Bryan Caplan  

A Surprising Supply of Communist Dupes

PRINT
How to identify shocks... Hooper on Henry George on Prot...

When I was first learning economics, I was surprised by how pro-communist many economics textbooks were.  I don't mean, of course, that economics textbook ever said, "Communism is good."  What I mean, rather, is that textbooks were very positive relative to communism's historical record.  Indeed, many seemed deeply ignorant of actual communism, basing their assessment on second-hand information about communists' stated intentions, plus a few anecdotes about inefficiencies.  Many textbook authors were, in a phrase, communist dupes: Non-communists who believe and spread a radically overoptimistic image of communism.

At least that's what my admittedly flawed memory says.

This homeschool year, I'm prepping my sons for the Advanced Placement tests in Microeconomics and Macroeconomics.  Our primary text is Cowen and Tabarrok, which includes accurately horrifying details about life under communism.  But we're also working through all the test prep books.  And while skimming the Princeton Review's Cracking the AP Economics, bad textbook memories came flooding back to me.  It's mostly a normal econ text, but here's what it tells us about communism:

Communism is a system designed to minimize imbalance in wealth via the collective ownership of property.  Legislators from a single political party - the communist party - divide the available wealth for equal advantage among citizens.  The problems with communism include a lack of incentives for extra effort, risk taking, and innovation.  The critical role of the central government in allocating resources and setting production levels makes this system particularly vulnerable to corruption.

Is this passage really so awful?  Yes.  Let's dissect it sentence-by-sentence.

Communism is a system designed to minimize imbalance in wealth via the collective ownership of property. 

Communist regimes generally had low measured inequality, but collective ownership of property was never primarily a means of "minimizing wealth imbalance."  The official communist line was that collective ownership would lead to high economic growth - and ultimately cornucopia.  And in practice, communist regimes made collective ownership an end in itself.  Just look at their repeated farm collectivizations that caused horrifying famines in the short-run, and low agricultural productivity in the long-run.  You wouldn't keep doing this unless you valued collective ownership for its own sake.

Legislators from a single political party - the communist party - divide the available wealth for equal advantage among citizens. 

What actually happened under communism was rather different.  Communist regimes began with mass murder of their political enemies, businessmen, and their families.  Next, they seized the peasants' land, leading to hellish famines.  In time, they launched major "industrialization" campaigns, but obsessively focused on building up their militaries, not mass consumption.  And no communist regime has ever tried to "divide wealth for equal advantage."  Bloodbaths aside, communist regimes always put Party members' comfort above the very lives of ordinary citizens.

The problems with communism include a lack of incentives for extra effort, risk taking, and innovation. 

Communist regimes did provide poor incentives to produce consumer goods for ordinary citizens.  But they provided solid to excellent incentives in the sectors they really cared about: the military, secret police, border guarding, athletics, space programs, and so on.

The critical role of the central government in allocating resources and setting production levels makes this system particularly vulnerable to corruption.

Talk about praising with faint damnation.  Never mind mass murder, famine, pathological militarism, and state-mandated favoritism for Party members.  What's really telling is that communism was "particularly vulnerable to corruption."

A defender of Cracking the AP Economics could protest, "It's talking about the idea of communism, not the practice of Communism."  But re-read the passage.  There's nothing in the idea of communism that makes it "vulnerable to corruption."  This is clearly a complaint about how communism really worked - and it leaves students with the impression that corruption was communism's chief defect.

A more reasonable response would be, "This passage is terrible, but unrepresentative.  I dare you to find five similarly credulous evaluations of communism in other textbooks."  I strongly suspect I can meet this challenge; plenty of textbook authors, past and present, were probably communist dupes.  But for now, I'm too busy to meet this challenge.  Feel free to share evidence - or counter-evidence - in the comments. 





COMMENTS (19 to date)
Scott Sumner writes:

Very, Good, I would add that the platonic ideal of communism is actually far worse than the practice. Complete equality would lead to zero incentives to produce, and thus zero output. You can argue that disasters such as the Great Leap Forward were the closest we came to "true communism."

JFA writes:

You can always add Paul Samuelson's repeated errors in reporting USSR economic growth and welfare of its citizens.

Jeff G. writes:

Another common description is the well-intentioned Central Planner who doesn't have enough information to efficiently allocate resources. With the implication being that if only if we can solve the information problem, everything would be OK.

