Bryan Caplan  

The "Real X" Defense

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Consider these two couplets:

Couplet #1: "Socialism has failed."  "No, real socialism has never existed."

Couplet #2: "Libertarianism has failed." "No, real libertarianism has never existed."

In both cases, the point of the first clause is to discredit an economic system. 

In both cases, the point of the second clause is to shield an idea.

And in both cases, the shielding comes at a high intellectual cost: You escape blame for real-world failures, but also lose credit for real-world successes.

Strategically, then, you'd expect advocates of views with few successes and many failures to adore the "real X" defense.  Advocates of views with ample successes and few failures, in contrast, will use it more reluctantly.  This expectation holds up: Though both groups have been known to invoke the "real X" defense, socialists are far more likely to deny the relevance of actually-existing socialism than libertarians are to deny the relevance of actually-existing capitalism.

But the fact that an argument is strategically useful (or harmful) for an intellectual movement doesn't speak to its truth.  Maybe socialists are wrong to evade blame for their system's failures.  Maybe libertarians are wrong to claim credit for "their" system's successes.  How would you know?

One approach is to drop binary thinking - "real" or "not real" - and classify actually-existing economic systems on a continuum.  Set pure socialism - full government ownership of the means of production - equal to 0, and anarcho-capitalism - full private ownership of the means of production - equal to 1.  Countries below .2 are at least approximately real socialism; countries above .8 are at least approximately real libertarianism.

Ideally, you could just outsource this to e.g. Fraser's Economic Freedom rankings.  But there are two problems.  First, extreme socialist regimes like North Korea and Cuba don't even get ranked, presumably due to lack of trustworthy official data.  Second, the rankings are top-coded.  Hong Kong gets the high score - 9.03 out of 10, but it's a far cry from minarchism, much less anarcho-capitalism. 

In any case, believers in the "real X" defense would probably just dispute the methodology.  Suppose Fraser gave North Korea a 0.1, and Hong Kong a 6.0.  Libertarians would eagerly conclude, "Socialism has been tried; libertarianism hasn't."  But who else would concur?

The better approach, in my view, is historical.  To ascertain whether "real X" ever existed, you have to find self-conscious believers in X who were, at some point, a powerless fringe movement.  Why a fringe movement?  Because it demonstrates that they weren't significantly compromising their ideals to gain power.  Next, you have to find the subset of such movements that subsequently ruled a country.  Then, you have to find the subset of such movements that were so politically dominant during their reign that they had little need to compromise with any other viewpoint.  Finally, you have to find the subset of the subset of such movements that retained extreme political dominance for many years - enough time to actually implement their ideals.

By these historical standards, real socialism has happened dozens of times.  Look at Lenin's Bolsheviks.  Before World War I, they were a powerless band of socialist fanatics.  Fellow socialists often loathed them, but for their dogmatism and cruelty, not lack of commitment to socialism.  Then, a perfect storm gave the Bolsheviks absolute power over Russia - power that lasted over 70 years.  The origin stories of the other triumphant Marxist-Leninist movements fit the same mold, though the socialists of the Soviet satellite states did have to compromise with the socialists of the Soviet Union proper.

And by these standards, I'm sorry to say, real libertarianism has never happened.  Yes, plenty of libertarian groups manage to become self-conscious fringe movements.  But none of these movements were ever more than junior partners in a broader political coalition.  Reagan and Thatcher gave a few libertarians a place at the table of power, but they were hardly libertarians themselves.  You could point to the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution, but they included plenty of mercantilists and slavers.  Even post-Communist Georgia doesn't qualify

The lesson: Socialists own the disasters of actually-existed socialism - and we should never let them forget it.  Libertarians, however, do not own the successes of actually-existing capitalism.  We were there on the sidelines, desperately trying to nudge the world in a freer direction.  But it's pragmatists that pulled the strings that made the modern world possible.




