The Man Who Told the Truth

Robert Heilbroner fessed up to the failure of socialism


Robert Heilbroner, the bestselling writer of economics, died early this month at the age of 85. He and John Kenneth Galbraith may well have sold more economics books than all other economists combined. Alas, their talents lay more in the writing than the economics. Heilbroner was an outspoken socialist; if only a libertarian could write an introductory book on economics that could—like Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers—sell 4 million copies.

Reading some of Heilbroner's essays over the years, I admired his honesty about the meaning of socialism. Consider this excerpt from a 1978 essay in Dissent:

Socialism…must depend for its economic direction on some form of planning, and for its culture on some form of commitment to the idea of a morally conscious collectivity….

If tradition cannot, and the market system should not, underpin the socialist order, we are left with some form of command as the necessary means for securing its continuance and adaptation. Indeed, that is what planning means…

The factories and stores and farms and shops of a socialist socioeconomic formation must be coordinated…and this coordination must entail obedience to a central plan…

The rights of individuals to their Millian liberties [are] directly opposed to the basic social commitment to a deliberately embraced collective moral goal… Under socialism, every dissenting voice raises a threat similar to that raised under a democracy by those who preach antidemocracy.

Few socialists outside the Communist Party are willing to acknowledge that real socialism means trading our "Millian liberties" for the purported good of economic planning and "a morally conscious collectivity."

He was not entirely impervious to new evidence, however. In 1989, he famously wrote in The New Yorker:

"Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won… Capitalism organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism."

In The New Yorker again the next year, he reminisced about hearing of Ludwig von Mises at Harvard in the 1930s. But of course his professors and fellow students scoffed at Mises's claim that socialism could not work. It seemed at the time, he wrote, that it was capitalism that was failing. Then, a mere 50 years later, he acknowledged: "It turns out, of course, that Mises was right" about the impossibility of socialism. I particularly like the "of course." Fifty years it took him to grasp the truth of what Mises wrote in 1920, and he blithely tossed off his newfound wisdom as "of course."

Alas, in that same article he went on to say that while socialism might not in fact produce the goods, we would still need to reject capitalism on the grounds of…let's see…I've got it—environmental degradation. Yeah, that's the ticket. While he had managed to wriggle free of the ideas he learned in the 1930s, he was still stuck in the 1970s when, like Paul Ehrlich, he issued dire predictions about the imminent exhaustion of natural resources. In his 1974 book An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, Heilbroner wrote, "Ultimately, there is an absolute limit to the ability of the Earth to support or tolerate the process of industrial activity, and there is reason to believe that we now are moving toward that limit very rapidly."

On the big issue of capitalism vs. socialism, though, he did continue his rueful acknowledgment of error. In 1992, he explained the facts of life to Dissent readers:

Capitalism has been as unmistakable a success as socialism has been a failure. Here is the part that's hard to swallow. It has been the Friedmans, Hayeks, and von Miseses who have maintained that capitalism would flourish and that socialism would develop incurable ailments. All three have regarded capitalism as the 'natural' system of free men; all have maintained that left to its own devices capitalism would achieve material growth more successfully than any other system. From [my samplings] I draw the following discomforting generalization: The farther to the right one looks, the more prescient has been the historical foresight; the farther to the left, the less so.

He also noted then that "democratic liberties have not yet appeared, except fleetingly, in any nation that has declared itself to be fundamentally anticapitalist."

May the socialists in Cambridge and Cambridge, and the people struggling to create decent societies around the world, especially in Africa, the Arab world, and the ex-Communist countries take the frank (albeit delayed) honesty of Robert Heilbroner to heart.