Sunday, December 30, 2018

Are all communists bad?

I've had an interesting conversation repeated a few times lately.  It's on the question of whether "socialist" is a designation, like "fascist," which is automatically negative, and which should lead us to condemn any person who self-identifies this way.  "Communist," of course, gets an even stronger reaction.

Internet communists can be a funny bunch; they enjoy throwing around Soviet symbology, I guess mainly to shock people.  And I haven't noticed much economic literacy among them, even compared to me -- and I'm no whiz at it myself.

But they don't strike me as evil people.  They don't actually want to eat the rich.  They want to redistribute property.  It can be a bit utopian; they imagine it will be easier than it is.  And I bristle when they say things like "we can't expect a solution from the system, we need a revolution!"  No.  I'm steadfastly anti-revolution.  People imagine it will be a shortcut to drastic change, but really revolutionary change takes time and there is no shortcut.  A revolution usually results in massive loss of life, but the actual change is always much smaller than you'd think.  The French revolution, for instance, was short-lived and ended in another monarchy.

Though my real beef with communism is that it doesn't work -- in no case has it ever actually succeeded, except when it becomes less purely communistic, as China has in recent years.  There are two reasons for this, and I can't say which is more important: first, there are massive coordination problems with distributing necessary goods to a nation, and cash is a really easy way to solve these.  It's imperfect, but "one guy in an office figures out what shoes everybody gets" is even worse.  The second reason is that no communist nation was actually democratic, no matter how much they claimed they were.  This is probably a function of them having been produced by revolution instead of actually the will of the people.  Totalitarianism is horrible and we all know it's horrible, so it should be utterly unsurprising that communist nations which were also totalitarian were horrible.  Fascism and communism seem very similar, not because fascism is really socialist (it's not) but because they're both totalitarian.

Now I'm always the first to say that ignorance is a very serious problem.  If dumb communist kids actually got the government they think they want, it would probably turn out badly, so I would oppose that.  Yet I still do have a different moral feeling toward an ignorant communist than I do toward a neofascist, because the communist is (perhaps very ineffectively) advocating for an end to poverty, while the neofascist is advocating for an end to Jews.  I can look at the (totally imaginary) end states that each hopes for, and can say that I admire the utopia of the communist (which would never happen) more than I do the utopia of the fascist (which, no matter what grounds it was based on, would almost certainly involve depriving some people of human rights even if it worked as planned).

The next objection to communism is that it discounts property rights.  The libertarian says taxation is theft; the communist says property is theft.  The reason for the totally different deontological statements is that nobody really knows what sort of property rights are natural, or how you get them.  Does everyone have an equal right to the goods of the earth?  Or do we earn a greater or lesser share depending on how hard we worked or what we got from our parents?  As I have become more and more of a consequentialist over the years, I've concluded that property rights only exist in the service of human life, liberty, and happiness.  So we should have what property rights help people to flourish, whatever those are.  If it means that some billionaires lose a lot of their property, I don't really care provided it actually serves the good of everyone.  Meanwhile if property distribution isn't completely equal, but that's the best way to make sure everyone has the necessities of life, I'm fine with that also.  The question between capitalism and socialism, for me, is not a moral one, it is a factual one, a practical question of what works best.

Now advocates of capitalism will point to their successes and communism's failures.  They will mention the people that capitalism has pulled out of poverty, and the famines that devastated the Soviet Union and North Korea -- human-created famines which amount to genocide.

But one may also point of the death toll of capitalism.  Isn't every person who starved to death in a non-communist nation a casualty of capitalism?  After all, the food, today at least, is available.  Capitalism boasts of the ability to distribute goods more efficiently that communism, but it too sometimes fails.  More specifically, I might mention horrible disasters that can be laid at capitalism's door:'
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
The Bangladesh garment factory fire
The Irish potato famine -- did you know that during the famine Ireland was exporting food?  The Irish just couldn't afford to buy it.
The Opium Wars in China -- honestly, the British East India Company could get its own whole list; China wasn't the only country it ravaged for money.
Belgium's rape of the Congo
Child slavery in chocolate plantations
And I could go on and on.  Water pumped out of aquifers to bottle for profit, while local villagers' wells all go dry.  Farmers evicted from their land so the government could hand it to a multinational corporation.  Terrible conditions in rubber plantations.  Terrible conditions in sweatshops.  Most countries are capitalist and in all of these, there is poverty, death from inadequate healthcare, death from unsafe workplaces, and so on.

But! You might add.  That's not real capitalism, that's crony capitalism.  To which I would say, exactly.  Pure economic systems exist only in the mind.  Advocates can always imagine it could be done more perfectly.  In reality, we should acknowledge the common failure modes exist because it is easy to fall into them.

