As I have explained many times before ("Making Grievances Worse", "A Brief Aside", "The Urge to Simplify", "Coming Attractions - 2015, June 13","Things to Come") I have recently been reading a number of explicitly Marxist sites. While they deal mainly with literary criticism, and some discussion of social justice and similar issues, there is also some discussion of more general political discussion, and that has raised a number of interesting questions for me. For example, there is the repeated claim that Stalin's Russia, while growing out a potentially communist revolt, was not itself a true worker's state. Instead, according to this theory, the West's sponsorship of the White Army, perhaps exacerbated by the growth of anti-Communist states such as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, turned the Russia revolution away from the establishment of a worker's state, and instead created either "state capitalism" or a bureaucratic state. There is also some interesting discussion of how both Stalinist Russian and Nazi Germany were "capitalist" states in some sense, but we will defer that for a future essay, along with another question about whether or not capitalism can exist without requiring state intervention. For the moment, I will limit our topic to the question of whether a socialist or communist stater -- let us just say a workers' state -- that is, a state with state ownership of the means of production and some sort of state distribution of goods -- could exist without becoming authoritarian.
On the face of it, this question is absurd, since a state which both owns all productive assets and controls the distribution of all products is, pretty much by definition, authoritarian, since the state has close to absolute power. After all, if such a state were to take umbrage to a given act, they would not even have to imprison the actor, simply refuse to provide him with the necessities of life until he changed or perished. But perhaps that is too simplistic an approach. After all, in theory, in the power of arrest, or the use of deadly force, all states have the tools used by authoritarian states, so maybe it is unfair to criticize communist states for granting the state so much power. Instead, what we would do better to ask is whether or not a communist state must, of necessity, choose to ignore individual liberties, individual desires, in short, is it inevitable that a workers' state must be some form of tyranny?
I examined a version of this question in my earlier essay "The Sado-Masochist Society, or, Would Primitive Communism Work?", but in some senses that may be an inadequate response, as it assumes -- for reasons I made clear in "The Basics" -- that an excessively intrusive state is incompatible with individual happiness or satisfaction. But again, given that we currently live in a relatively intrusive state yet most consider themselves free, this may be a difficult point to argue1. Thus, I think it may be best o start with no assumptions, and proceed from the basic situation, to argue that, by any standard, a communist state would inevitably become oppressive to the majority of its populace.
The first thing we must recognize is, quite simply, the point I have made repeatedly2, that there is simply no rational choice of what to produce and in what quantities. "Wants" and "needs", while treated as meaningful, are actually nothing more than the expression of a single individual's prejudices. Thus, if production is to be directed by the state, in some form, then the choice of what to produce and what not to produce is entirely arbitrary3. Without the price mechanism of the free market to direct producers toward those needs most keenly felt by consumers, the communist state must create a production schedule from whole cloth, arbitrarily deciding what consumers want, and in what quantities. Nor is that the end of the problem. Not only do they not have any tools to tell them what people want, they also lack the feedback mechanism the market provides to allow them to adjust those production goals, not only to correct errors, but to adjust to changing desires. Even if, through some magic, they could divine individual desires when creating the individual plan, they would not have a means of knowing if those desires changed, or how much. Thus, not only will the plan be an arbitrary construct, but it will also be unresponsive one, failing to adjust to changes.
Some may respond that these are ways around this, one could poll the public concerning their desires, or establish some sampling of the public to produce an approximation of desires, but that ignores a number of problems. First, polling cannot work as continuously as the market does, the market is a continual poll of consumers. And, a sample, though it may approximate the real outcome, is always less precise than a poll of all consumers, which is what the market provides. But even if we allow that polling, despite imprecision, is acceptably close, there are other issues. For example, individuals may not truly know how to rank their own desires. If asked "how many carrots would you want? How many potatoes? " you may be able to give a rough estimate, but such a wish list would, divorced from the concept of cost or tradeoffs, would likely ask the state to produce more than is possible. Thus, the poll would need to ask questions in the form "If you had 5 carrots and five potatoes, how many carrots would you give up for a potato?" which most consumers could not truly answer. And it would need to ask for every good combination. In short, the problems solved by the combination of the use of currency and the market economy with ease, could only be done through impossibly complex questions answered continually by the public. And, to make it even worse, this would only apply to consumer goods. What about producer's goods, raw materials and labor? The price of those figures strongly into setting production goals, we must always decide about tradeoffs between producers' and consumers' goods, and yet polls would have a hard time setting the price of producers' goods.
