In Politics, Everyone has to Eat the Olives

In a recent post, Sarah Skwire argued, quite rightly, that one of the great features of the market is that it makes a lot of stuff she doesn’t like. It also, of course, makes a lot of stuff that she does, including the very specific kinds of weird things that individuals like Sarah might wish to consume. For Sarah, the fact that markets produce things like olives and death metal, neither of which she wishes to consume, is great because it means that other people can get their wants satisfied even if she wants no part of them. All that markets require is a commitment to tolerance. If we want the weird stuff that we like, we have to accept the fact that the very same processes that will produce that stuff will also produce things we can’t stand. 

I can assure you from first-hand knowledge that Sarah finds olives highly objectionable. This works to my benefit sometimes, because when they are served at a meal or I buy some at the store, I know they’re all for me, and I really like them. In the market, Sarah is not forced to either buy or consume what she sees as revolting little fruits. 

However, this isn’t true of the political process. What Sarah didn’t address is how her examples might play out under a different set of institutions than those of the market. The nature of collective choice in markets, especially the voting process, which most closely mimics choice in the marketplace, is such that we choose among “package deals” and that everyone must accept the choice of the majority. Electoral politics, by its very nature, cannot abide the tolerance of minority tastes the way that markets do.

In the most simple case, the candidate getting the most votes (or the amount otherwise dictated by the rules) wins, and he or she is everyone’s president/governor/mayor etc. Those who preferred a different candidate don’t get an opportunity to “consume” their political preference, as there can only be one winner. We are all stuck with that person. When we look at policies, the same sort of story applies. Particular candidates or parties will offer a platform full of a variety of policy proposals. Individual voters might like some of those proposals but also dislike some of them. Some voters might dislike nearly all of a candidate’s positions. Whichever candidate wins, or whichever party wins a majority, everyone will be subject to their attempts to put their preferred policies in place, regardless of whether we liked those policies or not. 

Imagine going to the grocery store and rather than picking out the individual items you wish to buy, each store offered a pre-selected bundle of groceries that were available for purchase. Kroger might offer a different bundle than Whole Foods or Aldi, but each store offers only one bundle and you have to buy everything that’s in it. If we push this analogy to its limit, imagine further that you are required to eat everything that’s in the bundle. Similarly, we could imagine restaurants working in this sort of way. 

You can easily see the problems. First, the stores would cater to the median shopper and diner, in a pretty good replica of the median voter theorem. Minority tastes would be largely shut out. Second, very few people would be anywhere close to fully happy with their bundle of groceries or their meal. And if you’re required to eat what you buy, some folks are going to be very unhappy about their meals. I would not look forward to watching Sarah try to choke down some olives. (Though she would be looking forward to it even less!) The overall level of preference satisfaction in politics will be far less than in the market because there’s no way to either satisfy minority tastes or offer specialized versions of common goods that better match people’s preferences. This is the problem with the institutions of collective choice: in politics, everyone has to eat the olives.

The collective choice processes of politics, by definition, don’t allow for the possibility of the tolerance of others’ preferences that is the foundation of the marketplace. This is why so many political battles, especially recently, seem so high-stakes. It’s a winner-take-all game, so those who perceive themselves in the minority have every reason to fight hard, if not cheat.

The more goods and services that are provided through political allocation, the more we will deal with this sort of problem. One need only think about extending the grocery analogy to health care, for example. If we think it’s important that no one is forced to eat the olives, and if we think it’s important that people are able to acquire the particular goods and services they want, we need to rely on markets to the largest extent possible. And doing so requires that we extend a degree of tolerance to the preferences of minorities that politics does not require. As more of our lives are centered around those winner-take-all political choices, the tolerance necessary for markets might become increasingly hard to come by. 