COMMENTS (19 to date)
Kailer writes:

Interesting discussion. I wonder what a libertarian dictatorship would look like and why it hasn't been tried. Suppose some libertarian zealot found herself elected and then contrived some sort of a constitutional crisis to establish herself as a dictator and enact social change free of democratic constraints. What sort of changes would she make? I don't know much about Pinochet's Chile, but from what little I've read it seems people sometimes frame his regime along these lines.

blacktrance writes:

There's something to your suggestion, but it's too uncharitable. If someone has a coherent reason for rejecting a real-world system as "not real X", we shouldn't tar them with the historical failures unless we can explain why their preferred system is likely to fail similarly, or limit arguments from experiences to those aspects of Real X that are similar to those of the real-world system. If a socialist/libertarian disavows Stalin/Pinochet, they shouldn't have to defend him.

MikeP writes:

I wonder what a libertarian dictatorship would look like and why it hasn't been tried.

Postwar Hong Kong may be a close qualifier for a libertarian dictatorship. Dictatorship because it was a colony. Libertarian because the colonial government was intentionally laissez faire.

Fazal Majid writes:

This is also known as the "no true Scotsman" defense.

It is much-beloved of Trotskyists, who claim the Soviet Union was actually state capitalism, not true socialism, and refuse to accept any blame for its many failures, not least the genocides their founder helped perpetrate.

At some point, Libertarians will have to face the possibility it is simply antithetical to human nature, just as Socialism assumes too much of it. People's revealed preferences are they'd rather forfeit some of their own freedom to keep the ability to tell others what to do.

Thaomas writes:

There have been a few socialist experiments: Cuba, North Korea, Soviet Union, but these are so few compared to the things that have been called socialism (ACA, for an example) that it's almost true that no true Socialism has ever existed. :)

Thaomas writes:

As for nudging, I wish Libertarians would join with Liberals (or neo-Liberals) in nudging: progressive consumption taxes for income and wage taxes, carbon taxes for CO2-reducing regulations and mandates, much higher levels of immigration (even though you prefer no restrictions), EITC for minimum wage increases.

Andrew_FL writes:
extreme socialist regimes like North Korea and Cuba don't even get ranked

Heritage/WSJ ranks North Korea and Cuba. North Korea is, as one might expect, the least economically free country on Earth, followed by Venezuela, and Cuba.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Kailer-

I don't know much about Pinochet's Chile, but from what little I've read it seems people sometimes frame his regime along these lines.

While the economy of Chile was significantly liberalized under Pinochet (from a Fraser score of 3.42 in 1975 to 6.75 in 1990, his last year in power) it was still distant from being even "pure capitalism" by the standards of Fraser, which is not strict Anarcho-Capitalism or even Minarchism, as Bryan pointed out. And he was far from being a personal libertarian, more an ardent anti-communist.

That being said the liberalization under Pinochet and continuing till 2007 played a significant role in improving Chile's economy.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

The problem with your subset of a subset of a subset approach is that the final set only contains a few data points. Hardly enough to have much certainty about the results one way or another. A better way might be to weight the instances more heavily in the final subset, but without excluding the other datapoints entirely.

IMO, this makes libertarianish states look good relative to socialistish states, and with a fair degree of certainty at that.

Keith K. writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Brian Donohue writes:

I thought the Lochner decision (1905) was an exclamation point at the end of a fairly long run of libertarianism in the USA. Also, the UK for much of the 19th century.

Woodrow McClure writes:

Couldn't there be an argument for the Liberal government of Gladstone as at least a classical liberal government. I know it wasn't great and there was empire to maintain and so forth, but at least in regards to freedom of the individual British citizen and its relation to a successful society seems to hold up. I know they would rank well below the 0.80 of the score proposed, but maybe the direction of a country is enough to indicate that a direction toward the 0.80 relates to people being better off and more free. I think there is an argument with that even if there has never been a 0.80 or better group (hesitate to call it a state because that seems to be against the central idea of 1.00).

Thomas B writes:

Au contraire.

You claim that libertarianism has never been tried, but what you mean is that something more like anarchism has never been tried. Libertarianism is a philosophy of increasing liberty where possible, and it has a tremendous track record of successes.

Hong Kong is, of course, the classic example of economic libertarianism. Didn't do too badly. Singapore is arguably another, although its civil rights track record is not so libertarian.

And, we've seen degrees of socialism, too - and the track record shows that the more socialism you have, beyond a small amount, the more poorly your society does, and the more quickly it becomes poor.

