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Friday, May 05, 2006

Hey, Hey, My, My, Socialism Can Never Die

There's more to the picture than meets the eye? Hey, Hey, My, My.

While our attention is focused on the Middle East and beyond, storm clouds are gathering in other parts of the world. For example, on May Day, Bolivia nationalized its natural gas and oil fields. The president, Evo Morales, "ordered soldiers to occupy Bolivia's natural gas fields..." He plans to nationalize other sectors as well.

Morales seems to be part of a small, but growing, contigent of socialists. He joins Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and, of course, Fidel Castro, who are intending to create a web of socialist economic alliances in South America.

These developments prompted Lee Harris, in yet another excellent article, to ask "why isn't socialism dead?" After all, each of the many versions of socialism that has even been implemented has been far from optimal and has very often created massive suffering and death. It's usually very difficult to answer most complex economic questions regarding optimal organization of societies, but the hypothesis that socialism doesn't work has an overwhelming preponderance of evidence supporting it.

So why isn't socialism dead? Short answer: it can't die. Longer answer:
It may well be that socialism isn't dead because socialism cannot die. As Sorel argued, the revolutionary myth may, like religion, continue to thrive in "the profounder regions of our mental life," in those realms unreachable by mere reason and argument, where even a hundred proofs of failure are insufficient to wean us from those primordial illusions that we so badly wish to be true. Who doesn't want to see the wicked and the arrogant put in their place? Who among the downtrodden and the dispossessed can fail to be stirred by the promise of a world in which all men are equal, and each has what he needs? [...]

[T]he whole point of the myth of the socialist revolution is not that the human societies will be transformed in the distant future, but that the individuals who dedicate their lives to this myth will be transformed into comrades and revolutionaries in the present. In short, revolution is not a means to achieve socialism; rather, the myth of socialism is a useful illusion that turns ordinary men into comrades and revolutionaries united in a common struggle -- a band of brothers, so to speak. [...]

Thus, in the coming century, those who are advocates of capitalism may well find themselves confronted with "a myth gap." Those who, like Chavez, Morales, and Castro, are preaching the old time religion of socialism may well be able to tap into something deeper and more primordial than mere reason and argument, while those who advocate the more rational path of capitalism may find that they have few listeners among those they most need to reach -- namely, the People. Worse, in a populist democracy, the People have historically demonstrated a knack of picking as their leaders those know the best and most efficient way to by-pass their reason -- demagogues who can reach deep down to their primordial and, alas, often utterly irrational instincts. This, after all, has been the genius of every great populist leader of the past, as it is proving to be the genius of those populist leaders who are now springing up around the world, from Bolivia to Iran.
In other words, ideas are more powerful than facts. Myths are more powerful than reason. Humans are not primarily rational animals and can never be primarily rational animals. Indeed, I doubt we even have the mental capacity to make rational decisions in the face of great complexity and uncertainty. Following our intuitions, institutions, and traditions is probably the best we can ever do.

Lee Harris finishes with the following:
This is the challenge that capitalism faces in the world today -- whether it will rise to the challenge is perhaps the most urgent question of our time, and those who refuse to confront this challenge are doing no service to reason or to human dignity and freedom. Bad myths can only be driven out by better myths, and unless capitalism can provide a better myth than socialism, the latter will again prevail.
I believe this to be true. Fortunately, the American myth, which is a combination of Christianity and the puritan work ethic intertwined with a belief in self-sufficiency, strong property rights, and free markets, is quite a powerful myth as well. Thus Americans are fairly well inoculated from being infected by "bad myths."

However, I cringe when the Rationalists and Materialists among us strive to weaken or destroy the American myth. They do so, in my opinion, at great peril. I believe America's myth was crucial to keeping civilization going in the 20th century. It may well be needed again in the 21st.


Oroborous said...

I agree that humans are not just rational actors, although I think that we may be more rational than you think.

If we were to look closely at where socialism is resurfacing, we might find that many people there have rational reasons for believing that socialism, bad as it is, would be better than the crony capitalism that's often practiced in the second and third world.

Bolivia and Venezuela move left, but Brazil, the continent's big dawg, moves right (since Lula da Silva governs center-right). Maybe there's a clue there.

Further, while a few nations or societies are moving closer, or still clinging, to socialism, there are some that are moving away from it - like the PRC, Vietnam, and Germany.

When Castro dies, Cuba will give up on Communism shortly thereafter, and it seems likely that the combination of geographic location and returning expats will push it strongly towards American-style democracy and capitalism.

And let's not forget the old Soviet Bloc countries, most of whom have turned to straight up capitalism.
Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary have been very good at it, and others have had varying degrees of success.