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Externalities and Our Children

The reason why things don’t work properly is that the right people are not in politics. Of course, what you think are the right people is not necessarily what your neighbor thinks, so ultimately the problem is a lack of national unity. What is needed is that we share the same values under democratic political leadership. And even this is not enough. Every voter must spend at least as much time studying every major political issue as he spends buying a new car. Add inclusivity to all this, and the proliferation of externalities would become solvable. If we are one, there cannot be anything external to us (reminder: the main characteristic of externalities is that they are external to the market). With more Alexandria Occasio-Cortezs and more Sidney Powells in politics, with more knowledgeable and devoted bureaucrats, we could hope that greedy consumers would stop gouging businesses, that rational policies would prevail, and that people with good union jobs would work selflessly for our children.

My readers will understand that the model of the state adumbrated above is poles apart from any defensible political and social theory. We may say it’s balderdash. It’s an excuse to playfully mark the 2021 April Fools’ Day (check this link to the Encyclopedia Britannica and you will see what the fish has to do with all that).


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Krugman Illustrates Caplan’s Point

In January 2019, co-blogger Bryan Caplan wrote:

The theory of market failure is a reproach to the free-market economy.  Unless you have perfect competition, perfect information, perfect rationality, and no externalities, you can’t show that individual self-interest leads to social efficiency.*  And this anti-market interpretation is largely apt.  You can’t legitimately infer that markets are socially optimal merely because every market exchange is voluntary.

Contrary to popular belief, however, market failure theory is alsoa reproach to every existing government.  How so?  Because market failure theory recommends specific government policies – and actually-existing governments rarely adopt anything like them.

What we also often see and, depressingly, even usually see, is that economists who are pro-government intervention to fix market failures have a much lower standard for the government than they have for the market. So the odds are that avoiding the specific government policy being proposed would get us closer to the optimum than implementing the government policy.

A case in point is Paul Krugman and his views on the recent $1.9 trillion spending bill. In Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “Larry Summers versus the Stimulus,” March 18, 2021, Wallace-Wells makes that point, although I’m not sure that that’s his intention.

Wallace-Wells, describing a recent debate between Krugman and Larry Summers about the Biden spending plan, writes:

Krugman asked, rhetorically, which elements of the package Summers would cut. Not the public goods, like vaccination and funds for school reopening, and surely not the needed income support. What was left was the part that members of Congress had most vociferously demanded: the aid to state and local governments (which Krugman agreed probably exceeded the fiscal need) and the checks to people who had not much suffered. Krugman said, “The checks, which are the least-justifiable piece in terms of standard economics, are also by far the most popular, and I don’t think we can entirely disregard that.”

Put aside the fact that the funds for school reopening are almost certainly not justified because the risks to students and teachers are so low. Notice what even Krugman admits. First, that the aid to state and local governments is too much, even by his standards. Second, the checks to people who hadn’t suffered much, which are a huge part of the package, are the “least-justifiable piece in terms of standard economics.” And what’s Krugman’s justification for those payments? That they are “by far the most popular” and, for that reason, we can’t “entirely disregard that.”

In short, in order to get hundreds of billions in spending that Krugman thinks are justified, he is willing to have the government spend other hundreds of billions for things that are not justified. Such is the nature of many, perhaps most, economists’ advocacy of government policy.

Note: The picture above is of a Rube Goldberg machine, which is what I think a lot of government policy is like. There is one difference. The Rube Goldberg machine always worked.


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Paul Krugman and the Notion of Choice

In one of his recent New York Times columns (“Too Much Choice Is Hurting America,” March 1, 2021), Nobel economist Paul Krugman worries about the US having become

a country in which many of us are actually offered too many choices, in ways that can do a lot of harm.

It’s true that both Economics 101 and conservative ideology say that more choice is always a good thing. …

In the real world, too much choice can be a big problem. …

Too much choice creates space for predators who exploit our all-too-human limitations.

… people have limited “bandwidth” for processing complex issues.

This is not an original opinion. It is typical of the authoritarian left and of the authoritarian right. Even Trump might agree, he who did not mind preventing people from buying dolls made in China. Krugman should know why, for nearly three centuries, mainstream economics, and not only at the 101 level, has taken the opposite stance.

