The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 1
By Bryan Caplan
Here are my reactions to your thoughts on Part 1 of the Orwell book club.
Here’s another glaring statement that shows Orwell at his economically illiterate worst:
As for the problem of overproduction, which has been latent in our society since the development of machine technique
Orwell buys into the idea of overproduction. He doesn’t understand that our wants are unlimited. That may be also why, as you noted, he doesn’t worry about incentives. In his view, we had too much even in 1948.
I basically agree, but I don’t think Orwell would have denied that wants are unlimited. The “problem of overproduction” wasn’t literally that business produced too much stuff, but that business produced more stuff than it could profitably sell. This in turn is supposed to lead either to unemployment or cartels – two evils much in evidence during the 1930s (even though both of us know that government bears most of the blame). Still, to convincingly answer this objection, you need to either show that (a) free markets can handle the problem by cutting input costs, or (b) government can handle the problem via the keyhole solution of printing more money. Obvious once you think about it, but hard to articulate.
I wonder what you think about the following passages about war:
“The search for new weapons continues unceasingly, and is one of the very few remaining activities in which the inventive or speculative type of mind can find any outlet. In Oceania at the present day, Science, in the old sense, has almost ceased to exist. In Newspeak there is no word for ‘Science’. The empirical method of thought, on which all the scientific achievements of the past were founded, is opposed to the most fundamental principles of Ingsoc” (p. 5).
“When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded. As we have seen, researches that could be called scientific are still carried out for the purposes of war, but they are essentially a kind of daydreaming, and their failure to show results is not important. Efficiency, even military efficiency, is no longer needed.”
The second passage seems to contradict the first.
Does it really? The first paragraph says that military research is virtually the only research left, and the second passage says that even that research is none-too-fruitful. These seem like compatible claims.
But even if they can be reconciled, I wonder what Orwell had in mind when he wrote them. In 1939, Soviet scientists tried to replicate the fission experiments done by German scientists, and started trying to develop nuclear weapons in 1943. The Party didn’t consider this work like a kind of daydream! Perhaps it wasn’t generally known what was going on in the SU.
In Orwell’s schema, World War II and his imagined World War III in the 1950s are the last deadly serious drives for global domination. Only afterwards does the world fall into the three-way stalemate he describes. I think that’s what he has in mind.
However, on the point where the fictional author seems to dismiss the importance of incentives regarding differential pay, Orwell does seem to have thought something like this. Or, a weaker version of it at least. In his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell wrote:
It is no use at this stage of the world’s history to suggest that all human beings should have exactly equal incomes. It has been shown over and over again that without some kind of money reward there is no incentive to undertake certain jobs. On the other hand the money reward need not be very large. In practice it is impossible that earnings should be limited quite as rigidly as I have suggested. There will always be anomalies and evasions. But there is no reason why ten to one should not be the maximum normal variation.
Many thanks for sharing this passage. News to me.
Of course, he never provides any actual argument for why “the money reward need not be very large” or any evidence for his claim that “there is no reason why ten to one should not be the maximum normal variation,” either in this essay or in any of his other writing on the topics. He just asserts it. People prone to anti-market bias have a tendency to commit the fallacy of argument from personal incredulity when it comes to market outcomes they don’t like. “I can’t see any reason for it to be this way” is treated as if it entailed “there is no reason for it to be this way.”
In defense of Orwell, labor supply elasticity does seem fairly low. Indeed, for many people labor supply is plausibly backward-bending over some ranges. But he probably neglects the tournament incentives at play; many people start businesses because they’re inspired by the possibility that they might become billionaires. I can’t prove that rising inequality since 1980 has made the U.S. the startup center of the world, but it’s plausible.
The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion
This does not seem right. Print also allows wider sharing of ideas, including ones inimical to authority.
You’re both right. The printing press makes the “manipulation of public opinion” easier for everyone. Under free speech, the end result of the cacophony is unclear. With a government control over the media, however, the end result is to support the status quo.
What Orwell says in one sentence about “the conscious aim of perpetuating unfreedom” he contradicts in his next sentence about lip service.
The first sentence is Orwell the polemicist. The second sentence is Orwell the novelist.
I don’t see the contradiction. You can consciously aim for unfreedom while paying lip service to freedom, no?
The novelist knows that the banner of equality is just too useful to drop. Pretending to fight for justice is about as basic as pretending to be younger and more attractive. Birds do it.
Why isn’t this fully consistent with Orwell’s description?
Is Nike conscious of its pandering? Is Citibank? No more than the peacock is conscious of natural selection.
If you’re not conscious, how is it “pretending”? I’ve met people in marketing, and they seem quite conscious of what they’re doing. They don’t consider their behavior bad, but they know what they’re saying isn’t literally true.
The polemicist would say that American Airlines and Coca Cola and BMW and CVS and all the corporate sponsors of violence and looting and arson are consciously, deliberately, making life worse for people living in those cities where the murder rate doubled in 2020.
As if Gatorade and Conde Nast wanted to bankrupt a lot of immigrant-owned businesses and black-owned businesses, and make it harder for people to get jobs in a hundred communities across America.
The ambitious pragmatists at Proctor and Gamble and Bank of America and AT&T aren’t dishonest. They believe their slogans. In their own minds they’re enlightened and progressive. They aren’t aware of having caused harm.
I think Orwell has the better description. On one level, they believe what they’re saying. On another level, however, they know they’re tiptoeing around uncomfortable truths.