The Nature of the Beast

by Don Boudreaux on September 21, 2011

in Hubris and humility, Man of System, Myths and Fallacies, Reality Is Not Optional

Wall Street Journal letter writer Jules Bernstein notes approvingly today that

Unlike many on the left, instead of abandoning socialism once he discovered the full horror of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union, Orwell abandoned the Soviet Union and instead remained a socialist.

I’m no expert on Orwell, so I assume that Bernstein is correct.  If so, Orwell should have known better.

Socialism (especially as understood in Orwell’s day) is central economic planning.  Everyone must conform to the plan.  Individual disagreements with the plan – as well as individual creativity and initiative – are repressed, for these invariably upset the plan.

And with freedom of choice and action necessarily all but obliterated, freedom of thought will practically not be tolerated.

Despite his brilliance, Orwell apparently exhibited an infantile naiveté by failing to see that any government truly committed to central planning is inevitably a government exceedingly impressed with its imagined transcendent powers and sacred assignment.

Is it surprising when such a government brutalizes any and all who stand in its way?

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{ 109 comments }

ArrowSmith September 21, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Yes unfortunately socialists to this day believe that you can have come central planning utopia without murdering millions.

Methinks1776 September 21, 2011 at 1:17 pm

I think Soviet Russia proved that a Socialist Utopia is impossible even if you murder millions.

Don Boudreaux September 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I think I first heard it from Larry Reed, who asked about Stalinist Russia: “Even if it’s true that you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, where’s the omelette?” Lots of broken eggs, brutally smashed. That’s all. How glorious.

Methinks1776 September 21, 2011 at 1:50 pm
EG September 21, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Putin omelets. That picture, unfortunately was taken this year (or last).

Ultimately that is not how the mind of a communist /socialist works. They are ideological zealots, so evidence, reality or results don’t enter into their equation.

They will invent the omelet in their minds. You don’t see it, but they do. Orwell was an ideologue.

Methinks1776 September 21, 2011 at 6:15 pm

EG,

In Russia, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Methinks1776 September 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Or, as Russians say: “We hoped for the best and we got the usual.”

Chucklehead September 21, 2011 at 8:37 pm

In America, you shoot cannon. In Soviet Russia, cannon shoot YOU!

Chucklehead September 21, 2011 at 8:56 pm

At George Mason, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, The Party can always find YOU!

Frank33328 September 21, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Socialism creates a perfect society…..if only you could find the right person to lead. Or so it’s lamented by the faithful. Past socialist leaders, they claim, have been motivated by the utopian ideal but flawed in their implementation. If only we could find that right (perfect) person, then all would be demonstrated to be the promised greatness socialism.

Even if true, a system so difficult to manage that it can only be managed by perfect people is completely impractical.

ArrowSmith September 21, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Don’t forget everyone has to be on board with the utopia. Those who aren’t will be shown to the “relocation center” for disposal.

Darren September 21, 2011 at 5:29 pm

The problem is even if you find the right person to lead, that person will eventually be replaced by someone else who, in all probablity, will NOT be the ‘right person’.

Mikenshmirtz September 21, 2011 at 7:51 pm

“Socialism creates a perfect society…..if only you could find the right person to lead.”

You mean the one that isn’t hampered by the characteristics of being human?

“Past socialist leaders, they claim, have been motivated by the utopian ideal but flawed in their implementation.”

Humans have flaws??!!

“…a system so difficult to manage that it can only be managed by perfect people is completely impractical.”

I don’t think practicality has much to do with it when you’re still struggling with the concept of reality.

brotio September 21, 2011 at 10:51 pm

We had that right person, but he up and died on us, the sonofabitch! St Franklin of Roosevelt was a Righteous Ruler. The only eggs he wanted to break were Japanese-Americans who were shoved into concentration camps, and those poor, starving slobs who wanted a pork roast. Oh well, no one’s perfect…

SLAVE of THE STATE September 21, 2011 at 1:14 pm

I don’t know. But let me jump off: Fabian socialism was the method in England, where Orwell resided. That is a gradualist approach. It isn’t the violent revolution and following total tryanny. Perhaps Orwell distinguished, because, well, they are distinguished.

Don Boudreaux September 21, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Great Britain – especially in the years immediately after WWII – nationalised several industries, gave labor unions lots of power, instituted a welfare state, and like all western governments regulated and taxed in willy-nilly fashion designed to show that it “cared” while simultaneously shifting wealth into the pockets of politically boisterous and influential interest groups.

Westminster never did, thank goodness, attempt actually to centrally plan the British economy in the wholesale way that socialists of the day pined for.

