Can Expectations Save Communism?
By Bryan Caplan
Every social system requires favorable expectations to survive. Democracy can’t survive unless people expect losing parties to voluntarily surrender power. Anarcho-capitalism can’t survive unless people expect private defense firms to peacefully resolve their disputes. Once you take the power of expectations seriously, though, you might start to wonder: “Wait, can expectations make any social system viable?” Could the right expectations salvage Paul Samuelson’s seemingly absurd remark that “the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had
earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even
Better expectations could definitely have prevented some of actually existing socialism’s defects. Under Stalin, Soviets expected everyone to obey the General Secretary’s orders, no matter how brutal. The result was mass murder. After Stalin’s death, however, expectations moderated. Before long, Soviets expected everyone to obey the General Secretary’s orders up to a point. The result was a system that, by Stalin’s standards, was rather mild. With the right expectations, there’s no reason a communist regime couldn’t settle into traditional authoritarianism. We’ve seen this happen before our very eyes in China and beyond.
Yet none of this addresses communism’s deeper challenge: its failure to reconcile human selfishness with economic productivity. Could the right expectations solve the “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us” problem?
Probably not. Suppose you live in a commune where everyone expects “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” to lead to prosperity. What are you personally likely to do? Despite your great expectations for your communal way of life, you’re still likely to shirk – to feign minimal ability and maximal needs. If your expectations are true, the commune will prosper despite your behavior. If your expectations are false, the commune will languish regardless of your behavior. Either way, why knock yourself out?
To make “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” viable, you don’t just need to change human expectations – to make people think socialism will work. You also need to change human nature – to make people love strangers as they love themselves. And while human expectations have changed massively over the last ten thousand years, human nature is far more constant. Yes, evolution has made us adaptive and sociable. But it’s also made us very reluctant to help total strangers for free.
What about social pressure? Could socialism work if everyone expected everyone else to be looking over their shoulders all the time, tsk-tsking at the slightest sign of laziness? This might be sustainable in a small commune. In any larger socialist society, though, it’s fairly easy to escape mere tsk-tsking by locating and joining a subculture of fellow slackers. Before long, you’ll find yourself in a comforting Bubble of parasitism. The Thieves’ Code of the Gulag is one horrifying example of such a Bubble.
Expectations have enormous effects on society. Expectations can make a viable social model crash, and a “crazy” social experiment flourish. But expectations don’t work magic. Expectations change behavior by convincing people to rethink the best way to advance their self-interest – not by convincing people to rethink whether to advance their self-interest.