As a positive science, economics shows that individuals make their choices on the basis of their preferences and their constraints. Individuals generally prefer more choices because that increases the possibilities of satisfying their preferences. One is more limited if he can choose between only a rotary telephone and a push-button one.  If we use economics normatively on the basis of classical-liberal values (from which Krugman has far drifted), every individuals should have the right to choose what he wants—besides committing crimes such as murder because a social system allowing such crimes is presumably in nobody’s interest.

When Prof. Krugman states that “many of us are actually offered too many choices,” he doesn’t include himself, but only the poor or those who he thinks don’t have his intellect. What would he say if some intellectual told him that he has too many book choices? What if we told him that he is manipulated by “predators who exploit our all-too-human limitations”?

Of course, it is true that some individuals make choices that turn out to be bad for their own future. But what is the alternative?

Mr. Krugman only dislikes individual choices. He loves the alternative: collective choices imposed on everybody, choices where individuals are much more impotent and blind. Impotent because the typical individual—as opposed to a Nobel prizewinner with a column in the New York Times—has only one vote that will not change the result of any election; and moreover because, “in the real world,” politicians and bureaucrats make most of the collective decisions anyway. Blind because, for the reasons we have just seen, the ordinary voter remains “rationally ignorant” (as public-choice economists say) of politics and spends less time getting information on politics than when, as a consumer, he buys a new car. Even if you think that you are buying something when you vote, it is nearly infinitely more difficult to figure out what you buy than when you purchase for yourself a car, a computer, a health insurance policy, or a mortgage.

Given his predilection for collective choices, we can suspect that Krugman wants his elitism to be imposed by laws and regulations, mandates and bans. His columns are not meant to be about aesthetics and literary criticism. Isn’t he worried that, in collective choices, political predators, with the same cognitive limitations as “many of us,” will “exploit our all-too-human limitations”? Who is more dangerous, a political demagogue or the VP Marketing at Ford?

Krugman cites the case of the Great Recession as an example of individuals being incompetent to make choices:

One cause of the 2008 financial crisis was the proliferation of novel financial arrangements, like interest-only loans, that looked like good deals but exposed borrowers to huge risks.

To be fair, he does speak of one cause but why does he not mention the major role played by the federal government, which was already guaranteeing nearly half of residential mortgages and was controlling the whole market? The main “novel financial arrangement,” the mortgage-based security, was created in 1970 by Ginnie Mae, a federal government agency that long boasted about it on its website. Krugman knows something about this because he wrote in a 2009 book that securitization was “pioneered by Fannie Mae,” a government-sponsored enterprise. Moreover, the federal government had spent decades encouraging poor people to buy mortgages and coercing banks into not discriminating against people likely to be incapable of reimbursing them. In 2003, congressman Barney Frank declared (all citations in my 2011 book Somebody in Charge):

I believe that we, as the Federal Government, have probably done too little rather than too much to push them to meet their goals of affordable housing and to set reasonable goals. … I would like to get Fannie [Mae] and Freddie [Mac] more deeply into helping low-income housing and possibly moving into something that is more explicitly a subsidy. … I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidizing housing.

All that is a bit troubling. How can somebody like Krugman, who is, after all, an economist and obviously an intelligent man, defend such simplistic ideas? Should we just suppose that his New York Times columns are so heavily edited that they don’t really represent his own opinions? (The New York Times is apparently known as an “editors’ paper” as opposed to a “writers’ paper.”) But if so, why would he accept to play that game?


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The President and the Good King Dagobert

It is suggested that the good President Biden called off one air strike in Syria after being told in extremis that a woman and a couple of children were near the planned impact (Gordon Lubold et al., “Biden Called Off Strike on a Second Military Target in Syria Last Week,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2021), just the opposite of what happened in the movie Eye in the Sky. I suspect that Joe Biden is, in private life, a decent human being. But he has some potential, prefigured in his previous politician’s life, to be a monster in politics. Jason Brennan argues in Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2016) that “politics makes us worse.”

But there are two related lessons of the aborted Syria strike that are perhaps less immediately obvious.

