Bryan Caplan  

China, India, and Maoist Apologists

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I do not reply to email from Nazi or Communist apologists.  I don't even write back to say, "I refuse to dignify your email with a response," because that would be a response.  I regard the defenders of totalitarianism as willfully evil and ostracize them.  Even friendliness has its limits.

Nevertheless, several Maoist apologists have repeatedly sent me an argument that might trouble honest folk.  It goes something like this:
Yes, 20-30 million Chinese perished in Mao's Great Leap Forward.  But in the broad scheme of things, 30 million isn't so bad.  What not?  Because year after year, a couple million Indians died of malnutrition and related disease.  In China, in contrast, such things virtually never happened in non-famine years.  When you sum India's losses up over the decades, it vastly exceeds whatever Mao did.  Capitalist India killed far more than Communist China.
This argument merits three main replies:

1. Suppose we accept all the factual claims in the argument.  China's body count would still be much more morally objectionable than India's.  Letting strangers die from poverty is not morally equivalent to murder.  And mass murder is precisely what the Great Leap Forward was.  Mao actually forced people into communes at gunpoint, imposed absurd policies that sharply cut agricultural productivity, then seized a large share of the remaining food.  The "crime" the Maoist argument attributes to the Indian government, in contrast, is merely allowing the existence of poverty - combined with the ludicrous insinuation that Communism would have solved the problem. 

2. The claim that Maoist China suffered no significant mortality from malnutrition and related disease during non-famine years is absurd.  Mortality is a continuous probabilistic function of circumstances.  People surviving on low-calorie diets are going to have elevated death rates.  If official Chinese statistics say otherwise, then we can safely assume that a Communist regime has once again falsified its statistics.

3. During the period of comparison, "capitalist" India was an explicitly socialist country.  Maoists aside, almost everyone now recognizes that these socialist policies severely retarded India's economic growth.  It would be overkill to morally equate these policies with Maoist mass murder.  But they were deliberate acts of government that prevented economic growth from saving millions of Indian lives.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
el falcone writes:

"I mean, the Mao caps and Che shirts are cool and all, but millions of people starved to death." -John Cochrane

HispanicPundit writes:

I wish more bloggers would do this more often. Fundamentals are important, and sometimes academic bloggers forget that.

I remember when I first started reading the GMU economist blogs. You all would post quiz questions and apply economics to everyday issues (like who benefits from requiring hot water in rental agreements) that would focus on fundamentals and training the reader how to think like an economist. These mini lessons are almost non-existent on blogs now. Especially from a hardcore libertarian perspective.

I wish there was more of it. Kuddos for the post.

Kurbla writes:

For definition of murder, intention to kill is essential. If regime arrests 100 people - even innocent people, and prison unexpectedly collapses, surely regime is responsible, but it is not mass murder yet. So, yes, Maoists are responsible for death of xy millions of people in GLF, but there was no intention to kill. But, yes, campaign "Hundred flowers", i.e. purges that followed, that's mass murder. For example, slave trade is borderline case of mass murder, because, although owners didn't intentionally killed transported slaves, they knew many of them will not survive. Hiroshima is clear case of mass murder.

If people in India died of famine, yes - it might be that it is not result of the actions of Indian government, but it is nevertheless, the result of capitalist system (if we accept it was capitalist system.) I would be, actually, surprised that Maoists accused government - Marxists usually do not care much for government, which is seen as just another product of the system. (Maoists decline from Marx in few important issues, but that's another story.)

Kurbla writes:

Also: criticising Nazis for totalitarianism only is almost like praising them. They do not have their hard earned place in the history because of oaths to Führer and Nürnberg rallies, but primarily because of the most extreme forms of expansionism and racism, and neither one of these two is specific for 20th century totalitarianism. Both motives are quite old, practised by all most powerful countries, (classical) liberal or totalitarian.

Ricardo Cruz writes:

Kudos for the succinct rebuke, prof Caplan!

Kurbla writes:

Marxists usually do not care much for government, which is seen as just another product of the system.