Luis writes:

We read Professor Greg Mankiw's textbook so I guess we were in good hands.

Brian W writes:

Disgusting.

I can only imagine the investment in ostracism and disapproval that it has taken to keep these authoritarian apologists from resurrecting the Nazis and Fascists to praise their efficiency and unity of purpose in bringing full employment during the Depression.

Jim Glass writes:

Here in Manhattan, NYC, there is the KGB Bar, long popular with the progressive literary set, it even has its own Literary Journal. When next visiting the city treat yourself to a special good time in the upstairs Red Room!

I've often imagined a Gestapo Bar opening across the street...

AlanG writes:

The Kibbutz movement in Israel adopted the "Communist" approach to collective ownership of property as a means of reducing wealth imbalance. they managed to avoid the Russian experience. Arguably, the state of Israel arose from this movement.

Just wanted to provide a counter fact.

Ak Mike writes:

Alan - I think "equality" rather than "reducing wealth imbalance" is a more accurate description of one of the purposes of the kibbutz, others being security, a generally communal lifestyle, and avoiding the complexities of modern life ("simplicity").

It is rather important that kibbutzim are all voluntary organizations with no government compulsion, and that the vast majority of children raised on the kibbutz have left it.

Obviously as non-governmental entities they are not able to impose Soviet type tyranny, but just the same they are gradually fading out.

liberty writes:

I agree with much of what you are saying but disagree a bit - if clarified, I think that speaking of both the idea or goals and the reality makes sense, and the goals are fairly well articulated in the passage.

I would write:

Communism is a system designed to minimize imbalance in wealth via the collective ownership of property. Legislators from a single political party - the communist party - divide the available wealth for equal advantage among citizens. The problems with communism begin with how to bring about this intended goal. In practice, usually the state - the communist party in power - begins with State Socialism, in which work is rewarded according to effort (rather than need, defined as the communist goal), but this system suffers from a concentration of power in the state and party, susceptibility to corruption, and lack of dynamism and economic growth as the state takes on planning of resources. This also leads to entrenchment of bureaucracy, and a lack of incentives for extra effort, risk taking, and innovation. Because the goal of communism cannot be brought about directly - if forced upon the people it has led to grave state terrorism - and even the lesser State Socialism requires planning and has all the above flaws, communism has been a failure. The critical role of the central government in allocating resources and setting production levels makes this system particularly vulnerable to corruption and violence.

See my books Rediscovering Fire: Basic Economic Lessons from the Soviet Experiment and Spontaneous Order and the Utopian Collective for more. :)

Jesse C writes:

Any attempt at describing the flaws of communism should at least address the total lack of subjectivity in wealth. The state evenly distributing wealth is impossible, by definition, if you accept that people value everything differently.

I trade my labor as I see fit, which differs vastly from how another person trades his/her labor. This is true in terms of amount, time of day, time of year, not to mention what we're willing to do and for how much money. Then, how much education people are willing to accumulate varies, not just between people but between types of education and types of job. When to retire? Some prefer their compensation be a function of the success of the firm (bonus), some do not.

The list is endless.

A government choosing an "equal" allocation of wealth is harder to imagine than a government representative at a restaurant choosing what all diners will eat without asking their input. Nobody pretends that would work well, but it would be much more doable. So why do we think wealth can be allocated evenly?

Pajser writes:

The communist system is political-economic system characterized with collective property and egalitarian distribution of work and goods. Many very different models of communist system are proposed in literature.

This short cite from book describes Soviet and similar systems, organized and ruled by Communist Parties that followed Marxist-Leninist ideology. These systems didn't satisfied criteria above (no collective rule), and their organizers were explicit that these were not communist systems yet. Rather, they called them "socialist systems" and believed they will in future develop into communist systems.

If someone wants to know how Soviet and similar systems worked in practice, it is beyond doubt that they were and still are dictatorships which restricted basic freedoms. But economic performances of Soviet Union and some other similar economies were quite good. USSR (if all good and bad periods are taken into account) progressed almost twice faster than capitalist average. Yugoslavia almost three times faster. Objective, numeric approach is needed - not only anecdotes.

