Bryan Caplan  

Can Expectations Save Communism?

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Every social system requires favorable expectations to survive.  Democracy can't survive unless people expect losing parties to voluntarily surrender power.  Anarcho-capitalism can't survive unless people expect private defense firms to peacefully resolve their disputes.  Once you take the power of expectations seriously, though, you might start to wonder: "Wait, can expectations make any social system viable?"  Could the right expectations salvage Paul Samuelson's seemingly absurd remark that "the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive"?

Better expectations could definitely have prevented some of actually existing socialism's defects.  Under Stalin, Soviets expected everyone to obey the General Secretary's orders, no matter how brutal.  The result was mass murder.  After Stalin's death, however, expectations moderated.  Before long, Soviets expected everyone to obey the General Secretary's orders up to a point.  The result was a system that, by Stalin's standards, was rather mild.  With the right expectations, there's no reason a communist regime couldn't settle into traditional authoritarianism.  We've seen this happen before our very eyes in China and beyond.

Yet none of this addresses communism's deeper challenge: its failure to reconcile human selfishness with economic productivity.  Could the right expectations solve the "We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us" problem? 

Probably not.  Suppose you live in a commune where everyone expects "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" to lead to prosperity.  What are you personally likely to do?  Despite your great expectations for your communal way of life, you're still likely to shirk - to feign minimal ability and maximal needs.  If your expectations are true, the commune will prosper despite your behavior.  If your expectations are false, the commune will languish regardless of your behavior.  Either way, why knock yourself out? 

To make "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" viable, you don't just need to change human expectations - to make people think socialism will work.  You also need to change human nature - to make people love strangers as they love themselves.  And while human expectations have changed massively over the last ten thousand years, human nature is far more constant.  Yes, evolution has made us adaptive and sociable.  But it's also made us very reluctant to help total strangers for free.

What about social pressure?  Could socialism work if everyone expected everyone else to be looking over their shoulders all the time, tsk-tsking at the slightest sign of laziness?  This might be sustainable in a small commune.  In any larger socialist society, though, it's fairly easy to escape mere tsk-tsking by locating and joining a subculture of fellow slackers.  Before long, you'll find yourself in a comforting Bubble of parasitism.  The Thieves' Code of the Gulag is one horrifying example of such a Bubble.

Expectations have enormous effects on society.  Expectations can make a viable social model crash, and a "crazy" social experiment flourish.  But expectations don't work magic.  Expectations change behavior by convincing people to rethink the best way to advance their self-interest - not by convincing people to rethink whether to advance their self-interest.



COMMENTS (30 to date)
Tim writes:

I've already read you on Mises' economic calculation argument, so I won't try to tell you things I know you already know and don't consider to be Communism's Achilles' heel, but I for one don't see the socialist system ever being able to manipulate knowledge well enough for expectations to even begin to matter. It's the lack of calculation, not the problems with human nature, that spell defeat for the Communist system.

Glen writes:

Sort of echoing what Tim said... The incentive problem is one major defect of communism, but the knowledge problem is another. These two problems together were the one-two punch that doomed communism. However, I suppose you could argue that the knowledge problem was also an incentive problem, inasmuch as communism fails to give people an incentive to act upon -- and thus reveal -- their local knowledge.

AS writes:

I really think this post could do with more generalization. The reason why the argument doesn't apply to communism is that the concerns about anarcho-capitalism / democracy are concerns with *stability*, while the criticisms of communism are about efficiency and incentives.

David Friedman writes:

I'm not sure what you are allowing in the way of expectations. Suppose we assume that everyone expects that if he works hard everyone else will, and if he slacks off everyone else will slack off. That doesn't solve the knowledge problem, but it does solve the incentive problem.

And although it seems hard to see how anyone could have those expectations, quite a lot of people talk as if they do—offer "if everyone did that" as a serious argument against doing something.

8 writes:

Democracy fails when the government has the support of 51% of voters and acts on it. As with communism, it only works in very small units.

Himanshu Sanguri writes:

To convince people to rethink the best way to advance their self-interest is itself
letting them walk in the shoes of capitalism. Self incentive is in nature of each and every human being. All social institutions like religion, marriage, society etc. always use
this self incentive desires of individuals to live and prosper in harmony.
If you do this, then you will get that in return is the plain logic that we all
understand. Therefore, to be prudent and pragmatic, socialism is rightly described as a
parasite bubble and communism as a calculation mistake.

