September 28, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes
Sos, Venezuela

Art Carden is correct: Kristian Niemietz’s 2019 book, Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies is superb. Yet it’s also deeply depressing.

Of course Niemietz’s recounting of the immiseration and often murderous tyranny unleashed by socialism is dismaying. But to anyone who is reasonably informed, the fact that socialism has an unbroken record of calamity and authoritarianism isn’t news. The most depressing feature of Niemeitz’s volume, at least for me, is its cataloging of human gullibility.

I’ve read the late Paul Hollander’s great 1981 tract, Political Pilgrims, which documents western intellectuals’ credulity in the face of glorious promises to remake society with bayonets and guns. I’ve also studied Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, which reveals the human mind’s cleverness at rationalizing whatever it is it wishes to believe. Nevertheless, I was stunned to encounter in the pages of Niemietz’s work how very many of socialism’s champions were, and are, so completely detached from reality.

Incredible Dupes

The New York Times’s Moscow Bureau Chief Walter Duranty – he of “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” fame – is the most notorious western intellectual to excuse tyranny carried out in the name of building a workers’ paradise. But although Duranty was undeniably evil (as shown brilliantly in the movie Mr. Jones), it’s possible that he was at least as much a mercenary as a dupe. Stalin’s regime treated him well as he spread lies to cover up the vile misdeeds of the Soviet regime in the 1920s and 1930s.

Truly inexplicable, however, are the many statements by intellectuals – quoted throughout Niemietz’s work – who had nothing materially to gain by being conned by socialists’ propaganda. Here, for example, is the celebrated British economist Joan Robinson; she’s writing in 1965 about the North Korean “miracle” following her visit to that nirvana-in-the-making:

The outward signs of a “cult” are very marked – photographs, street names, toddlers in the nursery singing hymns to the beloved leader. But Prime Minister Kim Il Sung seems to function as a messiah rather than a dictator. After the war he went for 15 days to live in a remote village, and emerged with a program for agriculture and a style of work for the Party which would enlist the support of the peasants. He visits every plant and every rural district for “on-the-spot consultation” to clear up their problems. He comes to a hospital to say that the life of doctors and nurses must be devoted to the welfare of their patients, and this thought inspires their work every day. He explains to the workers in the heavy machine plant that their products are the basis of industrialization, and pride renews their zeal.

Robinson was quite certain that the North’s Great Leader was accomplishing wondrous feats. Indeed, so certain was she that, according to her, to prevent massive emigration northward out of South Korea the United States government was taking

great pains … to keep the Southerners in the dark. The demarcation line is manned exclusively by American troops, down to the cleaners, with an empty stretch of territory behind. No Southern eye can be allowed a peep into the North.

These ‘observations,’ please note, are from a scholar who, had she lived a few years longer, would almost certainly have been awarded – justifiably – the Nobel Prize in economics.

Another example: Jan Myrdal – son of Nobel-laureate economist Gunnar Myrdal – was as impressed with Albania’s Enver Hoxha as Mrs. Robinson was with Kim Il Sung. In his 1976 book, Albania Defiant (co-authored with Gun Kessle), Myrdal wrote that

The party does not stand above the people. The working class is in power; the party serves the working masses. It is not the party that is in power over the working classes. Enver Hoxha has many times taken up this question of working-class control and of rendering accounts to the masses of people….

Hoxha … is one of the great working-class leaders and Marxist-Leninists of our time. It is natural that much popular feeling has concentrated on him…. He is respected and beloved….

When the market no longer rules, the people are able to shape their own future with their own work…. Life is better, social development is rapid.

Or how about this doozy from British journalist Seumas Milne on the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Iron Curtain:

In eastern Germany most people today have a positive view of the former East Germany, the GDR, and regret its passing…. [T]he huge social benefits that have been lost, not only in Eastern Germany but across Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union are mourned by the people of those countries.

On the same occasion, former British MP George Galloway chimed in with these charming claims about the late GDR:

There was no unemployment. Everyone had a house. Everyone had a free school. A free hospital. A free university. Free access to sports and cultural lives that ordinary working people in most societies like ours wouldn’t even dream of.

This latter claim is certainly correct, although in a way quite the opposite of Mr. Galloway’s supposition.

No sampling of such stupidity would be complete without a quotation – this one uttered in 2009 – from Noam Chomsky, whom Niemietz describes as “perhaps the archetype of the Western intellectual”:

[W]hat’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created…. The transformation that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact.

The “impact” predicted by Chomsky is not, of course, the Bolivarian diaspora – that is, the actual mass attempted emigration of hordes of happy workers from the Chavista wonderland.

Relevance Today

Testimony to the relevance in today’s U.S. of Kristian Niemietz’s brilliant book is found most obviously in the radical shift leftward of the Democratic party and the continuing popularity of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other elected officials who openly embrace socialism. But the book’s relevance is wider.

The ignorance of economics and of history, and the credulous faith in government officials, found among all unapologetic champions of socialism are found also among the increasing number of conservatives who today press for industrial policy and for vigorous use of antitrust to break up or to hamstring large firms. The differences separating Sen. Sanders and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez from the likes of Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Josh Hawley are of degree and style rather than of kind and substance.

Rubio, Hawley, and other of today’s conservative opponents of free markets are, just like the self-described socialists documented in Niemietz’s book, silent on how they and their underlings will get the knowledge necessary to outperform the market. Like socialists, these conservatives simply have faith that the state will achieve what those who empower it intended for it to achieve. Economic reasoning, facts, and the actual history of industrial policy and antitrust, compared to that of free markets, do nothing to quell the fervor for vastly enlarged and more vigorous state control over the economy.

As Niemietz thoroughly documents, zeal for replacing commerce and cooperation with coercion and commands does not come from a rational place in the human mind. This zeal is not the product of reason; it’s an instance of religion. And as with full-bore socialists, conservative defenders of the interventionist faith will always attempt, with half-baked arguments and legerdemain, to rationalize their schemes for obstructing commerce and overriding the voluntary and peaceful choices of millions with the coercively imposed commands of the few. These attempts must be resisted.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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