Harold Cockerill September 22, 2011 at 7:33 pm

I think this is worse. Being a real central planner brings on a bad outcome that normal people have a chance to reject. The Brits have been at it so long they’ve changed the character of a large percentage of their population. I think I read that over three hundred thousand households in Britain were made up of people who had never had a job. How do you fix that? People need to know you have to work to eat. Forgetting that leads to really bad stuff.

kyle8 September 21, 2011 at 4:32 pm

The blueprint for the Fabians can be found in H G Wells’ “Men like Gods”, a science fiction work from the early 1920′s.

These people, for all their learning and obvious intelligence really did have some monumentally stupid ideas. They really did believe that the right political and economic system would actually change human nature and make men better, more moral, and better.

kyle8 September 21, 2011 at 4:32 pm

sorry, I am repeating myself.

Darren September 21, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Perhaps if you could take a generation and train them from birth without the influence of general society, you might attain a nation of moral and superior citizens. However, the temptations to abuse this kind of power would be incredibly difficult to resist.

kyle8 September 21, 2011 at 7:42 pm

i doubt that it could work even for that trained generation because socialism goes against human nature. The early socialists understood this which is why they put such stock in changing human nature.

Crawdad September 21, 2011 at 10:39 pm

“Sooner or later, they’ll come back around to the idea that they can make people . . .better. And I do not hold to that. So I aim to misbehave.” – Malcolm Reynolds

Probably more a paraphrase but that’s how I remembered it.

Ken September 22, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Shiny. Let’s be bad guys. :-)

Out of context, but fitting none the less.

Fred September 21, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Einstein was a socialist.

Just goes to show that expertise in physics doesn’t translate into expertise in economics.

vikingvista September 23, 2011 at 2:51 am

And who knows, maybe CERN’s neutrinos did exceed the speed of light? Perhaps his expertise even in physics has been exaggerated.

http://tinyurl.com/3g5xjxg

Troy Camplin September 21, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Could be worse. Sartre defended Stalin. He broke off his friendship with Camus over it. Camus, though, also remained a man of the left — so, go figure.

I wrote a play about it: The Existentialists.

JS September 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Existentialism encompasses the awareness that ideologies are merely justifications for a given ‘distribution’ of power, as a goal to improve and at minimum to maintain one’s position in society. It’s very difficult for people to face each other and promote political and ethical structures as being good for “themselves”. Ideology serves the purpose of allowing the person to claim that the structures are good for ‘society’, thus disguising the underlying selfishness that is our human nature.

For that reason, I could never consider Sarte or Camus as true Existentialists. They never rose above petty ideology. Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, yes, Sarte and Camus, no.

Scott September 22, 2011 at 7:58 am

I thought Dostoevsky got into a famous battle with Tolstoy over ideology?

Troy Camplin September 22, 2011 at 9:11 am

The problem is that only Sartre identified himself as an Existentialist. Nietzsche and Dostoevsky — who I agree did rise above petty ideology — were not Existentialists. They are considered pre-Existentialists at best. Those identified as being Existentialists — Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus (I would include Ayn Rand, because of, among other reasons, her statement that “existence exists”) — were all strong political ideologues. I will note that all of these people believed in constructivist rationality, too, which explains their propensity for central planning (the one I include excluded) and cults of personality.

JS September 22, 2011 at 3:55 pm

The moderns invented the term, but they didn’t live up to it, while the pre-existentialists did.

From a nuanced philosophical perspective, I would argue with that there is no such distinction between between what Hayek described as constructivist and spontaneous rationality. Custom plays a role in every society, some more than in others, but to make the assumption that central planning is of a constructivist rationality is a fallacy. For anyone interested in ‘spontaneous despotism’, read “Oriental Despotism” by Karl Wittfogal (sp).

But for sure, a Randian society is not consistent with spontaneous rationalism. Her ideal is not based upon a true human nature and thus couldn’t evolve spontaneously unless certain circumstances existed in the society. If it ever did, it certainly wouldn’t be in our lifetimes.

Her, as well as Aristotle, confused our nature with what they thought should be our ethics. Egoism, to Aristotle, was an ethical end. Rand accepted that, and built her ideal society upon an ethic. Their mistake was not to see egoism as our complete nature already. We are entirely egotistical and so it makes no sense to think in terms that we have a choice about it.

Nietzsche understood our nature. He also understood that no ideologies were fully consistent with human nature, whether they be of egalitarian, libertarian, or the totalitarian variety. Each would find expression in every society because of our innate egoism.

JS September 22, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Jeremy Bentham tried to Construct, through positive legislation, a political economy of the Randian variety. It had it’s zenith and then fell out of the sky. The point being that a libertarian society would have to be centrally planned too. The laws that would uphold it would have to ‘designed’ or ‘constructed’ by enlightened individuals. The customs and institutions that regulate and supress the full flowering of capitalism would have to be done away with. This contradicts the idea of a spontaneous rationality.

brotio September 21, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Where can I find that play?