Greg G writes:

Expectations matter a lot, but not enough to save communism or anarcho-capitalism.

Of course it is very true that it is usually "cheaper to negotiate than fight." The problem is that most violence results from an emotional failure of impulse control, not the failure of some more rational cost analysis. Individuals and nations often engage in violence despite knowing full well it cannot be justified by a dispassionate cost analysis.

To the extent that expectations can dissuade violent acts, virtually all of human history argues that governments can be more successful than private security in convincing people that violence will not be profitable.

There have been many, many societies throughout human history with very little central government. None of them evolved into prosperous places that were able to protect human rights for long. In most cases, they were filled with violence and at war with each other.

Ironically, anarcho-capitalists and communists always use the same excuse for the failure of their ideas: You just haven't been doing it right. Kudos to Bryan at least for confronting this problem head on.

ElleninVA writes:

This doesn't seem to address the spiritual side of humanity, and therefore is missing a key aspect of problems in any society, communism or no, and that is the divided soul of mankind, our fallen state. Even our democratic-republican, capitalistic system will only work for "a moral and a religious people," with the "religion" being the Christian faith. The wonderful thing about our system of government has been that people have been allowed to be individuals, with their varied gifts, abilities and ambitions, guided by moral conscience. But because our founders had wisdom, knowing that even the most holy among us is not above succumbing to temptation, they built in accountability measures. The laws that were in place were in line with Natural Law, and there has been a complete disregard of those laws within our culture, carefully uprooted over time by those with the Utopian ideal of a social hive ruled over by the "wisest" among us. You focus on "evolution" and "adaptation," but I would say to you, "There is nothing new under the sun." There are forces at work in this world larger than you and me, and they keep repeating themselves. They are focused like a laser on the US because of our Constitution.

It's been interesting, and disheartening, to watch how our attitudes about communism have so quickly changed. When I was in military training, I was taught that a main difference between our military and that of the Soviets (yes, I'm that old haha) is that the US had a training approach that allowed us to be more well-rounded, so we could use judgment in a variety of situations, while the Soviets were "specialized." The individual was assigned one job to do and did it expertly. No one had "the big picture" except the ruling elite. Oh my, how things have changed. From the earliest ages we now demand our children to pick "one thing" they want to do. They are tested and evaluated so the "counselors" can put them on the right track. It's a twisted interpretation of the idea of "purpose." We slap a label on someone's forehead and put them on a path to operate as a productive part of the collective. Anything else is too messy for the Progressives, who can't stand the idea that humans have self-will and individual consciences.

Glen Smith writes:

A belief that hard work is its own reward or that hard work is a moral obligation is a requirement for a socialist system to work. I guess I'd also need to expect that belief from all the members of the society. In the end, I think you'd still have problems because of calculation issues and you need an omniscient leader who the whole society believes in.

RPLong writes:

This is a great post, but I'm struggling to parse out in my mind when something goes from "wishful thinking" to "expectation."

nospam writes:

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Rob Rawlings writes:

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is what Marx predicted for communism where productivity is so high that everyone can take what they want.

Under socialism (the phase before communism) the motto was "From each according to his ability, to each according to his work". Everything is communally owned but people still get motivated to deliver - they get rewarded depending upon how much value they add.

So the issue isn't one of motivation but one of coordination. Can plans be co-coordinated and marginal value be correctly calculated where property is communally owned?

Mark Brophy writes:

The Oneida communists were successful for decades:


The Oneida Community canned fruits and vegetables; they made traps and chains; they made traveling bags and straw hats and mop sticks and sewing silk and, last of all, they found out how to make silver knives and forks and spoons. This is the beginning of what has grown to become Oneida Silversmiths and the Oneida Ltd. of today.

The silverware business was started by a single engineer who refused to slack off. The communists also built a mansion of at least 80,000 square feet, about 8 times as large as the typical mansion in Beaver Creek today.

David Friedman wrote a long detailed explanation of the Oneida communists, including their bedrock belief in communism:

1. All individual proprietorship of either persons or things is surrendered and absolute community of interests takes the place of the law and fashions which preside over property and family relations in the world.