In short, without a market economy, there is simply no way to establish production goals except for an arbitrary choice. This choice can be made in various ways, it can be set by a single individual, by a committee, by a vote for choices between competing plans, by a compromise between various committees, by collaboration between various production syndicates, or any of countless other schemes, but, in the end, the choice is still arbitrary, representing, at best, a momentary snapshot of the desires of a subset of all individuals, or, even more accurately, what that subset of individuals imagine to be the best combination of outputs, since those setting the goals may attempt to honestly represent the desires of their fellows. And, even if they don't, if they base their decision on nothing but their own desires, even then, it is likely they will not do as well when trying to express those desires in terms of total economic output than they would when expressing their desires through the simple purchase of items4.
I am sure at this point many readers are wondering what any of this has to do with tyranny and communism, and I hope it shall be made clear shortly. You see, I started with this simple principle, because there are many other aspects of highly interventionist states that are similarly arbitrary, and thus, by demonstrating the arbitrary aspect of this fundamental aspect of the government, I hope to make it easier to demonstrate the other arbitrary aspects. All of which play a significant part in what I shall argue is the inevitable tyranny of a workers' state.
The most obvious candidate for arbitrary decisions, beyond production, would be distribution, but we shall postpone that for a moment to look at another issue, the selection of jobs. Now, according to orthodoxy Marxists, under a true workers' state, individuals will be free to choose the jobs they want, shifting between them at will. There are a host of problems with this model, such as unskilled individuals trying to work where they should not, the lack of specialization limiting skill development, the problems changing jobs produce for workplace continuity, for reliability of labor and so on5, but let us look at an even more basic problem, how to ensure we have workers for the jobs we need filled. After all, if pay is not tied to work, then who would choose to collect garbage? Or do a host of other jobs that are generally seen as low in prestige, high in effort and also unpleasant for any number of reasons? As I argued in "The Sado-Masochist Society, or, Would Primitive Communism Work?", people would rationally choose the jobs requiring the least effort, assuming the rewards were the same.
Of course, if we stick with strict Marxist dogma, supposedly the future workers' state will breed a new type of man, so maybe they will not be driven by such prosaic attitudes. But, for the life of me, I still cannot imagine that any sort of ideal being would make choices against reason. And, if we look at things reasonably, if the rewards are the same, then the work which requires the least effort makes sense, as it maximizes our benefit.
To get around this, I suppose we could use one of the tools the Soviet Union once tried, that of making undesirable jobs high prestige, praising those who took on jobs others did not want. And in a way this might work. But I would think it would only work for certain jobs. For example, those jobs which are difficult because they require a high degree of skill and a large amount of effort, such as surgeon or physicist or engineer, those I could see retaining a high prestige, which some might see as compensating for the aded effort required. And, perhaps, if one were very clever and manipulated the public to make it seem honorable to sacrifice for the good of others, it might be possible to attach some prestige to jobs that were exceptionally loathsome or otherwise unappealing, arguing that those who chose to take on these jobs no one would do, are making a heroic sacrifice for the state. So, I concede it might be possible, using praise and other social pressures, to fill some of the more labor intensive jobs, but there still remains one problem. Somewhere on the spectrum of jobs, there are those where the combination of praise and effort required still make them less desirable than others, and so they will still be impossible to fill voluntarily. Now, I admit, by combining two factors, and two factors which individuals may value differently, there will be some variation in which jobs are seen as least desirable, and so some jobs on the borderline between desirable and undesirable might seem appealing enough to a set of individuals to still get filled, but there will remain cases where the consensus is that they are simply too unrewarding, and no means of voluntary staffing will fill them, provided the reward is the same for all jobs6.