Troy Camplin September 22, 2011 at 9:12 am

The best I can do, short of publishing it online, is to direct you to this:

http://zatavu.blogspot.com/2008/01/synopsis-of-existentialists.html

Bret September 21, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Orwell died in his 40s and perhaps still considered himself a “democratic socialist” but his views certainly had evolved over the years and not towards socialism. At death, I’m pretty certain he didn’t considered himself a socialist by its typical definition “as understood in Orwell’s day” as he was staunchly anti-communist.

Don Boudreaux September 21, 2011 at 1:45 pm

The question is “Did Orwell continue to believe in central planning of the economy?” – or, perhaps, “Did Orwell continue to believe in substantial conscious control of the economy by the state?” If yes, then he remained a socialist – he remained committed to the system that Hayek warned paved a road to serfdom.

Now I don’t know enough about Orwell to know what the answer to the above questions are. But merely opposing “communism” because that’s what Stalinism was also called doesn’t suffice to save a genuine socialist from the charge of naively supporting an economic system that would inevitably be more like Russia under Stalin than like Britain under Attlee.

BCM September 21, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Well said. And, might I add, this entire post is quite fascinating. Orwell’s writing, to my ear, practically screams “Less Government!” so the idea of him as a socialist is almost impossible to fathom.

JS September 21, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Orwell backed away from top down communism and public ownership of the means of production, but not from what we think of as a welfare statist. Democratic socialism is essentially what exists today in Western Civilization–here and Europe.

The main characteristic of democratic socialism is that people have the power, through democracy, to decide how much wealth to re-distribute. Institutions such as our Constitution have been amended and/or interpreted in such a way as to make property, and especially income, far less ‘inviolable’ and less unalienable as a ‘right’. Further, democracy allows for legislative regulations regarding economic contracts, and most recently, the over-turning of contracts already in existence such as those executed in the automotive and banking industries that were bailed out. Clearly, what were once trumpeted as natural rights are now subordinated to the will of democratic majorities. Nothing is sacred or unalienable anymore, even free speech, if the masses decide that they don’t value it anymore.

Orwell wanted to limit the range of communism to the will of the people. You can’t say that his ideal was naive since we are living under those conditions today.

Personally, I would equate him with a Chistopher Hitchens, who would reject the dictatorial elements of a socialist state while still desiring a considerable welfare-state based on private property.

kyle8 September 21, 2011 at 4:36 pm

It is a matter of definitions. A democratic socialist, of which I would count our current administration does differ somewhat from a pure socialist as they would not engage in the wholesale nationalization of industries.

However, it must be noted that the Obama Administration has nationalized half of the Automobile industry, all of the health insurance industry and part of the financial industry in just three years.

JS September 21, 2011 at 6:04 pm

The distinction between the two is relative. Democratic socialism allows for the existence of private property and its exchange while preferring to tax and redistribute it wherever votes are to be had. They have a popular mandate for that–which is what the word “democratic” placed in front of socialism means.

Now, if the public demands the regulation of industry, the government executes it; if the public demanded the nationalization of industries, the government would execute it. Thus, we could have government nationalizations under the banner of democratic socialism.

Rarely does the public prefer outright socialism–gov’t ownership of the means of production, so it can only occur in a military dictatorship, such as where it exists today in Cuba, N. Korea, etc.

There is little demand for pure socialism in the western democracies, but the demand for democratic socialism exceeds the demand for free markets.

Bret September 21, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Didn’t Don’s co-blogger have an econ talk with Christopher Hitchens about his biography of Orwell? Don can just ask Russ about Orwell’s beliefs about socialism.

Scott September 22, 2011 at 8:01 am

I always see him as someone who worried about imperialism and colonialism which seem to me the great hypocrisy in the capitalist countries at the turn of the century. His review of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is very interesting.

djd September 21, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Near the end of his life, Orwell was beginning to figure it out. He wrote a surprisingly favorable review of The Road to Serfdom. He wrote: “Shortly, Professor Hayek’s thesis is that Socialism inevitably leads to despotism. … By bringing the whole of life under the control of the State, Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stick at nothing in order to retain it. … The only salvation lies in returning to an unplanned economy, free competition, and emphasis on liberty rather than on security. In the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often—at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough—that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.”

Rick Hull September 21, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Fantastic quote, djd. Do you have a citation?

Bret September 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Why Orwell Matters, pg. 82.

pwn7s September 21, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I think this quote shows best that Orwell was no champion for big government, even if he did align himself with socialism. Russ has an EconTalk episode devoted entirely to Orwell, although it’s been a while since I listened to it. If I remember the guest’s views correctly, the major European philosophical battle of the time was between Socialism and Fascism being the best way to govern. As society was very different from today, it is more important to remember that his fight against big government greatly helped the free-market cause, even if his own ideology wasn’t perfect.

kyle8 September 21, 2011 at 4:38 pm

I remember reading of a type of socialist/anarchist which used to exist. I don’t see how one can be a socialist and also embrace small government but apparently it is possible.

