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Forward to the Past: From Central Planning to the Redistributive State

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At the dawn of the 20th century, in 1899, the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon looked into the future and described “the immediate fate of the nation which shall first see the triumph of Socialism….The people will of course commence by despoiling and then shooting a few thousands of employers, capitalists, and members of the wealthy class…. Intelligence and ability will be replaced by mediocrity. The equality of servitude will be established everywhere…. Servitude, misery, and Caesarism are the fatal precipices to which all the roads of the Socialists lead…. It will be hell, a terrible hell.”

But even the most perceptive critics of the socialist idea could not anticipate the magnitude of the hell that socialism would produce. In his recent book Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917, R.J. Rummel catalogs the deaths caused by Soviet socialism: the Civil War period (1917-1922): 3,284,000 dead; the NEP period (1923-1928): 2,200,000 dead; the Collectivization period (1929-1935): 11,440,000 dead; the Great Terror period (1936-1938): 4,345,000 dead; the pre-World War II period (1939-1941): 5,104,000 dead; the World War II period (1941-1945): 13,053,000 dead; the Postwar and Stalin’s Twilight period (1945-1953): 15,613,000 dead; the Post-Stalin period (1954-1987): 6,872,000 dead. The number of victims, Professor Rummel calculates, were at least 61,911,000.

In his companion volume, China’s Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Mayder Since 1900, Professor Rummel estimates the following numbers for the period of communist rule in China: the Civil War period (1945-1949) — 4,968,000 dead, the Totalitarian period (1949-1953): 8,427,000 dead; the Collectivization and the Great Leap Forward period (1954-1958): 7,474,000 dead; the Great Famine and Retrenchment period (1959-1963): 10,729,000 dead; the Cultural Revolution period (1964-1975): 7,731,000 dead; the “Liberalization” period (1976-1987): 874,000 dead. The number of victims was 40,203,000. “Yet,” says Professor Rummel, “this figure may be a gross undercount. Based on the estimates of various experts, sinologists, interviewees, refugees, and even communist officials themselves, the death toll could be much higher, as high as 102,671,000 people.”

The human mind finds it all but impossible to comprehend the meaning of these numbers. Adding the death toll for the Soviet Union and China (and even using Professor Rummel’s conservative figure for China), this is equivalent to two out of every five people in the United States being murdered by the state; or almost the entire populations of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway combined; or four out of every five people in Japan; or the combined total populations of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.

And what has been the response of those in the West who long gave allegiance to the socialist ideal, or who argued that while the Soviet and Chinese experiences had not been perfect, they should be treated with tolerance because they, at least, represented the progressive spirit of social justice? Samuel Bowles, a leading American socialist, calmly declared that “it’s the end of a nightmare, not the death of a dream.” For people like Professor Bowles, socialism has not been defeated by the reality of the Soviet and Chinese experiences; no, only the twisted and distorted forms of socialism created by Stalin and Mao have been discredited. The true socialism — the good and just socialism — is still to come.

But others on the left have faced up to the reality of socialism in practice. Writing in the Spring 1992 issue of Yale Review, philosopher Richard Rorty told his fellow Western leftist intellectuals that “the word ‘socialism’ has been drained of force, and that after the experience of “our Eastern European friends … Marxist rhetoric is no more respectable, than Nazi rhetoric.” And, more particularly, he said that they would have to give up the search for “a grand, politically useful theory” about human nature or about the shape of history on the basis of which a new socialist man could be created and molded.

But did this mean that he now accepted the fact that the belief and the desire for social engineering should be given up? — that individual liberty and market economy, with all their consequences resulting from individual choice and income distribution, is the only just social order? No. “Even now,” Professor Rorty said, “I am unwilling to grant that Friedrich von Hayek was right in saying that you cannot have democracy without capitalism. All I will concede is that you need capitalism to ensure a reliable supply of goods and services, and to ensure that there will be enough taxable surplus left over to finance social welfare.”

Indeed, for Professor Rorty, the only lesson learned from the Soviet experience is that comprehensive planning cannot work and that other less radical means must be pursued to attain the same ends — that social outcomes should be transformed from what they would be if people were left free in the market to make their own decisions and bear the consequences of their own actions. “American leftist intellectuals stand in need of a new political vocabulary,” Professor Rorty says, “[and] I suggest that we start talking about greed and selfishness rather than about bourgeois ideology, about starvation wages and layoffs rather than about the commodification of labor, about differential per-pupil expenditure on schools and about differential access to health care rather than about the division of society into classes.”

Others have even offered a name for this new Leftist ideology. In the April 1992 issue of Ethics, An International Journal of Political and Legal Philosophy, Philippe Van Parijs presented the argument for “Basic Income Capitalism.” Professor Van Parijs explained that “it refers to a socioeconomic regime in which the bulk of the means of production is privately owned, while each citizen receives, aside from any income she may derive from participation in the labor and capital markets or may owe to some specific status, a substantial unconditional income.”

“The introduction of such an unconditional income,” he said, “is to be viewed not as the dismantling but the culmination of the welfare state.” And, most revealing, Professor Van Parijs pointed out that “at the same time, the introduction of an unconditional income can be viewed as a strategy for pursuing whatever was and remains appealing in the old emancipatory ideal associated with the communist movement, without requiring anything like a socialist mode of production.”

In fact, what the views of intellectuals like Richard Rorty and Philippe Van Parijs demonstrate is that these people have not really learned from the 20th-century experience with socialism. What appalls them is the brutality and cruelty of totalitarianism; and they have had to admit that Marxian socialism created in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe a barbarism no different — and in many ways far worse — than the barbarity of the Nazi experience half a century ago.

What Professors Rorty and Van Parijs want is a “kinder and gentler” socialism. But the experience of socialism in the former Soviet bloc countries has shown them that central economic planning does not deliver the goods and that monopoly ownership over the means of production by the state degenerates into political abuse and tyranny.

Hence, they have retreated into the Redistributive State. However morally uncomfortable, market-based and market-created production must be accepted as the only practical form of economic system. But the distributional consequences of a market economy remain unacceptable — thus, the continuing desire for governmental income transfers and redistributions as well as unconditional-income guarantees to be provided by the state. “Public virtues, as far as we can presently see,” laments Professor Rorty, “will continue to be parasitic upon private vices.”

The fact that Professor Rorty refers to the free actions of individuals and the outcomes of the market as “private vices” shows just how wedded he and others like him remain to the socialist vision of society. What they reject is Marxian socialism in practice. What they still accept is the Marxian — and generally socialist — critique of capitalism. Capitalism still exploits the workers through “starvation wages” and layoffs. Capitalism still fails to give everyone an equal chance due to “differential access” to education and health cm. And capitalism still fosters “greed and selfishness.”

Professor Rorty may be trying to change his vocabulary, but the ideological concepts behind the words remain the same. He may say that the attempt to make a “new socialist man” is impossible, but he still desires to manipulate men’s lives and socially engineer the distribution of the fruits of their labor. He still wants to impose his own conception of egalitarian justice on society.

In the end, the “new” redistributive socialism will fail, just as central-planning socialism failed. But when this new socialism passes into the dustbin of history — as it must — we will most assuredly be plagued by another, unless we somehow finally succeed in destroying the intellectual premises of socialism and persuade our fellow men that there is no higher and better justice than human liberty.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).