The ruthlessness required for socialism?

In Camino de Servidumbre, Kevin D. Williamson argues that no one should be surprised by the recent developments in Venezuela.

In his classic monograph on central planning, The Road to Serfdom, F. A. Hayek noted something that seemed like a paradox: “Socialism can be put into practice only by methods of which most socialists disapprove,” he wrote. He argued that “the old socialist parties were inhibited by their democratic ideals” and that they “did not possess the ruthlessness required for the performance of their chosen task.”

But that was not always to be the case: For every “liberal in a hurry” there is a V. I. Lenin, a Fidel Castro, a Mao Zedong, a Ho Chi Minh, a Che Guevara, an Erich Honecker ready to roll up his sleeves and start slitting throats.

Our so-called democratic socialists and their progressive allies always pronounce themselves shocked by this, though of course they have long indulged it, well past the point of being able to plausibly pronounce themselves surprised by any of it. From the New York Times’s heroic efforts to not notice the repression and terror in the Soviet Union to Senator Ted Kennedy’s working on behalf of the KGB, from Noam Chomsky’s denial of the Cambodian genocide to modern Democrats’ love affair with Fidel Castro, there is no gulag brutal enough and no pile of corpses high enough to stir in the modern progressive the sort of outrage he might feel upon, say, learning that General Electric took advantage of an accelerated capital depreciation schedule for tax purposes.

Nice summary of The Knowledge Problem:

That was what concerned Hayek and his colleagues in what has become known as the Austrian school of economics, Ludwig von Mises prominent among them. They believed that the central-planning aspirations of the socialists were not simply inefficient or unworkable but impossible to execute, even in principle, owing to the way in which knowledge is dispersed in society. Drawing on more recent work in fields ranging from physics to computer science, modern complexity theorists have expanded enormously on those insights, arguing that markets, like evolution, are complex beyond comprehending even in principle, hence unpredictable and unmanageable. As he famously summarized it: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” From this Hayek, an old-fashioned liberal, concluded that while there might be room in a free and open society for a broad and generous welfare state, the project of providing benefits to poor and vulnerable people must be understood as distinct from the socialist project, which is to put economic production under political discipline. And this has been born out in our own experience: Sweden is simultaneously a free-trading, entrepreneurship-driven capitalist society and a society with a large and expensive (and recently reformed) welfare state. Sweden, sometimes held up as the model of good socialism, has in fact been following a policy of privatization and libertarian-ish reforms for 20 years, with an explicit commitment of moving away from an economy of government planning to an economy of market choice.

What’s that old quip about “Communism starts with bayonets at your door, Socialism ends with bayonets at your door.”

But men do not like being told that they cannot do that which they wish to do, and this is particularly true of men who have a keen interest in political power. Hayek believed that efforts to impose central planning on economies were doomed to fail, and that this failure would not be met with humility but with outrage. When socialist policies produced their inevitable economic consequences, the first reaction would be to try to pass laws against the realization of those economic consequences. We saw a good deal of that in Venezuela, for instance with the imposition of currency controls when excessive social-welfare spending produced hyperinflation.

But those efforts are of course doomed to failure as well, which leads to outright political repression, scapegoating, and violence.

Is Socialism merely the unluckiest movement in history, and next time it’ll be different?


Socialism is either the unluckiest political movement in the history of political movements, one that just happens to keep intersecting with the careers of monsters, or there is something about socialism itself that throws up monsters. There is nothing wrong with Venezuelans, and nothing unusual about them: Here at home, our own progressives dream of imprisoning people for holding unpopular political views, nationalizing key industries, and shutting down opposition media. They have black-shirted terrorists attacking people with explosives on college campuses for the crime of holding non-conforming political views. And they aren’t averse to a little old-fashioned Stalinism, either, provided there’s a degree or two of separation: Bernie Sanders, once an elector for the Socialist Workers party, remains the grumpy Muppet pin-up of the American Left.

“Socialism can be put into practice only by methods of which most socialists disapprove,” Hayek told us.

Are we really so sure?

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One Response to The ruthlessness required for socialism?

  1. Paul Marks says:

    Many socialists start off NOT ruthless – but socialism does not work, so they are “forced” to ruthless methods to try and make-it-work. But socialism still does not work – no matter how many people they murder.

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