Paul Gregory on Communism
By David Henderson
Although I haven’t found time to listen to more than about 20 of Russ Roberts’s Econtalk podcasts, one of his latest, his interview with our Hoover colleague Paul Gregory, is one of the best I’ve heard. Here are some of the highlights.
Gregory points out the clear connection between violence and non-market allocation. Of course, his focus is on Stalin’s ruthless, and successful, policy to expropriate the peasants’ crops. Successful in the limited sense that they got some of the peasants’ crops and let the peasants starve. He also points out (at about the 18:20 point) something I hadn’t known and Gregory hadn’t known: that Stalin completely understood that when you set prices too low, you get people being unwilling to sell. That’s why he used force.
At about the 17:30 point, he notes Bukharin’s epiphany: markets in agriculture work and if you let them work, you’ll have harmony with the peasants. This realization, and Bukharin’s revulsion at seeing young children starve to death, caused other Bolsheviks to realize that he was “soft.”
At about the 23:15 point, he states that being willing to be totally ruthless was a huge advantage in the fight for power. Both he and Russ then referred to Hayek’s insights in the chapter of The Road to Serfdom titled “Why the Worst Get on Top.” In a ruthless fight for power, soft-hearted people can’t win. The specific section of that chapter that most fits is the part at the end, which I’ll quote:
Yet while there is little that is likely to induce men who are good by our standards to aspire to leading positions in the totalitarian machine, and much to deter them, there will be special opportunities for the ruthless and the unscrupulous. There will be jobs to be done about the badness of which taken by themselves nobody has any doubt, but which have to be done in the service of some higher end, and which have to be executed with the same expertness and efficiency as any others. And as there will be need for actions which are bad in themselves, and which all those still influenced by traditional morals will be reluctant to perform, the readiness to do bad things becomes a path to promotion and power. The positions in a totalitarian society in which it is necessary to practice cruelty and intimidation, deliberate deception and spying, are numerous. Neither the Gestapo nor the administration of a concentration camp, neither the Ministry of Propaganda nor the S.A. or S.S. (or their Italian or Russian counterparts), are suitable places for the exercise of humanitarian feelings. Yet it is through positions like these that the road to the highest positions in the totalitarian state leads. It is only too true when a distinguished American economist [Frank Knight] concludes from a similar brief enumeration of the duties of the authorities of a collectivist state that “they would have to do these things whether they wanted to or not: and the probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping-master in a slave plantation.”
At about the 24:20 point, Russ and Paul talk about Stalin’s idea of the best day under Communism being a day when he gets revenge.
The story of the destruction of families, especially Bukharin’s family, under Communism is tragic and moving. It reminds me of my wife’s reaction after we saw the movie “Goodbye, Lenin.” She commented, “What it shows is that one of the worst results of Communism is the destruction of families.”
In about the last two minutes, Russ tells a moving story about his run-in with a U.S. cop who was in the wrong but had the power to decide who was in the wrong–guess what he decided–and points out how rough it would be to live in a society with armed people with may more power over you than the cops here have.