Nick writes:

Interesting that they lead with the bit about equalizing wealth. Though I've only read Marx in the context of a high school literary criticism class (well prior to Sanders and Warren rising), I recall the amelioration of the plight of the "disenfranchised", "dehumanized" proletariat being the crux of pro communist arguments. The equality argument seems to me to be a more modern spin--which from my cynical viewpoint--aims to legitimize Marxist-type prescriptions to modern leftest "concerns".

Alex writes:

I agree that the definition is bad, but where is yours?

This is mine: Communism is a political system that does not recognize the individual right to acquire and own private property. All property is owned by the state and administered according to the dictates of its rulers. Because private property rights are so fundamental to human survival, communism caused massive catastrophes anywhere it was tried.

liberty writes:

"f someone wants to know how Soviet and similar systems worked in practice, it is beyond doubt that they were and still are dictatorships which restricted basic freedoms. But economic performances of Soviet Union and some other similar economies were quite good. USSR (if all good and bad periods are taken into account) progressed almost twice faster than capitalist average. Yugoslavia almost three times faster. Objective, numeric approach is needed - not only anecdotes."

And how was this measured? Output cannot be measured accurately in a planned economy, because prices are more or less meaningless -- they have no connection to supply and demand, as we understand it. Add to that the lying about output at every level (so as to not get in trouble with planning authorities and other party members) and you quickly realise that we had little idea of the growth in communist/socialist (of the planned sort) nations.

Check out how Samuelson's economic textbook kept using Soviet growth figures: each new edition said the Soviets would be catching up with the US within 5 years or something, and each next edition corrected the last and made the same prediction. It never happened because the growth figures were just plucked from the air, basically.

Pajser writes:

Liberty - I use data from Maddison project. But, for my conclusion (that growth was quite good) it is sufficient to look at first years during transition - elected politicians like Yeltsin had no incentive to falsify data and present economy they inherited as better than it actually was. Then we can assume that it was little better (10%?) few years before, because transition had its cost.

PubliusII writes:

In answer to AlanG (Feb 6, 5:53), Robert Nozick wrote an article "Who would choose socialism?" which appears in his book Socratic Puzzles.

His conclusion, based on Israeli stats on kibbutzim, was that roughly 10% of the population will choose a collective life, not more. And that was within a society that supported the idea of collective life, but didn't make it mandatory.

One could also argue that the social and educational background of the early Zionist settlers (1920s-1950s) made them especially favoring of utopian schemes such as socialism.

In any case, the experiences worldwide of socialist and communist societies is hardly a recommendation for their continuance.

liberty writes:

Pajser - Your reasoning is quite flawed.

Let's assume that Yeltsin had no incentives to falsify the data - so what? I had not assumed that leaders would (though I mentioned as a side-note that managers and Ministers did have such incentives throughout the planned period, but this was not my primary point). That is not at all what I was saying. I am talking about an economy without markets - without relatively free exchange - having no free prices, no prices that can convey useful information about supply and demand.

Without prices that carry such information, there is not only waste because costs cannot be determined for any given investment or purchase and no information about demand to help determine what to invest in and which are the appropriate inputs (materials) with which to produce products - nor what products should be produced in the first place - but given this lack of useful prices one cannot accurately measure a basket of goods over time to determine inflation or GDP. Without knowing whether the economy is producing anything that people actually want, or producing it effectively or efficiently, it is essentially impossible to measure economic growth or output.

Now, when the transition to markets began in earnest, useful prices did start to emerge - however, many prices were still being centrally controlled, which in turn affected even the free prices (think of how bubbles are created when governments sets prices or subsiidizes housing, energy, or healthcare - but imagine it happening all over the economy. Transitions to market from plan often bring with them nominal inflation: the freeing of prices allows them to rise, and many will have been frozen at unsustainable (without state support) low levels. It is only "nominal" inflation because in fact real prices would have been higher if one counts taxes paid to support the producers or low real wages - for example - and the actual level of prices and their change, just like the real GDP is very hard to determine. The products themselves may be of a higher quality once prices are freed, again confusing the measurement of real prices over time...

liberty writes:

Oh, and there is certainly no reason to assume that the economy was some x% better before transition because transition "had its cost" (and no benefit?!)

Again, it is simply not possible to take measurements of price or output change in an economy where one cannot assume that the prices there are have any connection to supply or demand.

Marek writes:

In calculating the cost of communism we should take into account one simple fact that everything there was simply ugly. Almost no choice of poorly packaged consumer goods. Because of that West was perceived as The Paradise on the earth.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top