Bryan Caplan  

Incorruptibly Evil

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I do not intellectually engage with apologists for Nazism or Communism.  When I think someone does not deserve a reply, I simply don't reply.  Still, Counterpunch's instantly infamous "Pol Pot Revisted" has a striking passage:
The people now in charge of the US, Europe and Russia want to present every alternative to their rule as inept or bloody or both. They especially hate incorruptible leaders, be it Robespierre or Lenin, Stalin or Mao - and Pol Pot. They prefer leaders keen on graft, and eventually install them.
I don't know if the author is right about "the people now in charge of the U.S., Europe, and Russia."  But he's definitely got my number.  As far as I know, Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were indeed unusually incorruptible, and I do hate them for this trait. 

Why?  Because when your goal is mass murder, corruption saves lives.  Corruption leads you to take the easy way out, to compromise, to go along to get along.  Corruption isn't a poison that makes everything worse.  It's a diluting agent like water.  Corruption makes good policies less good, and evil policies less evil.

I've read thousands of pages about Hitler.  I can't recall the slightest hint of "corruption" on his record.  Like Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, Hitler was a sincerely murderous fanatic.  The same goes for many of history's leading villains - see Eric Hoffer's classic The True Believer.  Sincerity is so overrated.  If only these self-righteous monsters had been corrupt hypocrites, millions of their victims could have bargained and bribed their way out of hell.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Liberal Roman writes:

I have always tried to find the best way to defend corruption and put down sincerity. This is the probably the most powerful pro-corruption passage I've read yet.

Hadur writes:

As a government employee, I would be remiss to not mention the fact that bureaucratic inefficiency and organizational agent-principle problems also saves lives during government-sponsored mass murder!

Daniel Klein writes:

I think of Schindler's List ...

Eric Falkenstein writes:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Genocide is pretty foolish.

Jon Murphy writes:

Well, sir, that is a thought provoking post.

Steve Miller writes:

That passage stuck out to me as well, and I had the same thought: I suppose that they were too idealistically bloodthirsty to be corrupt! I hadn't thought of it that way until I read the Counterpunch piece yesterday.

Chris H writes:

So I assume by this post you're hinting to your students that you aren't that incorruptable when it comes to grades? And here I thought you were against signaling!

But reading stuff from and/or talking politics with hardcore socialists/communists seems to me to mostly just be an exercise in raising your blood pressure. So many fallacies and so little time. But the corruption point is new to me. It seems like similar logic to Murray Rothbard's point about black markets. Though less ideal than simply having a free market, black markets are actually a good thing as they prevent the government restrictions from having their full effect.

Fazal Majid writes:

Hitler's personal record collection included many works by Russian composers and Jewish performers:,2144,2722872,00.html
He also personally intervened in at least 2 instances to protect Jewish individuals from his laws, once for an art gallery owner who had shown him kindness in his starving artist days, and once for the captain of his WWI regiment.

I don't know which is worse, the sincere deluded fanatic, or the possibility that he may not have been as blinkered as thought and still have engaged on a policy of extermination. Certainly, the care he and Bormann took to not leave a paper trail for the Final Solution shows they knew what they were doing was wrong and would engender revulsion.

David R. Henderson writes:

I wanted to say “Bravo,” but then I read the Counterpunch piece you linked to. It quotes Noam Chomsky as saying the number of murders by Pol Pot was overstated by a factor of a thousand. I don’t know whether this is true or false--I suspect Chomsky’s statement is false. But I do know that you need to confront his statement and not just assume that it’s wrong. Because if it’s right, that means about 3,000 people were murdered, not 3 million.

Samuel Hammond writes:

The above is probably the best, most exhaustive and objective exposition of Chomksy's discredited claims about the Khmer Rouge.

Piotr Pieniążek writes:

I don't know if it counts as a corruption , but Lenin is said to have been a german (all in all capitalist) agent:

Bostonian writes:

The positive effects of corruption also exist for governments less evil than the ones Caplan names. In many countries, getting a permit to (say) open a store takes less time if an official is bribed. The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, by raising the cost to U.S. companies of bribing foreign officials, has likely impoverished both the residents of those countries and U.S. shareholders.

Daniel Klein writes:

I think was Mencken who defined incorruptible as overpriced.

Dan Hill writes:

I was just re-reading that part of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in which William Shirer points out that Hitler did in power exactly what he said he would do in Mein Kampf.

How much better would the world have been had Hitler been the standard two-faced lying politician.

Peter writes:

I'm going to be the lone voice of descent here. I've always preferred the devil you know over the devil you didn't. I'm not one to rate *evilness* by body count or you are going to have to add FDR to that (how many people did FDR kill between massed civilian bombing campaigns? intentional starvation policies? willful mistreatment and neglect of German POW's 1945 to 1948? etc etc). The reason we like blaming Hitler, Pol Pot, etc. is it's easier to blame a strong single leader instead of an entire culture (it's not polite to compare Hitler to, let's say, the American psyche 1700 to 1900 and the systematic killing of Americans Indians). Personally I’m finer with a incorruptible Hitler sticking to his word killing millions (you get what you paid for) as opposed to a corruptible American president promising to not torture people, respect the rule of law, etc and then in reality arbitrarily executing by writ Americans on foreign holidays and locking others up indefinitely. Let us also not forget great corruptible leaders such as the Popes who overseen Crusades, most royalty throughout history, etc. I’m also fine with the letter of the law be applied (at least you know the lines) instead of arbitrary enforcement by corrupt officials where you and I go to jail for DUI parole violations and Lohen gets twenty chances or where cops can kill double amputee’s in wheel chairs but that’s ok because corruption will ensure they aren’t prosecuted. I find corruption lends to bad laws and a culture of mediocrity. Maybe it’s just me though as I’m low on social intelligence which tends to screw me in gray and corrupt societies. Accountability and corruption are opposites and I simply prefer the former.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

How was Mao "incorruptible"? He indulged with dancing (previously deemed too bourgeois by the revolution), the best food and above all women. The Great Helmsman staged nude water ballets in his swimming pool. "Art ensembles" and "dancing partners" were standing by wherever he went. One of Mao's doctors referred to him bluntly as "a sex maniac" and revealed his barbiturate use. Wasn't the Cultural Revolution really his attempt to keep power when challenged by Deng and Liu?

Irwin writes:

Corruption is the wrong word here. Compromise might be a better term.

john hare writes:

Corruption inside the Nazi organization though led to even more deaths than planned from what I have read. The near starvation rations to the slave workers were reduced considerably by the time they reached the camps with the black market absorbing literally the difference between life and death.

Working people to death when their labor was still needed by the state was not the original plan as I understand it. While the various leaders mentioned may not have been technically corrupted, the known corruption of their followers made the results of a terrible plan even worse in many cases.

If we aim to be objective in this tolerance for corruption, I suppose we must include in our tolerance those who trumpet values we cherish (such as liberty and self responsibility) but who later sell out to expansions of state power.

Mentha Trecenta writes:

@ john hare: a famous example of how corruption saved thousands of lives is romania under the antonescu regime. while the anti-jewish pogroms first were so savage that the nazis feared for their reputation and stepped in, there developed later an outright industry of faking visas, passports and shipping the refugees to turkey or other states for hefty fees.

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