The first one is that simple people like to think that their ruler is good. “If only the king (or the Party) knew what’s happening, he would stop it.” Biden didn’t let it happen because he is a good ruler. That may bring to mind—or at least to the mind of a critical Frenchman—the French nursery rhyme “Le bon roi Dagobert” (The Good King Dagobert), in reference to the 7th-century monarch. Interestingly enough, though, the song was composed to mock royalty a few decades before the French Revolution of 1789, that is, before the French replaced a weak king with a series of strong dictators—what frequently happens in revolutions.

Trusting the rulers is an old habit of mankind, probably deeply embedded in our brains by evolution just like, according to Nobel economist Friedrich Hayek, tribal instincts are. In this perspective, the “Great Society” (to use Hayek’s formula) requires that we reject our tribal instincts in favor of an abstract and impersonal order based on individual liberty.

Despite the glitch of 1789, we can view the Enlightenment—including the Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume and Adam Smith—as a major step towards Hayek’s Great Society. The American Revolution was another step. But can mankind stop trusting its supposedly benevolent rulers? This is a crucial question, especially pressing in our troubled times. James Buchanan, the Nobel economist whose work in “constitutional political economy” was devoted to the liberal ideal although in another perspective than Hayek’s, ended up sharing the latter’s pessimism. In a Public Choice article published a few years before his death, Buchanan wrote:

The thirst or desire for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed.

Perhaps many people do want their security guaranteed and their lives ruled by a good king Dagobert?

The second lesson illustrated by the cancelled strike is that it is in the state’s interest to have its subjects believe that the king or democratic ruler is good and benevolent. (In a state that is not perfectly autocratic, “the state’s interest” means the result of the interactions between politicians, courtiers, and government bureaucrats.) It is thus in the state’s interest to reveal, embellish, or leak instances of the rulers’ goodness. Isn’t there a good chance that the Syria incident was leaked under orders from our good king Dagobert?

Even under a constitutional—that is, limited—government, the belief in a good ruler is dangerous because it can disarm essential mistrust. As often, Anthony de Jasay found the way to put a related but more general problem in a few unforgettable words:

Self-imposed limits on sovereign power can disarm mistrust, but provide no guarantee of liberty and property beyond those afforded by the balance between state and private force.

This suggests many other questions. Stay tuned.


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Postscript: Orwell for Socialism

[Scroll to the end for a couple final reactions to comments .]

In a reflective moment, George Orwell wrote, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”  Yet if you actually read his oeuvre, you’ll find a striking disparity: Orwell’s anti-totalitarian writing is massive, but his pro-socialist writing is wafer thin.  As far as I know, the closest thing Orwell produces to an argument for democratic socialism appears in his review of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom:

[Hayek] does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led, and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.


Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.

In Orwell’s day, many readers would have responded, “Orwell wrote little, but the few pro-socialist words he wrote suffice.”  Even today, many would sympathize.  Yet despite my love for Orwell, he he’s thoroughly mistaken.  Point-by-point:

[Hayek] does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State.

Hardly.  As of 1940, quality of life for “the great mass of people” was near its all-time global high in the world’s most capitalist countries: the United States, United Kingdom, and Switzerland.  These countries were the richest and the freest – and not “just for the rich.”  Seriously, where on Earth would you rather be living in 1940?  You could say that the United States, United Kingdom, and Switzerland were even better for the great mass of people immediately prior to the Great Depression.  But that’s praising with faint damnation.

The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.

This is misleading even for athletics.  Yes, someone wins the game.  To continue winning, however, even the best teams have to keep practicing and improving.  Every day is another chance for losing teams to turn things around.

The same goes for business.  On any given day, some firms are doing great.  That doesn’t mean, however, that they’ve permanently “won.”  Even if all of their direct competitors go out of business, successful firms have to worry about future competitors.  Amazon is by far the best store in history, but they tirelessly strive to improve because they want to stay number one.

Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led…

“Monopoly”?!  What is Orwell even talking about?  I suppose he could be focusing on a few industries with large economies of scale, but even in his time that would have been a modest share of total output.  Or he might be thinking about industries like agriculture with state-sponsored cartels, but you can hardly blame “free capitalism” for that.

and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.

Mass unemployment is a grave evil, and the evil was probably never graver than during the Great Depression.  But even in Orwell’s day, economists had a compelling diagnosis and effective cures.

The diagnosis: Unemployment is caused by excessive wages.  The effective cures: Either (a) let wages fall, or (b) print more money to reduce wages surreptitiously.  Despite its popularity, “state regimentation” is a red herring that fails to address the actual problem.

Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war.

The dole was indeed a popular response to high unemployment.  But once you grasp the wage-unemployment connection, you start to worry that the dole prolongs unemployment by reducing the pressure to bring wages down to the full employment level.

The “scramble for markets” story is Leninist dogma.  As the gravity model predicts, rich countries mostly trade with nearby rich countries, not their nation’s colonies.  The post-war loss of colonies was a big blow to nationalist pride, but economically trivial because the colonies were never economically important in the first place.

And war?  Blame nationalism and totalitarianism, not “capitalism.”  If capitalist greed ran Europe in 1914, all of the major powers would have realized that preserving good economic relations with European neighbors was vastly more profitable than grabbing some remote, impoverished colonies.

Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war.

Yes, yes, and yes.

There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.

On the contrary, the “way out” is to combine freedom of the intellect with a free market economy.  Fortunately, that’s easy because these two freedoms are not only compatible, but mutually supportive.  And if we restore the concept of right and wrong to politics, combining these two freedoms is precisely what we’ll do, because there is a strong moral presumption in favor of freedom.

Final Reactions

A few final reactions:

Miguel Madeira:

“Strictly hereditary dictatorship, per Pascal, has the lowest selection pressure for bloodthirsty power-hunger. ”

Unless we follow the KevinDC model – if we assume that bloodthirsty power-hunger dictators will purge all other potential bloodthirsty power-hunger dictators (meaning that his successor will probably be a risk-averse yes-man)…

I’d say that a truly risk-averse yes-man would steer clear of politics.  The most bloodthirsty dictators might select for underlings who are risk-averse by the standards of ruthless politics, but their absolute level of risk-aversion would still be low.


Thoroughly enjoyed this book club. I’ve been curious throughout whether you would ever touch on the meta-theory that Oceania is actually a lie and the totalitarian state is actually limited to a small autarkical geography. That the reasons that some of the balance of power arguments between the major powers seem shaky are attributable to the power of the government itself being a lie. The reference above to believing absurdities plays nicely into this, and reminds me somewhat of my travels in Cambodia and some of the reflections on the Khmer Rouge’s reign.

I never heard this story, but it doesn’t seem plausible.  Winston Smith clearly lives in England.  They still have a train system, airplanes, and rockets.  And he remembers nuclear war.  So it doesn’t sound like he’s living in a small isolated country.


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Is Amazon a Corporate Mother Teresa?

Amazon is in many ways a fascinating company and deserves to be defended against most of its mainstream critics. However, it would be simplistic to explain its campaign for a $15 federally-imposed minimum wage by identifying it with a corporate Mother Teresa. Its more obvious reasons to preach for minimum wages are not defendable.

I will not repeat all the arguments against the minimum wage, summarized in a good article by Cato Institute’s Ryan Bourne (“The Case Against a $15 Federal Minimum Wage: Q&A”). My co-blogger David Henderson has also defended many of the standard economic arguments. There exist some disagreements among economists about the employment effect of minimum wages, but they mainly relate to the size and victims of the negative effect (see Bourne’s overview).

One thing is sure: Amazon would benefit from forcing higher costs on its small competitors, including mom-and-pop businesses. A higher minimum wage would have exactly this effect while it would have zero effect on Amazon’s costs. As the company already pays a starting wage equal to the proposed $15 minimum, the latter would be non-binding and irrelevant for the retail behemoth.

