Lately, when debating matters of economics, people that I will broadly call "small government advocates" (usually hardline fiscal hawk conservatives and libertarians) will inevitably start throwing about the argument that "communism is a failed ideology" when they are challenged directly about the specifics of what they would cut from government, or on the flaws in their understandings. In the last week, I ran into one of these arguments when discussing (or trying to) several implicit assumptions in a libertarian's argument that governments have no right to levy taxes.
Argument 1The first form that these arguments often take is a consumer argument. More or less, it boils down to "if you looked in a Soviet era grocery store, there was very little product available. Therefore, the system was a failure.
What he's referring to are pictures like this from the late 1970s / early 1980s Soviet countries:
... and yes, by the late 1970s, the consumer side of the Soviet economy was clearly in deep trouble.
The second argument basically involves pointing to Venezuela, a country which is currently in the midst of economic collapse. Of course, as the linked article points out, Venezuela's economic collapse is much more than a simple matter of having a "socialist" government (I'll come back to this in a little while). Not unlike Alberta, Venezuela has relied for far too long almost exclusively on resource revenues. When that sector tanks, so does their economy.
The third argument is basically "communists have killed way more people than capitalists". Yes, it's certainly true that Stalin in the USSR murdered millions, Pol Pot in Cambodia oversaw the so-called killing fields, and so on. I don't think anyone can defend the actions of these dictators in any reasonable way, nor do I intend to. However, the argument that this shows that communism is fundamentally a bad way to run a country's finances is also problematic.
In Canada, we have seen the federal conservatives use this as a propaganda tool, often to rail against any kind of social policy. (Government anything = socialism = communism, more or less).
This argument is particularly annoying because it is fundamentally an emotional argument to start with, and one which is based on a resurrection of McCarthy era "red scare" propaganda.
What's Wrong With These Arguments?
I'm going to go through these in almost reverse order. First, let's start off with the basic assumption that "communism is bad". The examples cited for why communism is bad are almost all better understood as totalitarian dictatorships. Whether we talk about Stalin, Pol Pot or even Cuba's Fidel Castro, is that they were all fundamentally totalitarian dictators. Dictators, regardless of their political stripe are prone to being deeply destructive as they struggle to hold on to personal power. Whether we are talking about dictators the US supported for years like Panama's Manuel Noriega, or the monarchy in Iran, there were many abuses of power, both human rights, and greed focused.
One only has to look at the history of American political interventions in Central and South America throughout the Cold War era, or in the Middle East since WWII to recognize that political expediency has ruled the day, with the government supporting governments that are ideologically aligned with them, even when that government is engaged in horrendous actions against its own people. The history of "capitalism" when it comes to human rights is just as dark as the communist dictators, the only significant difference is that it was largely done through proxy states.
Communism = Socialism
This is a perplexing equivalence. Anybody who has been through Canada's grade school system in the last fifty years would have gotten a pretty good dose of the different political "isms" that have been predominant since WWII. As economic theories, Capitalism and Communism are often held up as being diametrically opposed to each other, and Socialism is often portrayed as many variations in between. In Western countries, Capitalism is broadly understood in the context of greater individual liberty, where Communism is associated with high level economic planning being done by the central government.
In North America, the so-called "Red Scare" era of the 1950s in the United States (peak Cold War) laid out a cultural framework in which US politicians drew an increasingly frightening picture of communism as the absolute withdrawal of personal liberties, and an overt attack on everything good that American life stood for. The McArthy era in the US built on the existing mistrust of government in general that is pervasive in American culture, and used broad accusations to attack anyone who had even remotely "left-leaning" political ideas. We see modern day conservatives in both countries attempting to leverage the resulting fabric by equating any kind of government intervention in society (including social safety net programs) with the extremes of the totalitarian dictators who led certain communist governments.
However, most people who advocate for things like single payer (socialized) health care, are not arguing for the government to take over control of the economy. Their ideals are often inspired by the successful governments in Europe which are largely Social Democracies. The argument that somehow this represents an unwarranted intrusion by the state into the lives of individuals is at best hyperbole, at worst it represents a classic example of the Slippery Slope fallacy by drawing Socialism as being far closer to Communism than it actually is.
The failed economy argument is a more complex one to address. Usually the argument goes something along the lines of "government cannot / should not borrow money because communist regimes suffered economic collapse". Superficially, this almost seems reasonable. The collapse of the Soviet Union is fairly well documented, and the relative lack of consumer goods in Soviet Russia is pointed to as a primary example of how central planning failed.
