of ensuring reproductive fitness. In social mammals, this became partly socialized, since it was the tribe or family group as a whole that owned the territory they defended. And all humans groups have always believed that they owned the land – otherwise they would not have spent so much time, energy, and lives on protecting it from others. In social animals, including pair-bonding animals, this resulted in the development of personal relationships, including love. But none of this could be possible without a complex neural system to allow for the creation of such complex behavior.

Social mammals have strong social bonds even among those who are not mates. These bonds were generated through elaborating mating rituals into things like grooming rituals. Primates have strong grooming rituals, which have led to sexual pleasure, leading to recreational sex in humans and bonobos, and massage in humans. We can see this behavior in the fact that "the human neurotransmitter vasopressin, which is closely associated with aggression, is also deeply implicated in the drive to stay with and cherish one’s mate and protect one’s offspring. Without the resistance to strangers there could be no individuality and love" (Frederick Turner, The Culture of Hope, 170). The conflict is found even at the neurotransmitter level. Which should not surprise us, since we have already shown that it is the protection of territory that resulted in the kinds of rituals that created pair-bonds in the first place.

Animals that have territory not only protect that territory, but work to improve it. Gobies organize rocks in their territories, and keep the caves they create to live and hide in clean. Bower birds decorate their bowers to attract females. Often the male animal himself is decorated, or he creates a larger, more beautiful territory – or, oftentimes, both. Thus undoubtedly explains why human males feel the need to accumulate more and more property, and why we try to decorate ourselves with things ranging from nice clothes to tatoos. And it also explains why, when we own property, we have more of a tendency to take care of it than if we do not own it. When we use private property, we treat it like someone else will come along and clean up the mess we make, or that if we don’t take what is there, then someone else will. We do this because deep in our evolutionary past, in our deepest of instincts, we believe that not only do we have to keep our own territories in good shape to attract mates, but that if any competition’s territory is ruined, then potential mates will be discouraged from mating with our competition. This is the purpose of raids on the territory of other tribes, or exploiting commons – which results in the Tragedy of the Commons. So if we truly want to protect the world’s resources and keep the world clean, then all property must become privately owned, without danger of a government being able to come along and take that property. No amount of social engineering will be able to change this biological imperative to owning property.

And this is certainly best overall. For it is only on our own land where we can be free to be who we are. It is only on our land where we and our families – our tribes – can be safe. There, we can live and love and prosper and speak as we wish. All of our freedoms derive from property rights – and property rights are part of our evolutionary heritage. Thus, there is nothing less scientific than the idea of abolishing private property, as the socialists have wanted to do. The abolition of property is downright unnatural, from a mammalian – and even land vertebrate – point of view.

Thus, property is very deeply a-rational and quite non-ideological in its origins. This is why property has never been abolished anywhere – all that changes is who controls the property and how. Tribes fight to protect territory from other tribes.. Various ways have been developed to protect groups’ and individuals’ property. Small groups have owned huge tracts of land and allowed others to live and work on them (as we saw in slavery throughout the world, various versions of feudalism throughout the world, and in more recent forms of state like the USSR and Communist China). But there has always been property ownership and control. It’s part of being a vertebrate descended from lobe-fined fishes. One cannot go against nature without facing severe consequences.

Sarge writes:


This is the full quote you were referencing from C. S. Lewis.

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

fundamentalist writes:

Sarge, Excellent! Thanks!

CB writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Sarge writes:


You're quite welcome. That comes from his book "God in the Dock."


In regards to the idea that power corrupts, you said that "it doesn't explain why atrocities are the worst in early periods, when corruption shouldn't be that extensive." And in a similar vein you noted that "The worst communist leaders were usually leaders already before the revolution. Their successors will be less cruel."

That doesn't quite ring true to me. Certainly Stalin was worse than Lenin. When things were turning particularly sour in Russia after the Revolution, Lenin adopted the New Economic Policy, which allowed some small return of privatization and improved the situation somewhat. Stalin, however, deliberately chose mass famine as a way to suppress even the slightest hint of dissent. And Mao's Great Leap Forward wasn't implemented for nearly a decade after he took power. Surely this counts as his single greatest atrocity, given that it cost the lives of nearly forty million people. So I don't think it's quite right to conclude either that successors tend to be better or that the biggest tragedies take place earliest. North Korea had a mass famine of its own in the nineties, decades after the communist party took power. Also, I would be hard pressed to call Kim Jong Il and improvement on, or less cruel than, Kim Il Sung.

Deng Xiaoping certainly is an improvement, however. I think the jury is still out regarding Raul Castro, but I'm not optimistic.

Kurbla writes:


Am I correct in gathering from your post that the reason why Lenin and his cohorts were successful was because, along with random chance, they had more guns or better military tactics or were basically more aggressive?

Yes. They are "optimized for revolution."

Are you suggesting that if one of the other groups gained supremacy, things would have been different for Russia? In what way would you suggest?