Ken September 21, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Like populism, it is an inchoate (incoherent?) philosophy, born of the best of intentions, often coupled with surprisingly incisive identification of the problem(s) their prescriptions seek to address. Karl Denninger is a populist of that type. Bright guy, entertaining writer, usually dead on about the problems, but the solutions always run to protectionism, fractional reserve banking with a 10% “and we really mean it this time” reserve requirement (because if the right people enforce it, all will be well!), and the like.

vikingvista September 23, 2011 at 3:01 am

Anarchosyndicalists and anarchocommunists claim to reject hierarchy of all kinds, coercive as well as what you and I would call “voluntary”. They claim to be Marxists without a state, with collective decision making directly through popular private-property-free democracy, or the interactions of trade unions.

It’s all an impossible intellectual exercise to separate tyranny and collectivism. For as Orwell said (ht:DJD):

“collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.”

JS September 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm

I love that line….near the end of his life…orwell was beginning to figure it out.

With all do respect to Hayek, we have not slid down the slippery slope to despotism. By despotism, it is meant that there becomes a disconnect between the people and the power over them–such as in Venezuela. The statism that we have here in America has been democratically welcomed with huge fanfare. No one is powerful enough to remain in office against the will of the people.

Many libertarians think that just because they feel enslaved, everybody is enslaved, but the reality speaks for itself. It says that many people prefer to sacrifice their liberty for what they think is some security, or as a way to avoid the uncertainty of competition.

Hayek miscalculated how much wealth would still be created under a regulated and heavily taxed economy–as long as its markets were still allowed to function. I think “The Road to Stagnation” might have been a better title, but based upon when he wrote it, he must be forgiven.

Anotherphil September 22, 2011 at 9:04 am

By despotism, it is meant that there becomes a disconnect between the people and the power over them–

Try reading the Code of Federal regulations (on any matter).

JS September 22, 2011 at 4:35 pm

I understand your point, but the masses think otherwise by their voting history. If you were right, libertarians would be in office.

I’ll sympathize with you, but when you’re out and about, take a close look at everybody. This is what we get.

Ken September 22, 2011 at 12:45 pm

That serfdom comes with creature comforts does not make it less a serfdom.

If, as, and when the creature comforts go away (I keep telling people who think the New Urbanists are offering a good deal), there will still be the enforcers, and what they enforce.

JS September 22, 2011 at 4:43 pm

That is a poetic understanding of serfdom, similar to how the socialists degraded the ‘materialistic freedom’ of the west as being a type of slavery. A popular devise was for them as well as other authoritarians was to define what true ‘happiness’ represented, or true ‘freedom’ as representing “freedom from vice, etc.” The socialists would claim that rich people suffer from spiritual poverty, and then go on to denounce capitalism. No thanks to your line of reasoning.

Serfdom doesn’t come with creature comforts.

Ken September 23, 2011 at 10:36 am

One either has first claim to one’s own life and labor, or one doesn’t. One may be able to maintain, for a while, an equilibrium condition in which the state’s prior claim to one’s life and liberty is small, but it will last only as long as there are more individual rifle muzzles pointing at the state than the state has pointing at individuals. It can’t be made to last over the long run. Eventually one ceases to be a little bit pregnant, and becomes honest-to-goodness pregnant.

The New Urbanists peddle the same thing: “Oh, it’ll be _different_ this time. _Our_ Le Corbu cellblocks will have architectural gingerbread and latte stands!” Until, of course, there’s no more money for maintaining the gingerbread. Then the piper calls the tune: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

g-dub September 23, 2011 at 10:44 am

“It can’t be made to last over the long run.”

That’s what we’ll have to watch with democratic socialism. There are stress fractures in the Euro-zone. Perhaps they are first to test this? I’m no expert, and don’t know what to think. I hear words like “collapse,” but I don’t know exactly what it means.

Stephen Williams September 22, 2011 at 3:01 am

To get an idea of why Orwell thought as he did you have to read his books and essays. In Burma he saw capitalism (what he thought was capitalism anyway) propped up by an imperial force and using its power to take Burmese labour and products without paying a price. After his return to England he lived as a worker in Paris and London and travelled with tramps for a while. Again he saw how these people lived and trust me it wasn’t a very pleasant way to live. He saw wealthy capitalists living like kings while the workers got little more than a substinance wage and the unemployed almost nothing. After that he spent some time in the mining towns in the north of England. Again in these towns he saw the same thing, what he perceived to be wealthy mine owners underpaying their workers and forcing them to work in terrible conditions. Orwell saw what we would call crony capitalism not free individuals trading with each other, he took that as capitalism and decided that socialism had to be better. He knew that it led to despotism but hoped for a benign socialism. He was a decent and honest man and I’m sure that if he had lived he would have become s supporter of capitalism, he always supported freedom.