2. God as the ultimate and absolute owner of our persons and possessions is installed as the director of our combinations and the distributor of property. His spirit is our supreme regulator.

3. John H. Noyes is the father and overseer whom the Holy Ghost has set over the family thus constituted. To John H. Noyes as such we submit ourselves in all things spiritual and temporal, appealing form his decisions only to the spirit of God, and that without disputing.

4. We pledge ourselves to these principals without reserve; and if we fall away from them, let God and our signature be witness against us.

Hazel Meade writes:

Could socialism work if everyone expected everyone else to be looking over their shoulders all the time, tsk-tsking at the slightest sign of laziness?

A better question to ask is: Would anyone really enjoy living in such a society?
Suppose you did live in some culture where peer pressure was used to get people to work hard with no hope of personal reward.

I've seen people working in such environments, and it's not pretty. It's not a comfortable or harmonious society. In those environments, everyone basically lives in a constant state of anxiety and suspicion, worried that other people are slacking, that they are being taken advantage of, or that someone else is going to catch them slacking. It's a recipe for workplace paranoia.

Methinks writes:

There have been many, many societies throughout human history with very little central government. None of them evolved into prosperous places that were able to protect human rights for long.

Is that so? Since, according to you, history is awash with these Anarcho-capitalist states which failed to thrive without the heavy hand of wise and benevolent archons to curb our brutish ways, you will have no trouble providing a short list, I assume. I can't think of any.

Ironically, anarcho-capitalists and communists always use the same excuse for the failure of their ideas: You just haven't been doing it right. Kudos to Bryan at least for confronting this problem head on.

I've never seen that argument from an anarcho-capitalist and I don't see where Bryan has confronted this "problem". Perhaps you can enlighten.

Greg G writes:

Methinks,

I did not say that "history is awash in these Anarcho-capitalist states which failed to thrive." Reread. I did say that history has been awash in societies with very little central government.

And NONE of those evolved into any kind of prosperous freedom defending capitalist state (anarcho or otherwise). If the presence of central government is what prevents anarcho-capitalism from evolving and surviving then how do you explain its failure to evolve in the many places where central government was absent?

When the Europeans began colonizing the world they found many places without strong central governments. Yet none at all that had made any progress towards anarcho-capitalism.

Bryan's post points out how communism fails because it does not account for the expectations that are part of human nature. He then frankly admits that "anarcho-capitalism can't survive unless people expect private defense firms to peacefully resolve their disputes." In case you haven't noticed, anarcho-capitalism has failed that test...despite the fact that anarcho-capitalists think that anarcho-capitalism has never been done right.

Methnks writes:

I did say that history has been awash in societies with very little central government.

Yet, you are so reticent to give a short list.

If the presence of central government is what prevents anarcho-capitalism from evolving and surviving then how do you explain its failure to evolve in the many places where central government was absent?

You want me to accept your unsubstantiated assertion as a premise and then make your point for you? That's not how it works. Your assertion, yours to defend. I see no reason to accept your premise. Start there.

...anarcho-capitalism has failed that test

Really? Where has this test been tried?

despite the fact that anarcho-capitalists think that anarcho-capitalism has never been done right.

Is that what they think? Where has it been tried at all, let alone "done right"? Where are these anarcho-capitalist claims that it wasn't "done right"?

Christopher Hayward writes:

What this discussion never seems to take into account is the possibility of specific, different behavioral types. E.g., by breaking humans down into just two types (of course, there are others), Self-Centered Persons (SCPs) and Selfless Altruists, just about every economic system, real or simply hoped for, can be explained and demonstrated. The trick is to devise a means to count the number of SCPs and Altruists in a society; and then one can determine the viability of different economic systems.

Greg G writes:

Methinks

Just in case you really are unaware of historical examples of human societies with very little central government you might consider all of the dozens of Native American peoples in what is today the United States and Canada before the arrival of the Europeans.

I am perfectly willing to accept that I have misunderstood the reasons why you believe a proper anarcho-capitalist society has failed to ever emerge. Actually, I do not accept the premise that the presence of central governments is what prevented it. That was my apparently failed attempt to understand your reasoning. Please accept my apology for that and enlighten me as to your real thinking on the subject.