One reason why Amazon was able to bid up the wage of its entry-level workforce is that its technology and other capital embedded in its warehouses and distribution network increase the productivity of its employees, which justifies the bidding up from a pure profit-maximizing viewpoint. There is nothing wrong with profits, but there is something wrong wtith using state power to bankrupt one’s competitors. This is what is happening. Jonathan Meer, an economist at A&M University observes:

It’s a lot harder for Joe’s Hardware. We should take note that Amazon—the place with no cashiers—is the one calling for a higher minimum wage.

Other large companies—such as Walmart—have come out in favor of an increase in the federal minimum but not up to $15. In their case, indeed, $15 would be binding for some employees. (Cf. Eric Morath and Heather Haddon, “Many Businesses Support a Minimum-Wage Increase—Just Not Biden’s $15-an-Hour Plan,” Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2021)

Amazon has another reason to be politically correct, that is, to signal its virtue under current faddish and unrealistic ideas. The company can hope to cajole DC’s powerful men to spare it from some regulation that would bite. The systemic effects of such behavior point to crony capitalism and groveling toward the state, which are not good for free enterprise and future prosperity.

It is not clear, to say the least, what kind of acceptable ethics could justify Amazon’s current behavior.


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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club: Final Thoughts

In “Why I Write,” Orwell declares “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”  A curious claim.  I’ve read 1984 at least ten times and Animal Farm at least five times, plus much of his other work.   Orwell’s attack on totalitarianism is blatant, trenchant, and thorough.  His defense of democratic socialism, in contrast, is practically invisible.  So despite his self-image, Orwell ends up being history’s greatest critic of totalitarianism – and not much else.

And he was the best at what he did.  Orwell didn’t merely expose totalitarianism as a system based on brutality, lies, and dehumanization.  He dug deep, and exposed its root: irrationality.  1984 is a grand illustration of Voltaire’s aphorism that “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”  Yes, totalitarians often claim the mantle of “reason” – and their traditionalist and religious critics are happy it hand to to them.   But the heart of totalitarianism is fanatical belief in a mountain of absurdities.  Their distinctive empirical claims are plainly false, and their distinctive arguments are either riddled with errors or so meaningless they’re “not even false.”  And the low quality of totalitarian thought is hardly surprising, because they use terror to silence their critics instead of patiently hearing them out.

Though Orwell is the greatest critic of totalitarianism, he made a few major mistakes.  First and foremost, he casually accepted the socialist critique of capitalism.  If he looked at the world, he would have noticed that the world’s most capitalist countries were near the pinnacle of human civilization.  Instead, he placed his faith in empty socialist promises of a brighter future.  Orwell also casually accepted the Leninist theory of imperialism: The idea that countries fight over colonies because they desperately need to off-load the fruits of domestic “overproduction.”  Yet due to the gravity model, the European powers’ best customers were always other European countries.  That’s why they were able to hastily release their colonies after World War II.  Given his keen insight into political psychology, Orwell should have defaulted to the simple story that war is the triumph of nationalistic emotion over capitalist calculation.  A great missed opportunity!

[few more comments on book club]


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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 6

Here are my reactions to last week’s Book Club comments, starting with a fine exchange between John Alcorn and KevinDC.


1) In previous posts, you argue that totalitarian regimes can maintain power indefinitely — or at least much longer than they do — if successors would practice ruthless repression like the founders. For example, loss of nerve among rulers after Stalin, culminating in Gorbachev, explains the collapse of communism.

In your post about war, you argue that war is an efficacious means to the end of justifying ruthless domestic repression, and that war also spontaneously occurs among power-hungry dictators.

Why, then, did successors often lose their nerve in 20th-century totalitarian regimes? (We’re back to sideward glances at western prosperity, and tensions between totalitarian empire and national sentiments in smaller, satellite States.)