Chris O'Leary September 21, 2011 at 2:24 pm

So in other words Orwell fell prey to the same delusions that Obama and his ilk have fallen prey to (e.g. the illusion of the power of their own intellects and of their own incorruptibility). So in other words Orwell was a regular human being.

Of course that makes Hayek transcendent because he at least realized his own limitations.

gator80 September 21, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Russ did an excellent podcast with Christopher Hitchens about Hitchens’ book, Why Orwell Matters, on Aug 17, 2009. There is an interesting segment where they discuss Orwell’s review of The Road to Serfdom. Orwell may have had socialist leanings but it seems clear that his abhorrence of totalitarianism in any form would have been a counter balance to his willingness to increase the power of the state.

Jim September 21, 2011 at 3:32 pm

What is fascinating is that anyone can believe that one can have a socialist state and not have totalitarianism. It might just be possible to run a 20 person commune like that. Maybe.

But ALL totalitarian governments come from the Left. All of them. Only in the movies and TV do vicious small government and ‘leave-me-alone’ survivalists come out of the woodwork to build an invasive large government!

ArrowSmith September 21, 2011 at 4:19 pm

There are small communes all over the world. But any attempt to go beyond that ends in war, disease, poverty and murder.

Chucklehead September 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm

“What is fascinating is that anyone can believe that one can have a socialist state and not have totalitarianism.”
I wonder if we can have any state and not slide to totalitarianism?

Methinks1776 September 21, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Me too. I wonder about America in particular. It’s tough for smaller countries in Europe to become totalitarian because it’s tough for a small country to become powerful enough to exert so much influence around the world, making it easier for the hapless inhabitants to escape the government’s relatively small reach.

The United States has become very aggressive toward its own citizens. That aggression increased exponentially with the Patriot Act and then again with the HEART legislation and the new laws controlling accounts abroad.

Ken September 22, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Yeah. I laughed out loud over Elizabeth Warren’s “you don’t have to worry about marauding bands…” codswallop. A lot of marauding bands these days drive around with three-letter acronyms, badges, and official license plates.

muirgeo September 22, 2011 at 4:01 pm

“Yeah. I laughed out loud over Elizabeth Warren’s “you don’t have to worry about marauding bands…”

Yeah … because there is nothing in history or even current events to suggest that was or could ever be a problem. So laugh clown laugh….

Greg Webb September 22, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Yes, George, that’s what people said after the ATF needlessly killed all those people near Waco, Texas.

vikingvista September 23, 2011 at 3:14 am

“I wonder if we can have any state and not slide to totalitarianism?”

The natural incentives of any state organizational structure are toward totalitarianism. It is the sensibilities of the people comprising its agents, and sometimes the resistance of its victims, that restrains it. If the victims become passive enough, and the present agents devoid of self-restraint, the downhill slide is a fast one. Laws, constitutions, government structure and tradition, have almost nothing to do with it, because the authority is already monopolized, and the gun is the only law they really need.

For all the attribution to German militarist culture, it was in fact an educated, civilized, and enlightened population not really any different than today. How fast did their republic deteriorate to totalitarianism? Of course it could happen here.

But it doesn’t have to.

Randy September 23, 2011 at 4:32 am

Re; “the downhill slide is a fast one”.

Agreed. A few years back I read through the Durant’s Story of Civilization. What struck me most was the cyclical nature of it all – that the same natural human disasters just kept happening over, and over, and over again – and yet, every time the disasters seemed to come as a surprise to the populations involved. I see no reason to believe that the USA will be an exception.

g-dub September 23, 2011 at 10:47 am

“But it doesn’t have to.”

I sometimes feel like I am staring down a tidal wave.

Greg Webb September 23, 2011 at 11:08 am

Re: “But it doesn’t have to.”

No, it does not have to. Pushing back the slide to totalitarianism is a constant, never-ending problem.

vikingvista September 23, 2011 at 2:08 pm

g-dub,

Totalitarianism is not inevitable. The violent collapse of the state, on the other hand…

Rick Hull September 21, 2011 at 3:33 pm

“Why Orwell Matters”. Kindled. Thanks!

Ken September 22, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Muirgeo, I laughed because the marauding bands these days have badges, three-letter acronyms, and official license plates on their Glorious Red Banner People’s Autograd Tahoes.

Of course, I would not expect you to understand that on your demonstrated capacity (thanks for being so consistent, though).

Ask Gibson about marauding bands.