Finally, anarchism has been tried. Everywhere, at one time or another. It's not stable.

Woodrow McClure writes:

@Thomas B

That is a much better way of putting the point I was trying to make. In my post. Although, I have a mild disagreement on your last point. A lot of places have experienced competition between authorities and a lack of a stable ruling system, but anarchy I am not sure. If you look at the United States. The only periods you could point to were the first colonies. They were oragnized without someone to report in a real sense. other than this period, you have essentially have a form of central authority present in the area. South American holdings are a much worse example as the men on those ships were clearly the personification of a Spanish authority. Even in rebellions and civil wars they are between two competing central authorities (English civil war, American civil war, etc). To me the deficit of anarchism, is and has always been, how to prevent an authority from stealing the property of those practicing anarchy. This is not to detract from the rest of your argument which I find compelling or to give cover for anarchism (as the flaw is not necessarily the system doesn't work internally, it is that it doesn't protect itself from invasion).

Sorry for the poor formatting, I am on my mobile.

Dangerman writes:

The "no true Scotsman" is just a rhetorical trick, and is almost always a very good indication that the person using it isn't worth talking to.

But if one must respond, one easy way to do so (I've found) is to focus on *self-identification*.

"How many countries *that explicitly call themselves* Socialist have failed?"

All of them.

"How many countries *that explicitly call themselves* Libertarian have failed?"

None.

Gabriel writes:

Great points. That said, one doesn't need to look for black and white extremes to identify correlation: comparing various economic environments on a continuum between most and least economically free and seeing if there's a correlation to various measures of well-being works just as well (if not better, since extremes/outliers are easier to dismiss on technicalities than broader general trends).

In that vein, this quick comparison between US states I wrote a couple years ago explores some of those relationships: https://mises.org/library/vote-your-feet-free-states-are-happier-and-richer

As the conclusion states: "The reality on the ground is that states with more libertarian free market policies enjoy better results: greater median incomes, a more equitable distribution, less poverty, greater success for minorities and immigrants, and higher overall levels of happiness and well-being. In the political rhetoric landscape the battle of ideology is fierce and filled with demagoguery; in the real world the difference in results between competing economic policies are strikingly clear."

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Set pure socialism - full government ownership of the means of production"

A problem is that none self-proclaimed socialist defines socialism in that way. Even statist socialists, like Lenin and Trotsky, said that socialism is state ownership + the power of the working class, via the soviets (after the revolution, Lenin even said that both Russia and Germany had half of the socialism - Russia had the power of soviets but not - yet - state ownership, and Germany had state direction of the economy but not the power of the soviets).

"Look at Lenin's Bolsheviks. Before World War I, they were a powerless band of socialist fanatics. Fellow socialists often loathed them, but for their dogmatism and cruelty, not lack of commitment to socialism."

Note that a criticism that Trotsky (in his anti-Leninist times) made to the Bolsheviks was that the Bolshevik organizational model (the ventralized and hyper-disciplined party) was a replica of the hierarchy of the capitalist corporation and will end in a dictatorship of the general-secretary of the party instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat (see Our Political Tasks, 1904). This could count as "loathed them" for "lack of commitment to socialism"?

"And by these standards, I'm sorry to say, real libertarianism has never happened. Yes, plenty of libertarian groups manage to become self-conscious fringe movements. But none of these movements were ever more than junior partners in a broader political coalition."

"Libertarian" is not simply American English for what in the rest of the world is called "liberal"? Liberalism, in its several variants, was the dominant political movement in West-of-Rhine Europe in 19th century.

Miguel Madeira writes:

«Couplet #1: "Socialism has failed." "No, real socialism has never existed."»

Btw, I wonder if this is not simply two different ways of saying almost exactly the same thing (that regimes calling themselves "socialists" did not worked like, according to the socialist books, they are supposed to work), but with a different spin.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Fazal Majid: "It is much-beloved of Trotskyists, who claim the Soviet Union was actually state capitalism, not true socialism"

A small detail - orthodox Trotskyist claim that the Soviet Union was a "deformed workers' state", not "state capitalism" (the "state capitalism" thing is a mark of some dissident Trotskyists, like the British SWP and the American ISO).

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