I rather like Brian's idea that the reason is that the vast majority of people do not believe that "private defense firms" would result in a more peaceful society. And I would say that the vast majority of people are right about this. There are many parts of the world where hired mercenaries and militias are the main means of security. It just never seems to evolve towards proper anarcho-capitalism. On well. Maybe next time...

Saying it has never been done right is just another way of saying it has never really been tried.

Methinks writes:

Native American tribes? Really?

I am perfectly willing to accept that I have misunderstood the reasons why you believe a proper anarcho-capitalist society has failed to ever emerge.

I'm delighted to hear it since I have never offered any opinions. You're confusing you with me now. It was you who was busy asserting what anarcho-captialists were saying without actually offering anything any anarcho-capitalist actually said.

I rather like Brian's idea that the reason is that the vast majority of people do not believe that "private defense firms" would result in a more peaceful society.

How nice. However, Bryan seems to have offered that as "the reason" only in your imagination because I can't find it in his post.

And I would say that the vast majority of people are right about this.

Yes well, I would expect you to agree with yourself.

So, basically, what you're saying is that you can't back up any of your assertions. Fine. This is what I expected.

Greg G writes:

Yes Methinks it is true, as you say, that you have "never offered any opinions" on the reasons for the failure of anarcho-capitalism to emerge. That is my point. The question is far too awkward for you to want to deal with.

You keep saying that I am not "actually offering anything any anarcho-capitlist actually said." Well, Bryan ACTUALLY SAID: "Anarcho-capitalism can't survive unless people expect private defense firms to peacefully resolve their disputes."

He said it. I offered it as an example of something an anarcho-capitalist had actually said and you somehow missed that. I am afraid I don't know how to be any clearer about this.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Strong central govts.

It does not seem to be generally appreciated, particularly by libertarians who maintain coercion to be the essence of State, that medieval European kings had no standing armies.

Methinks writes:

No, that's not your point. You are simply trying to make it my responsibility to answer your baseless claims. I'm under no obligation to offer you reasons for things that you claim without evidence.

I'm so sorry it never occurred to me that you don't understand that...

Anarcho-capitalism can't survive unless people expect private defense firms to peacefully resolve their disputes.

is not synonymous with...

The reason anarcho-capitalism didn't survive [its countless historical trials which have yet to be produced] is that people don't believe private defense firms will peacefully resolve disputes.


But, of course, you claim to have knowledge of the main excuses for the failure of anarcho-capitalism from the mouths of said anarcho-capitalists (plural), not the abuse of something uttered by Bryan Caplan.

Greg G writes:

As always, you are tirelessly efficient in slaying your own straw men Methinks.

In this case you invent a quote for me to suggest I am claiming anarcho-capitalism has failed countless historical trials which have yet to be produced. Of course the real problem is that, as I have been saying, it has NEVER EVOLVED IN THE FIRST PLACE to survive or fail any trials at all. And it never will.

Of course you are free to continue to evade giving us your own explanation for the failure of anarcho-capitalism to develop. You are also entirely free to take some of the energy you devote to distorting my claims on the subject to explain your own ideas about it. Or not.

Tracy W writes:

Under Stalin, Soviets expected everyone to obey the General Secretary's orders, no matter how brutal. The result was mass murder.

Weren't the mass murders the result of Stalin thinking his regime was insecure, what with the Civil War, rebellions by farmers over the first attempts at collectivism, etc? So Stalin expected people to not obey his orders, and thus unleashed mass terror to get people to obey his orders. (Somewhat hampered by a tendency to give orders that were physically impossible, and/or logically contradictory).

If the Soviets had just expected everyone to obey the orders, the result would probably been a rebellion. It seems doubtful that such a rebellion would have resulted in less murder than the Great Terror, but history tends to teach us that things can always get worse.

Methinks writes:

it has NEVER EVOLVED IN THE FIRST PLACE to survive or fail any trials at all.

What? But, then how can you claim this: "Ironically, anarcho-capitalists and communists always use the same excuse for the failure of their ideas: You just haven't been doing it right." and then later,"... anarcho-capitalism has failed that test...despite the fact that anarcho-capitalists think that anarcho-capitalism has never been done right."

