Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the politics of the German Empire (1870-1918).  I was already vaguely familiar with Otto von Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws, but I was surprised by the details.  The first of these laws passed in 1878; they lapsed in 1890.  Their purpose was to curtail the threat of socialism, but the Social Democratic Party (and its various predecessors) were never legally banned.  Instead:

[I]t aimed to cripple the organization through various means. The banning of any group or meeting of whose aims were to spread socialist
principles, the outlawing of trade unions and the closing of 45
newspapers are examples of suppression. The party circumvented these
measures by having its candidates run as ostensible independents, by
relocating publications outside of Germany and by spreading Social
Democratic views as verbatim publications of Reichstag speeches, which
were privileged speech with regard to censorship.

Did the Anti-Socialist Laws successfully reduce the socialists’ presence in the German Reichstag?  Here’s a graph of their seats over the complete history of the Empire:


It’s hard to tell using optical least squares, so I decided to run a simple regression.  Number of SPD/socialist seats is the dependent variable; the independent variables are a constant, a time trend, and a dummy variable that equals 1 during the years that the Anti-Socialist Laws were on the books (1878-1889), and 0 otherwise.  The results:



It appears, then, that Bismarck’s laws worked in their intended direction, but the effect was fairly small: Under the Anti-Socialist Laws, the SPD were about 12 seats below trend.  That’s roughly equivalent to turning the clock back by five years.  To actually prevent the socialists’ rise to dominance would have required far harsher laws.  But perhaps if Bismarck had a time machine, he would have borrowed a quote from Coase:

An economist who, by his efforts, is able
to postpone by a week a government program which wastes $100 million a year…
has, by his action, earned his salary for the whole of his life.

P.S. Like Eugen Richter, I naturally would have opposed the Anti-Socialist Laws on libertarian grounds.  But I still think Germany and the world would have been freer and richer if German socialism had never existed.

P.P.S. I thank David Gordon, the World’s Greatest Fact Checker, for correcting my spelling of Bismarck.  I can only wonder what the grader on my 1988 A.P. European History essay on Bismarck thought of me…