I suspect this has a lot to do with the nature of power struggles in dictatorships. Initially, they are won by the most ruthless and cold blooded people – the ones who will do absolutely anything to get power. But almost by definition, in the process of gaining power they also push aside or eliminate everyone who was almost but not quite as ruthless as they were. And during their reign, they keep a firm eye out for and move swiftly against anyone who might be ruthless enough to challenge them. As a result, when the first dictator passes, there’s nobody left who has that same level of brutality and brutal competence, so their successor is inevitably less brutal and more moderate. This may also explain what’s different in the case of North Korea – being an explicitly familial dynasty, you could select for equally brutal successors in a way that wasn’t true in the Soviet Union.

Alcorn again:

2) Re: North Korea.

Are you sure that dynastic succession (kin lineage) facilitates selection for efficacious brutality? As you point out, trust might allow the founder to inculcate brutality in the son. However, natural endowments, too, matter. Brutality genes might skip a generation! Regression to the mean is probable. Kin lineage greatly reduces the scope of eligible pool of talent in efficacious brutality.

Blaise Pascal argued that kin lineage reduces both competence and strife.

Both John and Kevin make good points.  My reconciliation, to channel Gordon Tullock:

1. Revolutionary dictatorships are the worst of the worst, because revolutions select for bloodthirsty risk-taking true believers.  After a successful revolution, prospects are bleak until the whole founding generation dies off.  When Mao finally died, China was amazingly lucky to get a crusty pragmatist like Deng Xiaoping instead of a second Maoist fanatic.

2. Subsequent generations of dictators are generally a big improvement.  Sure, the upper echelons struggle eagerly for power.  But stable regimes attract slightly squeamish risk-averse opportunists.  After two generations, these opportunists come to vastly outnumber bloodthirsty risk-taking true believers.

3. Strictly hereditary dictatorship, per Pascal, has the lowest selection pressure for bloodthirsty power-hunger.  While plenty of hereditary dictators are still awful tyrants, hereditary dictators are the most likely to peacefully relinquish power, or at least “go with the flow.”  The main worry is just that weak hereditary leaders will be reduced to figurehead status by whoever wins the tournament to “advise” them.

So what happened with Gorbachev?  He mostly fits my profile of a “slightly squeamish risk-averse opportunist.”  You could object that a risk-averse leader would never have embarked on glasnost and perestroika, but I say Gorbachev didn’t realize he was playing with fire until it was too late to retain power without a swift reversion to mass murder.  And too his credit, Gorbachev was too squeamish for that.

David Henderson:

I was expecting, when I saw that you had a link to the statement “It takes an outsider to see the ideological landscape as it really is,” that you would reference Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. I’m disappointed that you didn’t. You might argue that, coming from Austria, which was so close to Germany, Hayek was not clearly an outsider. But that makes his accomplishment all the more impressive.

Fair point.  Though I’m not a fan of Hayek, I agree that he deserves credit for popularizing the totalitarian model in The Road to Serfdom.

Henri Hein:

I agree that the Thought Police is efficient in fictional Oceania, but I have often found this to be one of the less plausible constructs in the novel. If government is so inefficient at everything, why should it be able to run an efficient Thought Police? I understand that the Russian equivalent was frightening, and somewhat effective, but given the powers and resources they were given, I don’t see any reason to accept they were efficient.

I agree that Orwell’s depiction of the efficiency of the Thought Police is implausibly high.  Once Winston and Julia get arrested, we learn that the Thought Police was on to them for years; they were sitting on piles of redundant evidence the whole time.  And the only clear “false positive” in 1984‘s system of repression is the character of Parsons, who was plainly a loyal Party member falsely denounced by his own children.  Real totalitarian regimes, in contrast, heavily persecute even their loyal followers.  Still, we should not underestimate the ability of totalitarian regimes to excel in tasks they prioritize.  As I’ve said before:

Communist regimes did provide poor incentives to produce consumer goods for ordinary citizens.  But they provided solid to excellent incentives in the sectors they really cared about: the military, secret police, border guarding, athletics, space programs, and so on.

Performance in these sectors was often (though hardly always) world-class.

I’ll post my final thought on Orwell’s book-within-a-book next week, along with replies to any general comments participants care to offer.




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