How can anarcho-capitalists claim "you just haven't been doing [emphasis mine] it right" if we all agree nothing has ever been done at all? You appear to be very confused about what exactly happened and what exactly these imaginary anarcho-capitalists of yours are saying.

Despite your increasingly feverish attempts drag me into a crazy debate about the non-existent yet also tested and failed anarcho-capitalism, I'm still unmoved. I am perfectly satisfied to observe your desperate attempt to not-so-subtly equivocate the non-existent anarcho-capitalist state with the rivers of blood and tragic failures of Communism and self-righteously accuse me of not providing you with imaginative explanations for things you aren't sure actually happened.

Methinks writes:

Tracy,

The terror and mass murder in Russia did not start with Stalin. It started with Lenin. For some reason, Lenin is seen as some relatively benevolent idealist. In fact, after a brief attempt to impose Marxian Communism on the Russian (which lead to economic collapse and mass strikes and protests), it was Lenin who, realizing Communism can't work, insisted that the implementation of communism should be abandoned in order to hold on to power by whatever means necessary. It was Lenin who called for the blood of dissenters and the murder and torture of Kulaks and loyal, brutal Stalin was Lenin's choice of successor.

By the time Stalin ascended to power, the civil war was over. The bouts of opposition was specific to his various directives as part of a larger policy of impoverishing the peasants for the benefit of the industrializing cities. My read of history is that he expected compliance and was relatively shocked when it wasn't forthcoming.

I'm not sure what kind of rebellion you had in mind, but historically, Russian peasants staged periodic rebellions and frenzies which never resulted in the hell that Lenin brought to Russia upon his return from Switzerland. Soviet leaders always understood that they would never survive a total rebellion.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

"Every social system requires favorable expectations to survive."

This intellectual argument has been going on at least since Karl Mannheim, Utopia and Ideology. I highly recommend Paul Ricoeur's 1968 lectures of the same name at the University of Chicago for an overview.

It is a hugely important issue, and Oneida's experience reminds us just how contingent "expectation" really is. "Expectation" drove the Third Reich, radical Islam, and especially Marxist millennialism. This is the historical context for considering


Greg G writes:

The vanishingly few remaining advocates of Communism do not concede that the failures of real world communist states like the Soviet Union disprove their ideas. Instead they point to the many ways that real world communist states failed to correctly follow what they believe to be a true communist path. In other words, they claim Communism was never really tried because it was never really done the way the their philosophy called for. It was done so wrong as to have not been really tried at all.

While it is true that Communism in practice was very different from Communism in theory, it does not follow that a more faithful adherence to theory will meet with future success.

Advocates of anarcho-capitalism point out (quite correctly) that even though there have been many real world capitalist states, there has never been one that was done correctly enough to meet the requirements of their theories. Here also, it does not follow that a more faithful adherence to their theories will meet with future success.

In both cases the inability of the theoretical form to come anywhere close to being achieved in the real world is the best possible evidence for the unworkability of the theory.

And by the way Methinks, nowhere did I equivocate the "rivers of blood and tragic failures of Communism" with the harmless fantasies of anarcho-capitalists. That happened only in your fertile imagination.

Methinks writes:

Advocates of anarcho-capitalism point out (quite correctly) that even though there have been many real world capitalist states, there has never been one that was done correctly enough to meet the requirements of their theories.

Whaaaaaat? This is particularly convoluted. You're going to have to back that up with some actual quotes from some actual Anarcho-Capitalists - and one of them can't be an abuse of a quote from Bryan Caplan from this post.

You know there is a difference between Anarcho-Capitalism and other forms of Capitalism. What Anarcho-Capitalist would look at State Capitalism or Welfare Capitalism and claim that those are Anarcho-Capitalism "not done right"? And if that's what "they say", then why are you having such a hard time producing quotes? Surely you know what "they say" because you've read something written by "them". Right? Why, I'm starting to think you're just making stuff up.

And by the way Methinks, nowhere did I equivocate the "rivers of blood and tragic failures of Communism" with the harmless fantasies of anarcho-capitalists

Oh well, if we're going to play that game...nowhere but in your imagination did I say anything about harmless fantasies. I'm starting to think your imagination is very very active.

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