Saturday, September 21, 2013

Objections to communism

One advantage of going to college (and establishing a reputation as a reasonably intelligent, hard-working student) is that I get to hear the objections to my ideas from intelligent and well-educated people of good will. Good will is especially important: it's tedious and unproductive to talk to people who are simply enraged that I hold ideas different from their own. (The latter, sadly, characterizes much of the "discourse" on the blog, which is why I don't encourage comments. I can't remember a single instance here of a well-reasoned and well-intention objection to my primary ideas. [eta: there are some, but few.] The exceptions are typically people who generally agree with me; it's nice to know that I'm not completely alone, but it's vastly easier to learn from disagreement than agreement.)

I have heard a number of objections to "communism" in the course of my career. First, there are objections I mostly agree with; a workable communist system should, I think, address these concerns:
  1. Communism, as traditionally defined, requires almost all individuals to be radically altruistic.
  2. Central planning cannot efficiently manage the complexity and interactivity of the large number of transactions necessary for managing a complex industrial economy.

Second, there are objections I mostly disagree with; made by people who are well-intentioned, these objections require thoughtful rebuttal.

  1. Entrepreneurs will not innovate without the incentive of private ownership.
  2. Individuals will not work hard without the potential obtaining enough wealth to become rentiers
  3. Government is philosophically and institutionally incompetent to manage the economy, in a fundamentally different sense than the complexity objection above.
  4. It is always more efficient to allocate capital at all levels by private decisions rather than public decisions.

And, finally, there is the standard objection to revolution: However egregiously flawed the republican capitalist system, it is the system we have, with an enormous investment in making it (more or less) work; replacing it with a fundamentally different, relatively untried, system poses the risk of a catastrophic failure far worse than republican capitalism. I've written on this last topic at length. To sum up, I agree that we should not replace a system that is not in catastrophic failure; I disagree in that I see capitalism on the road to catastrophic failure; I'm convinced that even if capitalism does not fail catastrophically, radicalism strengthens and empower reformers.

I'll talk about these objections at greater length in future posts.


  1. Capitalism is now failing for all the same reasons that were responsible for its success. How's that for irony?

  2. And with a few words changed the same can be said for democracy.
    I don't remember the book but Heinlein stated that ...
    It takes the same type of intelligent, caring people to run a democracy as it does to run communism.
    And I think that is true for any government or economic system. And that also applies to libertarianism. I thought at one time that I was a libertarian until I realized (while rereading one of Heinlein's books) that it only works with intelligent caring people which is why it will fail in the long run just as the other two also fail.
    And I always thought that it was a sad day for communism when it got linked up with totalitarian Russia.
    Objections 1 & 2 are not really true for most people (using myself as example) but there are a fair number of social leaches (congress is a good example).
    Objection3 fails because as I said people just don't care that much for others.
    Objection4 is plain wrong as private decisions makes it more efficient to steal money for yourself and your special interests.

  3. "I can't remember a single instance here of a well-reasoned and well-intention objection to my primary ideas.The exceptions are typically people who generally agree with me; it's nice to know that I'm not completely alone, but it's vastly easier to learn from disagreement than agreement.)"

    It was several years ago, but I thought we had a very beneficial, helpful, and worthwhile disagreement on the issue of arguments from expertise:

    Going back even further than that, I do want to add that I learned a lot from you back in the days of posting on the atheist forum IIDB (which turned into the FRDB, which it is now), and I will always be grateful to you for your contributions there. Thank you very much, Barefoot Bum (or whatever name you now prefer). You are a gem.


  4. Another objection may be that "communism", however, defined, still exists within the bubble of the modern industrial economy and society. After all, the basic texts were prepared during the Industrial Revolution.

    If, as many fear, industrial civilization itself, and the seven+ billion people directly supported by said system, is radically unsustainable, "communism" may not be radical enough to allow survival of a civilization during a new era of severe scarcity and ecological instability.

  5. To be honest, I don’t think that concerns (1) and (2) are as compelling as they might seem at first glance.
    As for (1), what’s “radical altruism”? Insofar as altruism is opposed to self-interest, it seems to me like the opponents of communism are begging at least a few questions on that score. You can’t even coherently determine what one’s own self-interest is in abstraction from the totality. It’s interesting that Marx not only doesn’t make altruistic/moralistic appeals, he actually decries them, in works like The German Ideology and the Circular on Kriege. By the time he gets around to volume three of Capital, he’s demonstrated (if you agree with the argument) that capitalism isn’t just not in the self-interest of workers, it also undermines the self-interests of capitalists insofar as crises are intrinsic to the system. Marx is also all about transcending the altruism/self-interest dichotomy as one of the goals of communism, so in that respect, I think it’s moot.
    As far as (2) goes, the more I listen to economic calculationist arguments, the progressively less compelling they seem to me. The premises seem dubious. Do we really need – literally – central control of every transaction in order to have socialism/communism? What is basically at issue is a cybernetic question. Complexity has an objective definition – the number of states the system under question can exist in – and the essential question of control involves recasting a system in such a way as to be compatible with the controller’s limited faculties. It’s really easy to come up with a scary-sounding number of how complex a known-to-be-tractable system can be, and relate it to say, the number of atoms in a galaxy (or what have you). So, I don’t see why these people arbitrarily argue that we must swallow the economy whole, when we don’t do it for other human-built systems, or even parts of the economy, like big corporations. We can also distinguish calculationist arguments based on how strong a claim they make that socialism/communism is impossible. It’s worth noting that Von Mises – who was making a “strong” calculationist argument – *lost* the original socialist calculation debate. Finally, a number of specific calculationist arguments have been debunked. I have in mind specifically Cockshott and Cotrell showing somewhere or other that deducing labour time costs from an input/output table for an entire economy is in fact computationally tractable.
    I also find that the tacit assumption that capitalism actually “solves” the calculation to be unsupportable by actual capitalist practice. Their only real escape hatch is to claim that capitalist crises are exogenous, which I find unsupportable.


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