Ken September 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

PS — apologies to Rick Hull.

JS September 21, 2011 at 3:09 pm

If one studies the history of socialist defectors from either Stalin or Mao, few, if any, became what could be described as classical liberals such as Hayek and Mises. Men like Whitacre Chambers and George Orwell were famous because they defected, but they were still emotionally attached to socialism as much as they were intellectually ignorant of logical economics.

Similarly, the American neo-conservative movement, while virulently ant-communist, remained sympathetic with welfarist politics, in many cases, even to this day.

Many of the intellectual/religious refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe, such as Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss, had little or no regard for the type of ‘liberalism’ (libertarian ethics) that is advocated by the owners of this site, even though they were against socialism. This is mainly because they were ignorant of economics. In reading some of their works, I’m tempted to use the word ‘laughable’. Or did I just use that word?

People educated in economics never became socialists to begin with, except for Paul Krugman, who’s ambitions are more in line with power and social recognition.

Jim September 21, 2011 at 3:40 pm

You had me until the last paragraph; economics is generally far, far left in its interventionism.

My British nuclear physicist friend likes to argue the merits of socialism. My only response is that the ideological argument is moot; it impoverishes and bankrupts every country where it is attempted. End of theory and story. It is nothing but a masturbatory mind game.

JS September 21, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I distinguish between logical economics and Keynesianism. Only one can be correct, and it is the former. Keynesian economics should be called Fabian Economics, or, if you have a good sense of humor, “Economic Creationism”, with, of course, the government playing the roll of God.

Anyone educated in logical economics, best exemplified by the Austrians, could never be socialist except for ulterior motives. Those educated in Keynesian theory aren’t educated in logical economics.

JS September 21, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Sorry–roll was meant to be role.

Keynesian econonomics was designed to prop up socialism.

Chucklehead September 21, 2011 at 8:51 pm

“Economic Creationism”, with, of course, the government playing the roll of God.”
Nice term. I like it much better than Fabian Economics, as the later may be confused with my friend, Fabian Cancellara.

JS September 21, 2011 at 10:02 pm

I thought of that while watching socialist Bill Mahar make jokes about creationist believing republicans. He also professes atheism before preaching statology.

g-dub September 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Hey, just wanted to say I enjoyed your posts on this thread. That’s all.

g-dub September 22, 2011 at 12:45 pm

“JS” I meant. Although I like the chuckling head and others too, of course!

JS September 22, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Thanks.

GP Hanner September 21, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Jules Bernstein claims he too is a true believer in Socialism. His being an apologist for Orwell is understandable.

wsanman September 21, 2011 at 4:59 pm

I’m glad you brought up this subject, as I’ve been trying to figure out Orwell for a long time. Orwell is one of my favorite writers, and Animal Farm was perhaps THE book most responsible for forming my world view and fear of collectivism (MANY thanks to my 6th grade teacher!).

I too have tried to figure out how an avowed socialist (and a “democratic socialist” is indeed still a socialist) could write not only Animal Farm, but 1984. I’ve heard it said that Orwell understood and feared the brutal totalitarian impulse inherent to collectivism. I too share that fear, but I still can’t understand why he wouldn’t just run in the opposite direction – to liberty and free markets. Like I said, I still don’t get it. People are complicated, and he is certainly one complicated dude.

Ken September 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Perhaps like many in the 20th Century, Mr. Blair once believed the revolution in human nature was not only possible, but just around the corner.

Needless to say, it will not be televised. Because it ain’t coming.

kyle8 September 21, 2011 at 5:37 pm

When asked by students about a list of great books to read. I accidentally wrote Animal House instead of Animal Farm. But come to think of it that was a great story also.

Ken September 24, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Absolutely. We should never forget that it was not, in fact, over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor. :-)

Scott September 22, 2011 at 8:33 am

Look at something like the Bank bailouts. It is that kind of government action that makes people want to move away from capitalism. The idea being that a democracy will not have the will to let such giant institutions fail and therefore we must regulate and control them. If you don’t straw man it, then it is very hard to argue against. Still wrong, but not the toy argument that so often gets torn down.

Methinks1776 September 22, 2011 at 8:51 am

Scott, the banks got so big and fragile in the first place because government regulation protected them from competition, perverted incentives and shifted the risk to taxpayers.

Without government interference, the financial sector couldn’t have gotten into this position. Individual firms could, but even if many firms blew up, they wouldn’t have brought down the whole sector.

For empirical evidence we need only look at hedge funds. Hedge Funds are regulated, but less so and so there are many of them. They blew up left and right in 2008 and 2009 with little effect on the financial sector. It was the most highly regulated segment of the financial sector that took the whole thing down (it’s collapsed – The Fed is just propping up the facades to give the impression all is well).