Here we find one of the problems with a socialist state. Let us suppose our state is truly free, and follows the dogma of voluntary employment. At some point, some essential tasks will doubtless go unfulfilled. It may be garbage collection, it may be surgery, it may be anything, but at some time, the excess effort required will discourage individuals from undertaking such a task. In a market economy, at such a point the increased demand for that service will raise wages, and soon it will be performed. Under a socialist economy, there is no solution. We can talk about individuals volunteering to take on a task, but in truth, many jobs may be unfilled, or inadequately filled, and yet not be obvious to the public. For example, if garbage is going uncollected, it may not be for lack of trash collectors, but rather for lack of those making garbage trucks, or those working in landfills. The public's perception of the problem may not make clear where the lack is, and thus, even with civic-minded, volunteer-happy public (which I am skeptical will exist even in a perfect workers' state), there will be no way for them to know which tasks are in urgent need of workers, and thus, without a coordinating mechanism, the economy will gradually decline.
This presents our workers' state with two options. First, they can accept the failures of the system, accept the shortcomings which we shall discuss shortly, or they can implement a form of coercion. Nothing overtly tyrannical, necessarily, but they certainly need to implement some means to let people know where labor is lacking, and, if, as I suspect, people still fail to volunteer in adequate numbers of those jobs which are undesirable to perform, assign workers to those tasks. This second solution has a secondary benefit in that it solves one of the other problems of voluntary work, people taking on jobs for which they are unqualified or incompetent. If labor is not voluntary, but assigned, as has been the case in all modern communist states, it will ensure that jobs are adequately staffed, and not undertaken by those who are not capable of performing them. Of course, enforcing such decisions does require a loss of some degree of freedom, but it avoids a worse problem, which we shall discuss next.
I mentioned above the fact that a production schedule under a workers' state would be arbitrary, but in a sense I am being unfair to true Marxism. Under the ideal workers' state of Marx, one which has progressed beyond the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is not any plan at all. Unlike the arbitrary, yet inefficient, plans I discussed above, under a true Marxist utopia, all labor is voluntary, and so production is driven, not by market forces, not by a combination of consumption and production, but purely by producers' desires. In accord with Marx's fascination with labor7, production, assuming labor is truly voluntary, would be driven by nothing but the preferences of the producers. In short, rather than an arbitrary plan imposed on the producers, production will be chaotic, driven by the productive whims of individuals. With workers free to choose their labor, presumably the output would also be determined by the current desires of the workers choosing to work in a given shop. Thus, production would be driven by what products seem most pleasant to make, rather than giving any thought to consumption. I suppose some workers of a more far sighted nature may choose to produce goods that seem most urgently needed, but without any coordination it would be difficult for any single worker, or even group of workers to truly know what is in and is not needed. In addition, with labor being unreliable it would be likely labor would focus on goods that can be produced in a short time, as no one can predict if adequate workers will be available for longer term projects.
Of course, this can be resolved through the solution of modern communist states, that is, imposing tasks upon workers, and coordinating their efforts to match a conventional production plan. But that too has drawbacks, as the more workers are coerced to act against their desires, the less appealing the workers' state seems, and, since their arbitrary production plans are inevitably less productive than a market system would be, workers will find themselves no more free, and with less to show for it, which is why so many modern communist states also enforce limited contact between their nation and foreign lands, as well as strongly monitoring their citizens.
However, I suppose I should be as fair as possible, and point out that, while it is true, if we wish to have anything approaching a modern economy, or even simple subsistence, we would need to institute precisely the same social controls we find in modern communist states, it is possible, assuming we do not care about any economic factors, for us to have a truly free communist state. It is conceivable we could have a state where workers choose at which tasks to work, what to produce and so on. Of course, the output of such an economy would likely fall short of even subsistence, not to mention the massive problem with maintaining infrastructure, much less building new infrastructure (identical to Smith's tragedy of the commons), but that is a secondary concern compared to the absolute productive chaos which would result in massive shortages of almost everything.
It is possible to go on, to apply more analysis, but why bother? The simple fact is, if there is no coercive assignment of labor and imposition of labor plans, communism as conceived by Marx would produce an economic chaos which would doubtless end in famine. So, while it is possible to imagine such a state, and it could function -- in a sense -- for a short time, there is no way such a state could exist for long. Thus, I think it is safe to say, communism, for all practical purposes, requires an authoritarian state, as the alternative is a rapidly worsening tragedy.