In any case, while the myth of socialism may remain strong throughout the 21st century, the vast growth of America during that time, combined with the surely slow growth of socialist economies, may allow Americans to just outright buy any So. American socialist economies, converting them by fiat into capitalists.

The mechanism for doing so would be to buy the loyalties of voters, who would then elect officials willing to work with American companies.
It's the old "banana republic" play, but using money instead of Marines.

Bret said...

oroborous wrote: "I think that we may be more rational than you think."

Well, I certainly think that people think that people are more rational than I think.:-)

oroborous also wrote: "...we might find that many people there have rational reasons for believing that socialism ... would be better than the crony capitalism ..."

Maybe. But instead of electing a strongarm socialist why not elect a strongarm destroyer of cronyism? It seems to me that the Myth is a plausible explanation for the choice. Remember, this is a democratic choice - they can choose whatever they like.

So please tell me more about buying countries and voter loyalties. How does that work?

Oroborous said...

I'm not saying that Myth is not a factor, nor that it's an unimportant one.

As you note, the American mythos is a very powerful force in American politics, and because we're the uberpower, it's a force in global politics as well.

I'm saying that it's not the only factor that could explain why some are looking to Socialism to save them.

It's like the blue-collar workers who perplex the Dems by voting GOP - Why are these morons voting against their pocketbooks, they ask. It's not rational.

It's eminently rational, if we expand our perception of humans from that of Homo Economus.
Some things matter more than mere money, once we're above a subsistence level.
(Which you've touched on in the past, when we've spoken about retirement).

Further, although democracy allows voters to choose between competing candidates, it rarely allows voters to choose the person whom they would most like to see elected.
It's a free choice from among a limited selection.

Therefore, for various reasons, the choice might boil down to choosing the lesser evil.


It works in this way.

Suppose that we have a socialist nation like modern-day France, where many important industries and companies are owned by the government, but private enterprise is also allowed, although there are complex and stifling rules regarding employment.
This nation is also fairly small, with a population of twenty million or fewer.

Suppose further that the average salary paid in this nation was no more than 3% of that of the average American - which is in fact currently the case in many nations around the world, but not in many So. or Central American nations.

What we do is set up companies designed to employ as many people as possible, headed by people that we want to become the nation's leaders.
The cost of employing millions is pretty low, because they're getting paid relative peanuts, and the labor rules are almost irrelevant, since we're not in business to make money.

We also arrange for these business leaders to donate heavily to local churches, hospitals, and relief organizations.

By arranging for millions to have multiple points of contact with our selected leaders, and in dynamics which foster loyalty, we can virtually assure that most of our people will be elected to office, from which position they can turn the country away from socialism.

It's basically the same play that So. American drug lords use to ensure that their neighbors don't turn them in.

The keys are:

Relatively small populations, so that it doesn't cost an arm and a leg to influence the loyalties of at least 20% of the electorate.

American wealth growing like switchgrass, while Socialist countries grow at a much slower rate. That will allow us to influence them for what we'd consider to be pocket change.

For those nations and economies which are free market, but badly managed, we could literally just buy up all of the land and businesses that were for sale.
Any person or organization that owned a third of the nation would be a kingmaker and de facto ruler.

Any American billionaire could do just that in, say, Nicaragua or Costa Rica, if they had any project that they wanted a few million people to work on.

Bret said...


As far as the Myth thing goes, I think that it is rational (subjectively) for many to sign up to Myths. It gives people a feeling of belonging to something that transcends their existence. That's one (major?) appeal of religion as well. I just wish they'd pick less destructive Myths.

Your country buyout concept is intriguing. I'll have to give it more thought. The part that leaves me a bit skeptical is where you wrote "What we do is set up companies ..." Who is "we"? Governments are usually stunningly bad at that sort of thing (otherwise socialism might actually work). I understand that "we" are not trying to make money off of the process, but still, if not done at least reasonably well, I'm not sure it would get people to vote for our candidates.

Oroborous said...

Yes, in my opinion that's by far the top draw for religions.

"We" is an individual, or an activist NGO, like Greenpeace or the border-patrolling Minuteman Project.

The underpinning of my concept is the global economic forecast I made at The Duck, wherein I projected that the American economy will grow much more rapidly than any other major nation's.
Since we seem to agree that socialist nations' economies will grow sluggishly, in relative terms the average American's income, and ability to influence events in select foreign locales, will grow exponentially.

If indeed the per capita GNP for Americans in 2050 is $ 165,000, in 2005 dollars, then it would only take a few thousand like-minded average individuals to raise the needed funds.

In fact, if it's tied to a religious missionary effort, a single mega-church, or a national religious group similar to Focus on the Family or The 700 Club, could do it.

Even now, there are probably a few African nations where this could be done, and certainly Haiti could be put to rights.
All that it would take is for one of America's 200 billionaires to decide to do it, or 10,000 Jane Sixpacks.