I think people want to be protected from risk via regulation and as long as they call on government to do so (hoping to get someone else to pay for the insurance) new risk will be shifted by powerful insiders who know how to harness the power of government back to them. In a Democracy, people get what they want and they get it good and hard.

Ken September 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm

This. Methinks1776, collect your Internets in the lobby.

Scott September 22, 2011 at 8:33 pm

I agree on the cause of the banks getting big, but the question I think many socialists posit is whether it is possible to have a free society where the powerful elite don’t rig capitalism to serve them and then yell “FREE MARKET” to any member of the populace who was left out of this little game. I don’t think socialism solves this problem either, and I doubt Orwell really did.
I wish I knew what did, I guess constant vigilance.

Methinks1776 September 22, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Scott,

You’re under the mistaken impression that the populace has no hand in creating the beast.

The populace overwhelmingly supports more regulation in the mistaken belief that regulation protects them. However, that regulation ultimately worsens the very outcomes the populace seeks to be protected from and adds new risks. When regulations cause more pain, the population lacks the knowledge to understand the connection and keeps begging for more.

Regulation allows large existing firms to rig the system because regulation creates a barrier to entry which limits the number of firms they must compete with. Since the regulating agency understands the industry poorly, it must rely on insiders to help write the regs. Obviously, the insiders tapped are the dominant firms in the industry and they write regs to benefit themselves at the expense of their competitors and their own customers. Moreover, fraud becomes institutionalized as powerful insider firms are able to buy political cover, essentially using the regulatory agency as a cover for fraud (this is what Madoff did). Have you noticed how many large firms are all for new proposed regulation? They guys yelling “free market” are usually their competitors.

The only power a business ever has is the power to offer you something you might be willing to buy. When government becomes invasive and people further empower government by crying out for regulation to protect them from bad outcomes, business buys that power and becomes the “powerful elite”, as you put it. But it isn’t capitalism they’re rigging at that point. It’s the power of the state – a state empowered by the populace.

The only way I can think of to solve it is to educate the populace and that, IMO, is pretty well impossible. I have no solutions.

vikingvista September 23, 2011 at 3:27 am

“rig capitalism”

Yeah, they have a lot of crackpot notions about back room fat cat deals, underpricing, cartels, buying up the competition, planned obsolescence, suppressing innovation, etc., that they think show how even voluntary markets are manipulated by the wealthy to impoverish the rest of the country to their benefit, leading to one big corporate monopoly.

Every single one of the stale old claims is easily debunked with economic arguments. And they all suffer from the question, “How can cutting to the chase and empowering a huge permanent monopoly at the outgo (a government), ease your fears of monopoly?”

g-dub September 23, 2011 at 11:08 am

“When regulations cause more pain, the population lacks the knowledge to understand the connection and keeps begging for more.”

Yeah, they lack knowledge, and who should be surprised? One stands in awe over the size, say, of the code of federal regulations. One walks into a law library in awe. Government has its tentacles everywhere, for example, passing administrative law only select few are aware of.

And then, I hear some statist make the comment of how the electorate needs to be “educated on the issues,” when most of the electorate is nearly blind to regulations and a myriad of things the government does. And if they did, they don’t have the time, skill, or data to evalute a multitude of varied things.

All that matters is that a politician has a stated goal, and passes a law claiming to satisfy the stated goal. “What then happens” is past the bridge, which is burned (no going back).

This post is just a tangential rant on an aspect of the problem of knowledge in political processes. There is a very practical reason to severely limit anything a government does, if the words “self-government” can possibly have a ring of truth.

Seems like a market process is a better way for order to emerge.

vikingvista September 23, 2011 at 3:17 am

“In a Democracy, people get what they want and they get it good and hard.”

In a Democracy, some people get what other people want, and they get it good and hard.

Methinks1776 September 23, 2011 at 8:06 am

More accurately, I think, in a democracy people get what they ask for, and they get it good and hard.

Rarely do people think through what they’re asking for. How many times have I heard some version of “Well, I don’t know much about the market, but I think nekked shorting should be illegal.”? They understand they’re ignorant, but you have no problem leveraging their ignorance to control other people’s behaviour, screwing themselves in the process.

vikingvista September 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm

I’m just attacking the collective assumption. You and I are part of this democracy, we never asked for it, but we will get it none the less. That people suffer the consequences of their own mistakes is fine with me. But democracy is about people suffering the consequences of other people’s mistakes.

Avi Mulye September 21, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Prof. Don,

I am using your omelette quote (above) as my facebook status update. :-)

Avi

nailheadtom September 21, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Thinkers’ ideas change over time and Orwell was no exception. No one can guess what his opinions might have been had he lived to a ripe old age. However, he wasn’t the only, or even the best example of, a dedicated socialist that saw the light. Leszek Kolakowski is perhaps the best example but there were features of socialism that he continued to admire even while rejecting its implementation. Arthur Koestler, too, found much to despise about socialism and the free market as well. But he enjoyed the freedom to write about it in the west, in the eastern bloc he would have been a numbered zek or the occupant of an unmarked grave.