Socialist Revolutionary Party in coalition with Mensheviks probably had support of the majority of population, and theoretically, they were capable to develop some kind of democratic socialism. Some people wouldn't like even that kind of socialism. But I do not see the reason they should be kept in country against their will.

Are you rejecting the idea that Socialism in general is totalitarian at its core? If so, why?

Yes. I've spend my youth in pseudosocialist country. I think that the most important problems of that society were results of the lack of democracy, not lack of capitalism.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Where is the reference to CONCEIT?

All this "...ism" stuff derives from the perceptions of some driving them to (at first) influence the conduct of others,then (incrementally) to control the conduct of others, all to some objectives, ranging from evangelism to totalitarianism.

It is the conceit in selecting objectives, regardless of the intellect of those purporting capacity (and entitlement) to be selectors.

That conceit is born of the blindness to the vast scope of human ignorance that makes any discovery seem a monumental revelation.

If one goes all the way back to Saint-Simon, Comte, and on through the many permutations, the conceit of certainties is overwhelming; most vehemently by those who decry that in religious convictions of their times - even now.

MernaMoose writes:

What weight would you attach to these three theories - and why? Am I missing any important alternative explanations?

With all due respect I think, you're missing the essence of the problem. The "power corrupts" explanation isn't at all unique to socialist/communist movements, so that gets us nowhere.

"The worst come to the top" also doesn't make sense. From my reading of history, one of the most ardent true believers in Marxism was Chairman Mao. Whatever else we say, Mao was nothing less than a brilliant political thinker in his own right. How do you foment a Marxist revolution in a country with no capitalists, no factories, and no factory workers? Mao solved that little problem, along with many others. We cannot write Chairman Mao off as "the worst" of his group. Quite the opposite, he was a true and dedicated believer.

Richter's explanation is nearer the truth, but still (I say) misses the essence of it. Socialism is conceptually wrong in multiple ways, and at a very fundamental level. I can't write a book here spelling it all out but will point out two of the bigger problems:

1) Socialism wants a class-less society. But this is an utter impossibility, for the movement must have leaders. Mao made multiple attempts to wipe out the ruling elite that he'd (inadvertently) created, but each time he found -- to bring about social change, you must have leaders who are out there leading the movement. You can't kill off the old elite without creating a new one at the very same time.

The very idea of a class-free society is a contradiction in terms, which is akin to violating the laws of physics. Nothing good can come from such attempts. No such creature as a class-less society has ever existed, and it never will.

2) Socialism fails to recognize property rights. You're an economist, so I don't have to tell you what this does to society's incentive structure. I don't have to tell you that "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" encourages everybody to be as much of a free rider as they can manage to get away with.

This represents a second attempt to, for all practical purposes, violate the laws of physics. Or economics and human nature, as the case may be.

Moral decay is not something that "happens" to socialism. It's built into the very fabric of the socialist concept. The concept is moral decay, before anyone even attempts to bring it into existence here in the real world.

I contend that a key reason socialism has survived so long, is that people don't really understand it. In fact I'm surprised at how many commenters here seem to struggle with the problem of getting to the gist of it. "Know thy enemy" as the old saying goes.

The problems with socialism are legion. Rand did a better job of spelling out the moral problems in simple terms, than most anybody else (my opinion), but she didn't address some of the other problems like my point 1) above.

Socialism can only be killed by grabbing it where it is vulnerable. There are many vulnerabilities and they all amount to attempts to violate the laws of physics (nature) (economics) (human nature) (etc).

Randy writes:

MernaMoose: "The concept is moral decay"

Well said.

Tracy W writes:

Mulp: For example, consider European capitalism in Africa, Asia, and the Americas from roughly 1500 to the present.
One can't argue capitalism improved the lives of Africans, Asians, and Americans, when on the whole their property rights and liberties were taken from them.

Whenever someone tells me that no one can argue something, I take that as a challenge. Normally they're wrong.

In this case, your error was saying "to the present". Life expectancies of Africans, Asians and Americans have gone substantially up between 1500 and the present and infant mortality has fallen. This strikes me as enough to argue that capitalism has improved lives generally - by allowing them to have more of a life. In addition to this, the introduction of capitalism, with associated property rights and liberties (I am thinking of things like the property right to decide what to do with some land and to keep the produce, and, in China has improved the lives of people massively.

And of course, from the period 1750 to 1850, this was when capitalist societies started defining slavery as bad, and starting to move to ban it, in other words extending people's liberties and property rights, in this case property rights to their own labour. Not something recognised before capitalism started spreading.

I think you would have a stronger case if you'd said from 1500 to 1750.

Komori writes:


Blighter is a satirist. Don't take him as seriously arguing that position.

Randy writes:

Thanks, good to know. My apologies to Blighter.

guthrie writes:

My thanks, Kurbla, for helping me understand your thoughts.

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