So what would I advocate?  Some kind of balance, probably.  I have abandoned the idealism that once convinced me everything could regulate itself if only it were allowed to.  You want Oliver Twist?  Because that's how you get Oliver Twist.  Some regulation is going to be necessary, even while it's clear we haven't done enough to separate the regulatory bodies from the industries themselves.  We don't need a revolution on that, we need some tweaks.

When I hear someone say, seriously, that they would like to tweak things in a more socialist direction . . . I'm really fine with it.  There's a lot more socialist things could be before it got anywhere close to wiping out private industry.  Say, a guaranteed minimum income.  Or universal healthcare.  That stuff could be good, possibly, if done very carefully.  Certainly seems as likely to work out well as the opposite.  Now I doubt these people are going to get what they want, either, but they'll try and if they manage a few baby steps, I'd be cautiously hopeful.

And as for communists?  I think it's great that they have made the moral judgments that property rights exist to serve people and that equality is good.  I would agree with them on that; I think this is a moral and compassionate stance.  But I also think that they need to seriously study history and economics to try to find ways to change our current society more in the direction of their dream.  Waving red banners and sharing Soviet memes (which are very offensive to Holodomor survivors, by the way) aren't going to help them get there.


Anonymous said...

It's simply untrue to say that "communism" doesn't work. The one place that had the most communism worked the best. That was the Soviet Union which put the first satellite in space, the first dog in space, the first man in space, and the first and only station in space. They built the world's first ICBM something Iran and North Korea are *trying* to do some 60 years later. They ended the drought/flooding situation on the Dnieper river by building one of the largest hydroelectric dams in history. And I'm sure it is well-known how they almost eliminated infant mortality, raised the average lifespan by some 30 years and took a country that had been an illiterate backwater to a nation teeming with scientists, engineers and doctors. Ultimately, the Soviet Union was brought down by Gorbachev who had been a thief in his youth and became fabulously wealthy when he sold out his country to the Western Plutocracy but fundamentally,all of what I just wrote about the Soviet Union are *facts* that simply can't be disputed.

Sheila said...

But then there is the Holodomor. And the Gulag. I just can't see any system as a success with a death toll like that.

Now I will admit there have been smaller communes that have worked very well. It helps that they did not start with a revolution and carefully avoided totalitarianism. But not the Soviet Union. From a human rights perspective, it sucked.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 6:32 pm, did you actually live in a communist country or are you just repeating what you read about the communism somewhere? I have actually lived “behind the iron curtain”, experienced the consequences myself and can tell you that “communism” doesn’t work. I am glad the regime toppled in multiple countries. Do you really think that all those people in prisons who were there for simply being religious or people who could not buy basic things (like toilet paper or bread) in the stores because there was always a shortage of something, cared about some satellite in space? And please don’t get me started on free healthcare for all. I will take the current US healthcare system over it every single time. Yes, everyone was equal, but some people were just a little more equal (and less expendable) than everyone else.

Calls for a communist/socialist system from people in the western countries who cannot fathom the consequences of what they wish for are completely misguided, naive, and ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

No I didn't live "behind the iron curtain" but have you lived in the hyper-capitalist countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras where goverment spending/taxation is so low it would make a teabagger blush? You know, those are the countries where the people in the "caravans" are coming from.

Have you lived in some of the hyper-capitalist countries in Africa where kids as young as 8 years old spend entire days mining cobalt? Search youtube for child labor cobalt africa to see the horror for yourself.

And it must be nice to say that you'd prefer the US healthcare system.I'm guessing you have insurance and are not worried about literally dying because you have to ration your insulin. Yeah that has actually happened.

Nobody is claiming that the Soviet Union was Utopia. What it did was create a much better society for the vast majority of its people than what came before or has come after.

Sheila said...

See, this is why I'm not especially interested in the pure form of either system. I'd like to be able to afford both toilet paper AND insulin -- and there's no reason to assume the same distribution system will work best for both.

Half a million Americans go bankrupt every year because of medical bills. Anybody who thinks this situation can't be improved upon is delusional or hopelessly out of touch. The problems developed over decades, for complicated reasons, and the solution is also going to be complicated. "Just socialize it/just privatize everything" are both simplistic and will not work.

Meanwhile if we honestly want to compare socialism and capitalism, we should stop digging up horror stories and look at the best examples of each. We will find, of course, that the countries with a high standard of living are never the most extreme examples of either. We have capitalist countries with some regulation (like the US) and socialist countries with plenty of private industry (like Finland, say). Also, all these countries are democratic. Bringing in totalitarian regimes will always mess up your results because they are horrible places regardless of their economic structure.

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