A failed economy is a disaster for the people who live in the country. This is unquestionably true. One only has to look at the regional failures in North America to understand a "closer to home" example - the Rust Belt. The decline of industrial production in North America gutted regional economies which had previously relied on local heavy industry to sustain them. While this hasn't resulted in the outright collapse of the US economy, it has caused a major exodus of population, and at least one municipality has had to declare bankruptcy and abandon providing infrastructure services to major areas.
Generally, a robust economy will survive one or two segments experiencing a downturn. So, why did the Soviet Union's economy collapse so thoroughly? The simplistic answer is to claim that central planning is an inherently flawed way to run an economy, and the bureaucrats simply couldn't see what was happening through their own fantasies. However, such a claim is both overly simplistic, and it ignores a lot of context. First, we cannot ignore that the Soviet Union had been largely isolated in many ways. Much of its trade was within the confines of its allied countries and vassal states under its direct control. China was, at the time, not the industrial power it has become in the last few decades, and the Soviet Union found itself trapped in a cycle of competing demands which it could only meet some of. In many respects, the Cold War became a proxy war for control over client states. The US was able to force the Soviet Union to expend significant resources in that conflict while limiting the ability of the Soviet Union to acquire cash reserves needed to support their efforts in a world that was using the US dollar as a reserve currency. In short, the Soviet Union's economy collapsed from a series of internal and external pressures which the US economy has never faced to date.
External pressures like sanctions, or volatile resource prices play a significant role in the collapse of an economy. Venezuela is one such example, where its dependence on oil prices at a time when other players in the oil market decided to increase production caused a major drop in government revenues. Coupled with US economic sanctions and political upheaval in the wake of Chavez's death, the government has floundered with the economy. Remove the sanctions and political uncertainty, and one might well see a substantially different outcome.
Again, one might well look to how various states that are nominally allied with the US are doing in various regions of the world and ask whether those states have prospered under governments that the US has backed. The answer here is more mixed. Some, like South Korea, certainly have. Yet others, such as some Central American nations, have suffered under the yoke of brutal dictatorships. Yeah - there's that dictator word again - it's important, isn't it?
Consumer Economy Versus Other Models
It is also quite important to recognize that there are significant differences between a "consumer economy" such as the United States has fostered, and other models. The consumer economy looks at everything through the lens of consumption. Basically, the function of the economy is solely measured on the basis of product sales. Nobody pays attention to other factors like whether the product is necessary, or if the price is fair (the magical "invisible hand" of the free market corrects this ... right?), or whether a given product or service needs to be universally accessible (e.g. healthcare). So ... what does all this mean?
The Soviet Union opted for a centrally controlled model which did not emphasize the consumer. However, it's important to recognize that it did work reasonably well for the Soviet Union until the 1970s. Further, in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, it has become much clearer that the Soviet Union cannot be seen as a simple economy. The ability of that country to create its own variations on many Western consumer goods (e.g. Russian versions of numerous western home computers from the 1980s) suggests that the centralized planning only went so far. We who live in the western countries need to be cautiously skeptical about the picture that was painted for us in the latter years of the Soviet Union.
Although China is a communist country, it is a much different conceptualization of communism, and one that has adopted a much different model of market economics in the last thirty years. It is "neither fish nor fowl". It has a strong, often overbearing it seems, central government but this is contrasted with an economy that has adopted much of the principles of the western market economy (and often without the controlling regulations we have added). It is perhaps the unique pragmatism of the Chinese approach that makes me skeptical about blithely condemning approaches to politics and economics in other countries. Often, we only have a partial picture painted for us by those who sit in positions of power.
However, there is a big difference between the command-and-control economy of the Soviet Union and the more market driven economies of democratic socialist countries like Norway or Sweden. These are countries with comprehensive social programs for all of their people, and yet you cannot by any means argue that they are centrally planned. They tend to have a greater emphasis on government delivery of key services like health care, and regulation of industry compared to the market fundamentalism that we have seen in the United States. Does that make them bad countries? Not at all - in fact they are stable nations which have relatively content populations. To conflate government intervention in domains intended to protect the people of a nation with the centralized "command-and-control" model of the Soviet Union is at best a stretch, at worst a false analogy.
For the most part, the "but, but ... Communism!" cry often heard from the libertarian influenced right is nonsense. It is, at its heart, an attempt to resurrect the zombie of McArthyism. McArthy was a terrible human being who used the politics of fear to forward his personal agenda for greater power. We should fear those who would resurrect his politics far more.