Bryan Caplan  

Communism, Revolution, and Optimism

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The worst thing you can say about a revolutionary situation is, "Things couldn't possibly get worse."  Things can always get worse.  If you have trouble imagining how, just wait for the revolution to unfold.  Events will usually oblige you: see France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Germany in 1933, China in 1949, or Iran in 1979.  I hope Egyptian policies improve when Mubarak goes, but I'm not optimistic.

That said, I have a confession: I never lost a moment's sleep about the collapse of Communism - and nothing that's happened in the ex-Communist world has given me second thoughts.  Since I spurn the "Things couldn't possibly get worse" sophism, it's hard to articulate why I was so complacent.  The least unconvincing story I can come up with is that the point of totalitarian regimes is to give people less freedom than the median voter wants, but the point of authoritarian regimes is often to give people more freedom than the median voter - or at least the median man of violence - wants. 

Anyone got a better account?


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Floccina writes:

What scares me the most is what the people of Egypt are asking for. I do not hear anyone saying that they want to be left alone rather they seem to want Gov to give them jobs and stuff. That does not usual work out so well.

August writes:

The Egyptians appear too likely to accept some sort of communism, and there are undoubtedly communists out among the protesters. With the fall of the Soviet bloc, we knew where the communists were. Some even stayed in various positions of power, but even they had to make a tacit admission that the previous level of central planning just didn't work.
Communism has a pretty strong following in the Middle East, along with that Ba'athist style fascism Saddam Hussein was using in Iraq. Fundamentalist Islam is only one of many tough situations the Egyptians may find themselves in.

So, in other words, when the Berlin Wall fell, you knew it was essentially a restoration. However small the move was, it was to a more human system. Now, you are looking at the fall of an autocratic, but relatively human system. (The protesters were on Facebook, after all- this suggest a certain level of free-time, luxury, and freedom not known in some places.) So, look for various lovers of inhumanity to start popping out of the chaos. They will try to seize power. They may even succeed because I don't think the populace has been educated all that well- if those English speaking Muslims who like to shout at T.V. cameras are any indication.

Blackadder writes:

Bryan,

I've had similar thoughts. I think you have to look at what the protesters are shouting for. If they are saying we want freedom, then chances are things will get better if they prevail. If they are saying we want communism (or we want sharia, or rule by the aryan race or whatever), it will probably get worse.

From what I can tell of the protesters, Egypt would probably be better off if they succeed in getting rid of the current government, though it is admittedly hard to tell.

Blackadder writes:

Bryan,

Another thought: revolutions seem to turn out better when they are carried out largely through peaceful means and worse when they are carried out largely via violent means. When your revolution relies a lot on violence, you violent men end up being in charge, and then tend to turn their talents on the people they end up ruling. On the other hand, when I watch video footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, I'm stuck by the fundamentally peaceful nature of the whole thing.

Andy Hallman writes:

@Blackadder.

I agree. Countries founded on successful violence are more likely to think of violence as acceptable, as a "necessary evil." Maybe that tells us something about Americans' attitudes to war.

Rayson writes:
On the other hand, when I watch video footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, I'm stuck by the fundamentally peaceful nature of the whole thing.

Very true, but the difference is that there was no doubt which role model they would go for.

Jody writes:

Why not feel so bad about a revolution away from communism?

Short version: Expected value.

Slightly longer.
Because the starting point is so low, the next draw from the random "revolution distribution" has a very good chance of being better.

Longer still
For example, assume you're drawing numbers from a zero-mean Gaussian distribution with stddev = 15. You pay me the number in dollars if it's negative; I do likewise if positive.

You draw once and get a -100.

Now suppose I said that we'll discard that and you can draw again.

Are you happy? It still can be worse. Infinitely worse in fact. But likely not.

Guy in the veal calf office writes:

Maybe your complacency means that you don't really believe that things can get worse, you just said it from reflexive contrariness.

More freedom is always better in the long enough view, even if there's bloodletting in the short term. The short term horribleness is cathartic and its excess creates an institutional memory that creates more peaceful transitions in the future (e.g., Russia & China transitioned away from communism without the bloodletting it was born in).

(I don't see how how Germany 1933 fit in that parade of horribles, that wasn't a revolution. You could have added U.S. 1776, which never really coalesced until 1878).

Jesse Walker writes:

the point of authoritarian regimes is often to give people more freedom than the median voter - or at least the median man of violence - wants

If this is "often" the case, surely you could give a few examples. When listing them, be sure to explain how these expansions of freedoms were "the point" of the regimes.

Jacob AG writes:

"nothing that's happened in the ex-Communist world has given me second thoughts."

Are you sure that Uzbekistan is better off under Islam Karimov than it was in the 1980s? Are you sure that Afghanistan improved in the 1990s after a decade and a half of Communist rule? You don't have to lose sleep, but you SHOULD have second thoughts, and third and fourth thoughts while you're at it.

You were right in the first place: things CAN get worse, always, even when the revolution is anti-Communist. There's no reason to let your ideological convictions get in the way of that, but your "least convincing story" does just that. It assumes that because Communism implies authoritarianism, anything that replaces Communism will be an improvement. *Enter Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, stage right.*

Steve writes:

Jesse Walker:

Bryan never specified which people. Surely, the median voter in Iraq did not want Saddam Hussein and his parties to have the "freedom" to imprison and execute political opponents and gas enemies at home and abroad.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Why not feel so bad about a revolution away from communism?

Short version: Expected value.

Slightly longer.
Because the starting point is so low, the next draw from the random "revolution distribution" has a very good chance of being better."

This seems a variant of "things couldn't possibly get worse" position.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Probsbly the reason why Bryan never lost sleep without the fall of communism is because that fall occured in a context of a ("cold") West-East conflict, it was more or less assumed that the result will be a trasition to the western model (even if Caplan did not assume that at conscious level, much probably assumed at unconscious level).

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