Government is a product of which system? What does that even mean?

By the way, is there any succinct book by Karl Marx on his policy recommendations, or can you guys point me to the normative parts of Das Kapital?

(I have already read his "Wage, Labor and Capital", which provides for an interesting stimulation of your microeconomics, because his price theory is so absurd -- but it's a wholly descriptive book. I was looking for something more normative.)

fundamentalist writes:

"In China, in contrast, such things virtually never happened in non-famine years."

And how does he know that? India has a much more open society and reports disasters regularly. Most people didn't even know about the 30 million dead in China in the '60's until recently. The US kept Chinese from starving in the 70's and 80's by selling them massive amounts of grain on credit. So they think because know one has good records of how many died during those decades from starvation that none did?

Tracy W writes:

Kurbla, isn't the thing about totalitarianism is that it's a system where the state recognises no limits to what it can do, and feels free to make all sorts of interference with private citizens' lives?

Eg Hitler felt he had every right to grab "living space" from the Slavs, he felt he had every right to kill unnecessary people, eg Jews, Gypsies, the disabled. As it happens, Hitler was racist, but Stalin, who directed much of his killing at "kulaks" was as murderous, and they shared in the belief that individual people, be they Jews or "rich" peasants, could be killed out of hand, and that no one had human rights separate from what the state chose to give them, and furthermore that no group in society could chose to do otherwise - if you thought that actually the Jews were quite economically useful, or that the kulaks should be encouraged in order to increase food production, that meant you were a traitor whose own life was at risk.

Of course totalitarianism wasn't specific to the 20th century any more than racism or expansionism. A lot of political history can be understood as groups trying to limit the power of the rulers (typically in pursuit of their own self-interest, admittedly, not in the high-minded pursuit of liberty). But that hardly makes being totalitarian any less of a bad thing.

liberty writes:

Ricardo Cruz -

For a start on the normative Marx, I recommend the short list for beginners here:

Principles of Communism
The Communist Manifesto
Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Engels took part in all the normative and less-technical writings, but Marx said several times that Engels never wrote anything that he (Marx) disagreed with.

liberty writes:

"The US kept Chinese from starving in the 70's and 80's by selling them massive amounts of grain on credit. "

After Mao died (1976) the system transitioned, and became a mixed market economy with only (most) large firms socialized, and with many large firms privately owned by foreign capital. This better explained the rising prosperity than just the grain imports.

Joshua Lyle writes:

There are more grades of mens rea than you specify, conventionally they are "purposefully", "knowingly," "recklessly", and "negligently". There is some indication that the Maoists, like the Stalinists, acted with purpose in their engineered famines, but even if we have reasonable doubts about that, there can be no question that they acted knowingly in causing the deaths of millions, especially given that the Maoists could not help but be aware of the consequences of the Stalinist precedent. "Knowing" murder and "purposeful" murder are still both capital murder, even if one is still more recognizably more depraved than the other.

athenian writes:

For definition of murder, intention to kill is essential.

Not so. In common law countries, 'murder' is typically defined as the killing of another "with malice aforethought" -- which includes acts where one is "recklessly indifferent" to the likely death that will result from one's actions.

In other words, when you know your actions are likely to result in the death of another, the fact that you don't intend their death is no defense.

Steve Fritzinger writes:

One of the strongest counter to this pro-Mao argument is that even the famines were caused by Mao. Over and over we've seen areas which feed themselves just fine, literally for centuries, collapse into chronic famine after totalitarians took over.

Didn't Russ say in a recent podcast "After the communists took over, Russia just happened to suffer 7 decades of bad harvests in a row." (paraphrased).

Philo writes:

The reason for being nice to Maoists, Nazis, etc., is that your communication with them may lead them to see the light and abandon their noxious ideology. (How likely this is in any particular case can be difficult to judge.)

HJG writes:

"I regard the defenders of totalitarianism as willfully evil and ostracize them. "

That's okay; I similarly regard all people who consider their truth the only truth and all other thoughts only worthy of extermination as willfully stupid and evil and I keep my comment jaunty and short, lol.