Hey Skipper said...

One word: Evolution.

One of the reasons America succeeds, besides those Bret has already listed, are a large economically contiguous area and a subdivision of that area into multiple quasi-independent units.

Okay, two reasons.

In any event, there is some objectively true economic/political "recipe" that works better than others. So long as there is competition (ie., descent and variation), then those units closer to that objective truth will succeed better than those further away.

If, in fact, Socialism is further away from that objective truth, then it will ultimately become marginalized. "Intelligent Design" (another term for socialism), is antithetical to goalless, planless, evolution.

There is a double irony here. The secular left, most enamored of naturalistic evolution, and self-labeled as the "reality based community" is singularly incapable of understanding evolution's implications.

Meanwhile, the Christianist right, wholly antagonistic to evolution, is both enamored of its economic results and astonishingly oblivious to its refutation of their Biblical infatuation.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "There is a double irony here..."

I'm not so sure just how enamored the Christianist right is with the market and capitalism. I'm more under the impression that the Libertarian right (whose God is the market) is in a coalition with the Christianist right. The latter aren't so much enamored as tolerant of the concept. They like how the economy is doing, but are happy to fiddle away, like Brothers Judd advocating for the "3rd way."

But let's say that the Christianist right is enamored with markets and their evolution. Then, indeed, the picture you painted is chock full of irony. But, put a slightly different way, it's also very consistent from an ultimate authority point of view. For much of the secular left, the ultimate authority is the State (their God), for Libertarians it's the market (their God), and for the Christianist right it's, well, just God. Each picks and chooses the means that supports their God. One reason ***EVOLUTION*** is liked by the secular left and Libertarians is because it weakens the appeal of the competing ultimate authority, the religious God. And, of course, that's why it's so hated by the Christianist right.

In other words, the irony results from an ends justifies the ironic means.

Hey Skipper said...


I'm not so sure just how enamored the Christianist right is with the market and capitalism.

Good point. In many cases, they aren't. But, ironically, they are simultaneously quite pleased to point out the superiority of their belief system because of the US's economic prowess.

For much of the secular left, the ultimate authority is the State (their God), for Libertarians it's the market (their God), and for the Christianist right it's, well, just God.

Interesting observation, but those three classifications don't quite track.

The Statist Left (I prefer that term to "secular") the state is an entity that can be subject to entreaties and provide authority. Ditto for Christianists and God.

With respect to the market, it cares nothing for entreaties, and won't tell you how do to anything.

One can no more worship the market than one can worship gravity.

That doesn't, however, prevent advocating the market as a far better solution to a certain class of problems.

I don't doubt that the Statist Left finds Evolution a welcome ally, but their basic religious impulse is revealed by their astonishing blindness to its implications (per Larry Arnhart).

For Libertarians, though, it is quite different. The appeal is not to weaken the authority of one thing or another, but to act as an explanatory framework that makes sense out of a wide range of self organizing systems.

The Christianists are fundamentally no different than the Statist Left, except for a strong tendency to get dressed up once a week. Both have totalitarian aspirations.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "With respect to the market, it cares nothing for entreaties, and won't tell you how do to anything. ... One can no more worship the market than one can worship gravity."

I did futures trading for many years and I promise you that people frequently pray to the markets - and when they're doing well, they worship the markets. :-) I'm not big into the worship thang, but I was under the impression that people might worship the powerful and/or magic. I think markets are a sort of super intelligence - instead of Smith's invisible hand, an invisible brain (your hive mind, so to speak) and as such is adequately powerful to inspire worship.

Hey Skipper wrote: "For Libertarians, though, it is quite different."

I take it you consider yourself a Libertarian?

Bret said...

Oops, posted the last comment before I was ready.

Thinking about it a little more, I agree that there's little if any utility for Libertarians in foisting ***EVOLUTION*** on anybody.

Hey Skipper said...


It's safe to say I have strong libertarian leanings, in the sense that I am a big-L Liberal.

I am not a Libertarian in the sense of the political party, though. To the extent I have paid them any mind, they completely fail to come to terms with the Achille's heel of pure libertarianism: the free-rider problem.

All of this has given me an idea for a post, thus far in suspended animation due to a particularly grueling stretch at work: many people, and practically all of those who post on blogs such as these, have pretty fixed ideas on morality, economics, intolerance, how societies should be organized, etc. So the difference among them is not to the degree with which they are invested in their own notions, but rather their notion of "scope."

To a Christianist, Islamist, or Socialist, they know their ideas have wide, if not universal, scope. For a Liberal, the only idea that has universal scope is that no ideas have universal scope.

As you have probably already decided, this idea is badly in need of some work.