This article was originally published in The Review of Austrian Economics in 1991, during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the root of the dazzling revolutionary implosion and collapse of socialism and central planning in the “socialist bloc” is what everyone concedes to be a disastrous economic failure. The peoples and the intellectuals of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are crying out not only for free speech, democratic assembly, and glasnost, but also for private property and free markets. And yet, if I may be pardoned a moment of nostalgia, four-and-a-half-decades ago, when I entered graduate school, the economics Establishment of that era was closing the book on what had been for two decades the famed “socialist calculation debate.” And they had all decided, left, right, and center, that there was not a thing economically wrong with socialism: that socialism’s only problems, such as they might be, were political. Economically, socialism could work just as well as capitalism.
Mises and the Challenge of Calculation
Before Ludwig von Mises raised the calculation problem in his celebrated article in 1920, everyone, socialists and non-socialists alike, had long realized that socialism suffered from an incentive problem. If, for example, everyone under socialism were to receive an equal income, or, in another variant, everyone was supposed to produce “according to his ability” but receive “according to his needs,” then, to sum it up in the famous question: Who, under socialism, will take out the garbage? That is, what will be the incentive to do the grubby jobs, and, furthermore, to do them well? Or, to put it another way, what would be the incentive to work hard and be productive at any job?
For well over a century, the Left has generally been conceded to have morality, justice, and “idealism” on its side; the Conservative opposition to the Left has largely been confined to the “impracticality” of its ideals. A common view, for example, is that socialism is splendid “in theory,” but that it cannot “work” in practical life. What the Conservatives failed to see is that while short-run gains can indeed be made by appealing to the impracticality of radical departures from the status quo, that by conceding the ethical and the “ideal” to the Left they were doomed to long-run defeat. For if one side is granted ethics and the “ideal” from the start, then that side will be able to effect gradual but sure changes in its own direction; and as these changes accumulate, the stigma of “impracticality” becomes less and less directly relevant. The Conservative opposition, having staked its all on the seemingly firm ground of the “practical” (that is, the status quo) is doomed to lose as the status quo moves further in the left direction. The fact that the unreconstructed Stalinists are universally considered to be the “Conservatives” in the Soviet Union is a happy logical joke upon conservatism; for in Russia the unrepentant statists are indeed the repositories of at least a superficial “practicality” and of a clinging to the existing status quo.
Never has the virus of “practicality” been more widespread than in the United States, for Americans consider themselves a “practical” people, and hence, the opposition to the Left, while originally stronger than elsewhere, has been perhaps the least firm at its foundation. It is now the advocates of the free market and the free society who have to meet the common charge of “impracticality.”
In no area has the Left been granted justice and morality as extensively and almost universally as in its espousal of massive equality. It is rare indeed in the United States to find anyone, especially any intellectual, challenging the beauty and goodness of the egalitarian ideal. So committed is everyone to this ideal that “impracticality”—that is, the weakening of economic incentives—has been virtually the only criticism against even the most bizarre egalitarian programs. The inexorable march of egalitarianism is indication enough of the impossibility of avoiding ethical commitments; the fiercely “practical” Americans, in attempting to avoid ethical doctrines, cannot help setting forth such doctrines, but they can now only do so in unconscious, ad hoc, and unsystematic fashion. Keynes’s famous insight that “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”—is true all the more of ethical judgments and ethical theory.1
Now that the New Left has abandoned its earlier loose, flexible non-ideological stance, two ideologies have been adopted as guiding theoretical positions by New Leftists: Marxism-Stalinism, and anarcho-communism.
Marxism-Stalinism has unfortunately conquered SDS, but anarcho-communism has attracted many leftists who are looking for a way out of the bureaucratic and statist tyranny that has marked the Stalinist road.
And many libertarians, who are looking for forms of action and for allies in such actions, have become attracted by an anarchist creed which seemingly exalts the voluntary way and calls for the abolition of the coercive State.
It is fatal, however, to abandon and lose sight of one’s own principles in the quest for allies in specific tactical actions.
Anarcho-communism, both in its original Bakunin-Kropotkin form and its current irrationalist and “post-scarcity” variety, is poles apart from genuine libertarian principle.
If there is one thing, for example, that anarcho-communism hates and reviles more than the State it is the rights of private property; as a matter of fact, the major reason that anarcho-communists oppose the State is because they wrongly believe that it is the creator and protector of private property, and therefore that the only route toward abolition of property is by destruction of the State apparatus.
They totally fail to realize that the State has always been the great enemy and invader of the rights of private property.