I was in the midst of my standard evening workout, punching the couch cushions and stretching for the Sony remote while curling a bottle of Bud Light, when the 20th century was carefully encapsulated on "MacNeil-Lehrer." In a news segment ambitiously entitled, "Communism: What Went Wrong?", the PBS news hounds dug deep for the Real Story Behind the Headlines.
They hit pay dirt when they shoveled up Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The former Harvard professor was thoughtful in explaining that little glitch in the communist system. No, better administration would not likely have solved the problem, he lectured. And it probably wasn't just bad luck that Soviet leaders kept insisting on jailing political opponents, cutting deals with Adolf Hitler, laying millions of innocents to waste, and just generally ruining life for citizens of any country within driving distance of a Soviet tank. No, there was a fatal flaw from the outset, said Sen. Moynihan. "I think you have to go back to what the Austrian economists were saying about the impossibility of socialist planning, to the need for market prices to allocate resources," he lisped to his prime-time audience.
That wacky old Ludwig von Mises had stumbled upon the fly in the communist ointment way back in his 1920 tome Socialism. Ludwig's model described government bureaucrats as flying economically blind, having no real prices to compare when shopping for capital goods, all of which were owned by the state; fellow Vienna Circle economist F. A. Hayek later showed that government planners would grow increasingly desperate in their efforts to pound odd-sized individuals into government-issue boxes. But the Austrian critique of "the impossibilities of socialism" was thought to be only a theoretical proof. So we ran some experiments.
Now we can tabulate the data on our capitalist Apple: a few million crushed in the Russian Revolution and War Communism, 10–15 million kulaks obliterated in forced collectivization, mass terror in the Party purges, World War II (which essentially began when Hitler and Stalin secretly divvied up Poland), snatching up the Baltics, the gulag archipelago, the persecution of the dissidents.…all to produce a living standard that makes suburban Cleveland a place Robin Leach might take the Soviet proletariat to catch a glimpse of their Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams. Before our Mac melts its mouse, I think we'd better cut the experiment right about now.
So do communism's guinea pigs. The Western press, however, covered the news event of the century with a vacuous self-absorption unusual even for journalists. In the days following the putsch that pooped and the sensational collapse of the Evil Empire, The European (an English-language newspaper circulated throughout the continent) ran the following stories: "Tense Bush Tries to Prop Up Gorbachev"; "Fears Grow as the Empire Tears Apart"; "Ukraine Fears for Its Future." (Those poor Ukrainians, having to face life without all that emotional support from Moscow.) A common and ridiculous theme was to put the burden of proof on Boris Yeltsin to convince us he was not a populist demagogue—an unusual level of concern, given the West's willingness to peacefully co-exist with the boorish Soviet Socialist alternative.
The grand prize for missing the forest goes to The International Herald-Tribune for its scare tale, "EC's Identity Crisis: Beseiged By East, Unity is Threatened." On the seminal event of our time—an archenemy with 50,000 nuclear warheads aimed at our skulls by cranky Vodkaholic generals surrenders without the West missing so much as a commercial break—this is the angle the pundits come up with? When the cure for cancer is discovered, prepare for the headline: "Millions Panic Over How to Fill Time in Their Post-Cancer Years."
We outsiders are well equipped to stake out positions on the USSR that have far more to do with our sociopolitical fantasies than with, for instance, the USSR. American conservatives salivated for four decades over their wispy vision of a vast monster with machine-like abilities to wreak havoc and ravish our American way of life. Go to any John Birch Society bookstore, and you'll see the shelves creaking with tomes on the awesome military might of the Soviet Bear. The reality that this ferocious beast was not all that reliable—it could not even be ordered to Moscow (!) to apprehend Yeltsin without defecting—never dampened the thrill of what must have been like a peep show for politically active ex-Marines.
The radical left, of course, has never passed up an opportunity to advance its own agenda on the carcasses of their fellow man, and they screamed with delight at the invention of theories detailing how U.S. aggression was the root of all Soviet surliness. It will be cute to tune in Professor Noam Chomsky lecturing C-SPAN audiences with newly deconstructed theoretical explanations for how Ford Aerospace and the CIA left the Soviets with no choice but to seize the Uzbek Republic for their own.
Trouble is, sometimes one of these kooky professors gets it dead-on right. If we had taken Dr. Mises at all seriously, a century of blood might have been sidestepped. I suggest we examine the results of the socialist experiment in some detail and save a billion or two test humans some ugly trouble next century. But, just in case, I'm putting my name in right now for the control group.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Selected Skirmishes: The Impossibility of Socialism".