David R. Henderson  

Heilbroner on Forced Labor

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Bryan's various posts [here's one--the rest are easy to find with the Search function] on Eugene Richter's dystopian novel, Pictures of the Socialistic Future, persuaded me to read the book. I think Bryan nailed it in his Foreword in saying that the socialist movement was "born bad." BTW, I read it in two sittings, rather than one [it's a short book], because I found it too depressing to read in one sitting.

When I got to the part about forced labor--the government allocating people to various jobs in various locations independent of their wishes--I thought of a haunting passage from one of the most well-known socialist economists in the United States in the last half of the 20th century: Robert Heilbroner.

Here's what Heilbroner wrote:

Indeed, the creation of socialism as a new mode of production can properly be compared to the moral equivalent of war--war against the old order, in this case--and will need to amass and apply the power commensurate with the requirements of a massive war. This need not entail the exercise of command in an arbitrary or dictatorial fashion, but certainly it requires the curtailment of the central economic freedom of bourgeois society, namely the right of individuals to own, and therefore to withhold if they wish, the means of production, including their own labor. [Italics added]

I quoted this in "You Belong to You," Chapter 4 of my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey.

Here's how you can get the Richter book pdf at a zero price.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Hyena writes:

I don't think Socialism has much hope in the Western world at this point. The longer I live, the more I think it was simply that the Western elite were not ready for the nobility to surrender their status to the burghers.

So they invented a new sort of patrician to counteract the the nobiles.

Kurbla writes:

How about Marx instead of Heilbroner? German ideology:

    "In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic."
One can criticize this concept as unrealistic - but describing it as a compulsory labour doesn't seem honest. In practice, pseudosocialist countries applied various, cruel forms of forced labour. But capitalist countries did the same, in even more cruel form of the slave trade. Eventually, capitalist countries discontinued that practice, and pseudosocialist countries did the same after Stalin's death. In times I remember, there was no forced labour, even for prisoners. I believe that free education, full employment and more egalitarian distribution of wealth actually gave significant edge to pseudosocialist countries over capitalist countries with similar GDP/capita - if we talk about freedom of individuals to chose their jobs.

Daniel Klein writes:

Yes, socialism was born bad. The Heilbroner is an example of how leftist were once much more overt. Back in the 1880-1940 period the leftists were generally much more overt in their statism.

The Heilbroner you quote is from his book on Marxism, but if anyone is interested, his book The Great Ascent is also filled with appallingly stuff that shows just how illiberal are the people that Bryan and sometimes Arnold foolishly acquiesce in calling "liberal."

In The Great Ascent, see esp. pp. 20-21, 126-51.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Klein,
Thanks. Note, which I forgot to mention, that Heilbroner wrote this in 1980.

liberty writes:

But Heilbroner is one of the few academic socialists who fully recanted after the fall. He wrote in ~1990 something to the effect of, "Ooops. Hayek was right. Socialism sucks. My bad."

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