1. I suppose the best analogy is with the incubation of a disease. One can be suffering from, say, hepatitis, or the early stages of many cancers, even have suffered considerable physical damage, and yet feel none of the symptoms. Similarly, I would argue, the degree of intervention in our state, the level of government intrusion, while seen by most as acceptable and compatible with individual liberty, in truth it is simply setting the stage for larger losses of liberty and a state where we will eventually recognize that we have lost our freedoms, that it makes tyranny inevitable. Even if most people imagine that we are still free and the government is exercising nothing more than common sense regulation. (See "Inescapable Logic", "Slippery Slopes", "Common Sense, Guns and Regulations", "The Problem of Established Perspectives", "The Urge to Simplify", "The Lunacy of 'Common Sense'", "'Seems About Right', Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revisited, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact", "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship" and "The Problem with Common Sense Solutions")
2. See "One More Meaningless Word and Its Consequences", "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", "Protean Terminology", "Semantic Games", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions", "Weasel Words and Hollow Words", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "The Case for Small Government", "Fairness and the Free Market", "Capitalism and Its Consequences", "Two Sided Processes and Claims of "Unfair" Outcomes".
3. There is often a straw man argument made in response, that the free market is equally arbitrary, but that ignores that the price system, as well as the market's direction of revenues to those best meeting the desires of others, tends to direct the producers to follow the desires of their fellows, or else forces them out of the market. (See "High Cost of Medical Care","Government Efficiency", "Medical Reform, An Overview", "The Absurdity of Mandatory Insurance", "Clarification of my Argument for a Free Market in Medicine", "Preexisting Conditions", "Misunderstanding Profits", "Government Quackery", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "The Devil is in the Definitions (And Assumptions)", "Bad Economics Part 10", "Bad Economics Part 18", "Cutting "Costs"", "A Different Look at "Health Care Reform"", "Reviving Nonsense in the White House", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Again?", "Collective Ventures Versus Government" ,"Greed Versus Evil", "Competition", "The Basics", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "Planning for Imperfection", "Misunderstanding the Market", "How to Blame the Free Market", "How to Blame the Free Market Part II", "Contracts and Freedom", "Unfair Advantage and Foreign Trade", "In Praise of Contracts", "Third Best Economy" ,"Another Look At Exploitation", "Patronage", "Patronage Versus Choice")
4. If this sounds absurd, think about it this way. You go to the store to buy groceries for the week. You look at the items you want, assess the price of each, and make tradeoffs based on the price. It is fairly simple as there is but one measure. On the other hand, let us suppose you have a given basket of groceries and want to make it match your desires. Suppose you are told "to get one box of cereal you must give up four carrots, or two cans of beans, or three cans of soda, or six radishes or four squash or..." and follow it with a list of several hundred possible trades, including some made up of more than one good. Would you be able to accurately match your desires using such a system? Or would it be, not just much more difficult than using money, but actually impossible given the infinite amount of information you must consider in making each change?
5. There is an even more obvious problem. Since not all jobs produce physical output, and some don't even produce intellectual output with regularity, who is to contradict me if I say while lying about staring at clouds for the last week I was not working as a poet or theoretical physicist? And if I can get rewards for no effort at all, then why would anyone choose to work?
6. Actually, in the scheme proposed, praise is nothing but a form of compensation. Those jobs which are less appealing, for whatever reason, are selected to result in more praise, resulting in the wage, defined as a combination of the monetary reward and praise, is higher for those unappealing jobs. But, since monetary pay is fixed and constant, praise is the only variable, and thus there would still remain jobs where the additional burden is too great for the additional praise to make it worthwhile. Of course, as I said above, individual valuation of the worth of praise varies, so some jobs may be acceptable to some and not others, but there will likely remain some jobs where, no matter your valuation of praise, the amount of praise offered is inadequate to induce anyone to take that job.
7. For example, Marx's anachronistic insistence on preserving the labor theory of value, which conventional economists had long since abandoned as unrealistic. See "The Cart Before the Horse, or, Some Thoughts on the Iron Law of Wages", "Employment A to Z", "Fairness and the Free Market", "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 3, 2012)", "Stupid Quote of the Day (February 14, 2015 -- Delayed)".