Explaining Socialism's Moral Decay
By Bryan Caplan
I’m now finishing up a new introduction for a reissue of Eugen Richter’s Pictures of the Socialistic Future. In writing it, I identified three distinct answers to the question: “How could a movement founded to liberate workers from capitalist oppression end up shooting them in the back when they tried to flee the Workers’ Paradise?”
1. The Actonian “power corrupts” story
2. The Hayekian “worst get on top” story
3. The Richterian “born bad” story
Here’s my summary:
Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek have inspired the two most popular explanations for the crimes of actually-existing socialism. While Acton never lived to see socialists gain power, their behavior seems to perfectly illustrate his aphorism that, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For all their idealism, even socialists will do bad things if left unchecked. Hayek, with the benefit of hindsight, suggested a slightly different explanation: Under socialism, “the worst get on top.” On this theory, the idealistic founders of socialism were gradually pushed out by brutal cynics as their movement’s power increased.
Richter’s novel advances a very different explanation for socialism’s “moral decay”: The movement was born bad. While the early socialists were indeed “idealists,” their ideal was totalitarian. Their overriding goals were to engineer a new society and a New Socialist Man. If this meant treating workers like slaves – depriving them of the freedom to choose their occupation or location, forbidding them to quit, splitting up families without their consent, and imposing draconian punishments on dissenters – so be it.
What weight would you attach to these three theories – and why? Am I missing any important alternative explanations?