Well, you are not in power in China, so whatever. Once you or people like you are actually in power in China, I can always join the guerrilla force, shrug.

Waiting writes:

[HJG/Waiting: Your impatient second comment has been removed pending confirmation of your email address. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Kurbla writes:

Athenian and Joshua, yes, the murder is also when one does not have intention to kill, but he knows that the action will (or could) result in death, yet he proceeds with action. I mentioned it (example of slave-owner.)

Did Mao knew that GLF will (or likely will) fail and result in famine? It is strong claim, but I do not see arguments to support it. However, I see two arguments against. First, Mao was Marxist - that means he believed in moral and economic superiority of the collectivist economy over privately based one. Second, Mao's political motives were to increase the population and overall wealth of the country. His personal motive was that project succeeds and strengthen his authority. It is not clear why would he start the project, if he knew it will fail.

bharati writes:

Many western countries do not have poor folk because they shipped or killed them, e.g. native Americans or British folk forcibly sent to Canada, Australia, etc. where many died. The US entered the second WW because of excessive population, among other reasons.

Easy for India to follow suit! The poor, who are hopefully having no/few children and joining the middle class, could have been killed off in wars, shunted somewhere, etc. Instead India, with an intention to let live, lets them live an uncertain existence rather than a certain death. Yes, it makes for messy pavements, long W Bank lectures and US PhDs. (The wealthier population is already declining. Educated women often avoid marriage or children.)

Gil writes:

Geez Kurbla your definition of murder is so great as to include anything! Was the attack of Pearl Harbor mass murderer? Nah! Those Yanks had it coming by their trade sanctions against Japan.

On the other hand, why do Hitler, Stalin and Mao get singled out for derision? What of all the Nazis and Communists who actually helpd enable the systems that killed millions? In other words, ten of millions weren't killed by a handful of men but by hundreds of thousands, if not millions who all did their part to make the massacres possible?

Tracy W writes:

Gil - well, Stalin gets singled out because he started off by purging his Communist party, so the people who did have the power to stop him were shot or sent to the gulag or, at best, emigrated hurriedly. Consequently those who were left were in well-founded fear of their lives which is why they didn't oppose him. While one could argue that those who were left still had a moral responsibility to oppose Stalin at the cost of their own lives, his habit of deliberately removing anyone who looked like they might possibly disagree with him does make Stalin even more responsible for the actions of his Soviet followers than normally.
(Basically, if you kill everyone who might disobey you, you're much more responsible for the lack of future people disobeying with you, and the bad consequences that flow from this, than if you had adopted a less bloodthirsty approach to internal disagreements.)

bharat - which are the Western countries that don't have poor people? Because I don't believe that any of the policies you mention eliminated the poor. (And if the USA entered WWII because of excess population, why didn't it send women to fight?)

Faze writes:

That figure of 20-30 million deaths made me recall something else I've often wondered about. I grew up believing that General Douglas McArthur was to be considered a villain because he proposed using nuclear weapons against China during the Korean war. But suppose the U.S. had used bombs from its 1951 stockpile to bomb Peking. How many people would have been killed? As many as 9-12 million? But that number would probably also have included Mao and his leading associates, and would probably led to a political future that didn't involve an historically anomalous 20-30 million deaths by engineered starvation. In short, by killing 9-12 million Chinese in 1952, the U.S. might have saved tens of millions of Chinese lives in the next decade. I think about this often -- especially being a pacifist.

Dai writes:

I am a chinese. i happen to visit this web page. Chairman Mao is a one of the greatest men in Chinese histroy. If you donot understand chinese history, donot cristcize anything about him. Yes, maybe you are right in some point when you think it as a foriegner. In china, all the failure made by Mao is our experince helping built modern China. His faults are just part of lots of failure in the long priode of exploring how to built a modernized industrial China. Now, we are on the way. So, can we deny the people who failed serval times during the exploring period of this great experiment? Never criticize the faults made by our ancestors to indicate you are clever than them.

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