Kevin H September 21, 2011 at 10:05 pm

I remember a political discussion I had with some co-workers in a London pub. I stated that I thought of myself as a moderate socialist (I supported the NDP – I’m Canadian – at the time). All were politely aghast and affirmed that they were staunch Tories and adamantly not socialists.

After about 15 minutes of further discussion I realized that despite their assertions, they were all well to the left of me when it came to policy. Don’t read too much into self applied political labels.

For me (and I suspect Orwell) the term socialist was a statement that unfettered capitalism would not and could not provide the best of all possible worlds for society at large. It was not a pledge of loyalty to a particular mechanism.

Randy September 22, 2011 at 5:13 am

The failures of socialism are obvious, but the bigger problem may be the successes. As in Brave New World, only an outsider, or those inclined to take the view of an outsider, can even see the depths of depravity produced by a dominant political organization. Most of those raised in and by it see it as normal – to submit and serve.

g-dub September 22, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Nice. Concise. Nice reference.

Anotherphil September 22, 2011 at 8:40 am

Don, I think you betray a prejudice with the phrase “despite his brilliance..”

I’ll stipulate, for the sake of argument that Orwell was “brilliant”, although I dislike the term. Its utility when applied to people, rather than luminescence is best illustrated by how often it was applied to Brack Obama, who was said not only to be brillant, but incandescent.

Opposition to socialism is not an intellectual predisposition, but a moral one. If it were intellectual, there would not be such a long and sordid history of public intellectuals (Einstein comes to mind) embracing socialism in its many forms. Indeed the continued popularity (where intellect is common and amorality is a religion) of socialism among the “intellectual elite” of the academy demonstrates this to be true.

It is proper MORAL formation, not raw intellect that leads people to the conclusion that people are not objects to be manipulated by the state, but individual persons with inherent dignity.

Troy Camplin September 22, 2011 at 9:15 am

One can explain Orwell, and many others, as following the fad of the time in embracing socialism. The economists who did so cannot be given that excuse.

JS September 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm

We like to celebrate reformed leftists. Today it is David Mamet that impresses us. In an interview, he listed the books that have influenced him, and I had read them all in my 20′s. He was discussed here and I called him a lightweight, and was thoroughly chastised.

These guys like Orwell and Mamet are artists. They posses creative ability that might be called ‘brilliant’ or ‘genius’, but that is different from having wisdom. Intellectually, their art is shallow, but so is most art because artists are, by and large, shallow thinkers.

Jim September 22, 2011 at 5:09 pm

I’m no fan of Guevara but regarding the prospects of a nonviolent socialism being realized he said: “Socialism cannot exist without a change in consciousness resulting in a new fraternal attitude toward humanity…”

That sounds about right. Is that obtainable? History says no and economics says growth and improvement depend on self interest. So maybe a nonviolent socialism is possible if all participants agreed to the conditions and remained willing to live under those conditions.

John H September 22, 2011 at 7:40 pm

“in the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often — at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough — that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of.”

This is Orwells review of the Road to Serfdom. Doesn’t sound very socialistic to me. I would say that by the end of his life he would be what we would call in America a moderate Democrat.

brainfisch September 25, 2011 at 10:20 am

Unfortunately the tyrannic element seems to be inherent in the socialist system. If you have ever been to the GDR (East Germany) and then have read Eugen Richters “Pictures of the Socialistic Future” (http://www.econlib.org/library/YPDBooks/Richter/rchtPSF0.html), the foresight he had in 1891 is amazing. He anticipated, that a benevolent government (the government in the novel always has the best intentions) will erect border controls and start shooting people who try to leave the country.
It is a nice short book and iv you ever doubted that socialism will end in ruin -read it.

Joseph Devon September 28, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Late to the conversation. I hope I’m not hijacking anyone’s thread.

Just wanted to point out the other thing that Orwell got wrong which was the notion of how technology would advance under a centralized economy. In 1984 the concept was that Big Brother was all powerful because it could see everywhere and hear everywhere, mainly via (what at the time seemed) high tech two-way video screens. I.e. those in roles of the power were able to harness and monopolize all the tech advances that their controlled economy came up with.
Which is oh so backwards. In an economy that controlled, and without the constant trial and error of free markets, you wind up with zero tech advances. The end of Soviet Russia did not see a government flush with technological wonders that it could use to keep the population under control, it saw top politicians putting their name down on waiting lists for the chance to make a phone call weeks in advance. (written from my phone; please excuse typos)

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