November 30, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

“What’s wrong with communism?” It’s a question I heard recently, and while “pretty much everything” is accurate, it deserves a bit of additional elaboration. Here are a few thoughts on what’s wrong with communism. 

As Bryan Caplan points out in his article on communism for the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, “Communism” and “socialism” were basically synonyms until the Bolshevik Revolution. After that, “communism” came to be more closely associated with the revolutionary philosophy of Vladimir Lenin. The two terms can be used interchangeably, and they basically mean “a centrally planned economy in which the government controls the means of production.” In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

Later, Ludwig von Mises would write that “socialism is the abolition of rational economy.” Means of production that are not privately owned cannot be exchanged. Therefore, no market prices can emerge. Without market prices, we don’t get profits and losses. Without profits and losses, we don’t learn whether or not we are using resources wisely (producing things consumers want more urgently and thereby earning profits) or wastefully (producing things consumers want less urgently and thereby earning losses). 

Profits and losses are informative, not decisive: there are a lot of things that might be financially profitable that you might find morally unacceptable. Maybe you could earn a handsome side income writing college term papers on behalf of cheaters for an online essay mill (and note that, as Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski argue in their 2016 book Markets Without Limits, this would be wrong not because profits are involved but because cheating is involved). 

Furthermore, there might be a lot of things that aren’t profitable that you might find obligatory. There are very few people who would say that a market test is an appropriate way for me to determine whether or not I should feed, clothe, and shelter my family.

This, I think, is where a lot of people get tripped up. Families are little socialist enterprises governed by the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The rules and norms that make families or tribes work well don’t map very well onto an extended order populated by strangers. In a family, tribe, or club, people know one another intimately and see one another regularly. The farther people get from one another geographically and genetically, the less well they are likely to know one another that well or see one another that often. Add several millennia, widely varying conditions, and a lot of historical accidents and you have almost eight billion people with different tastes and talents. As I explained last summer, markets and market prices make rational economic calculation possible in such a setting.

A lot of self-described communists and socialists are motivated by enthusiasm for communists’ and socialists’ stated goals like equality, plenty, and dignity. They ask us to imagine a brotherhood of man in which everyone has abundant food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, and other opportunities for flourishing. To oppose communism and socialism is not to question the desirability of equality, plenty, and dignity However, just as opposing subsidies isn’t opposing what’s subsidized, opposing communism isn’t opposing equality, plenty, and dignity. To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, we regularly find ourselves talking past one another, with one group speaking in terms of hoped-for results and the other group speaking in terms of the characteristics of social processes. In the view of Sowell and a lot of his intellectual allies, the social question is not “what specific policies could we enact that might make the world a better place?” Rather, it is “which institutions best facilitate cooperation among strangers?” 

It’s a question of utmost importance in light of our species’ distressing habit of slaughtering one another. That’s one of the places where communism’s failures are most conspicuous. Experiments with communism have a distressing tendency to descend into mass murder. As Kristian Niemietz explains in his excellent book Socialism: The failed idea that never dies, intellectuals have a three-stage relationship with socialism. A socialist regime emerges and maybe has some successes. During this honeymoon phase, socialism’s defenders point out that the naysayers are wrong and this time is different. The honeymoon transitions into an “excuses-and-whataboutery” period where a regime’s defenders try to explain away the trouble in the workers’ paradise. During this phase, we might learn that bad weather or something like deliberate CIA sabotage, not central planning, is to blame for economic failure. Finally, once the experiment’s failures become too obvious to ignore or explain away, we enter the third stage, the “not-real-socialism” stage. The Soviet Union? Not real socialism. China under Mao? Not real socialism. Venezuela? Not real socialism. And so on.

Weren’t these idealistic–if naive–crusades to better the lives of the downtrodden? In his foreword to Eugene Richter’s excellent Pictures of the Socialistic Future, Bryan Caplan explains three theses: there is Lord Acton’s thesis, which is that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” People meant well when they got started, but having so much power derailed them. A second thesis is Friedrich Hayek’s explanation for “why the worst get on top.” Power will attract people who crave it, and hence ambitious, bad people will end up in positions of power. Hence, you might hear that the USSR would have avoided the horrors of the Stalinist regime had only Leon Trotsky and not Stalin ascended to power.

Caplan tells a darker story, however, for why communist regimes move so quickly into oppression and mass murder: communism is “born bad” in that “the early socialists were indeed ‘idealists’” but “their ideal was totalitarianism.” At a fundamental level, communist revolutions have not been about merely producing things more efficiently or ensuring that output is shared equitably. Communist experiments have been efforts to fundamentally re-engineer humanity. They have been projects of social transformation, and their brutality has sometimes been excused as an unfortunate historical necessity. The historian Eric Hobsbawm, for example, agreed without hesitation that millions of deaths would be an acceptable price to pay for a communist society. After all, Lenin famously said “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” 

Alas, communist experiments have come and gone. They have left us with no omelets, only millions and millions of broken eggs.

Art Carden

Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.

Get notified of new articles from Art Carden and AIER.