Steel Manning a Suboptimal Argument

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Over at Quillette is a short piece by economist Kristian Niemietz, author of the newly-published Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies. It is unclear to me from this article alone that Niemietz has anything other than practical objections to the idea of socialism. (For the sake of argument, I am assuming he doesn't.) Even so, his piece should give young socialists pause for two reasons.

First, Niemietz provides a short history lesson on how these movements take off, develop, and disappoint:

On the one hand, there were (typically older) socialists who still felt varying degrees of attachment to the former German Democratic Republic (the GDR, i.e., East Germany) and its "big brother," the Soviet Union. They did not want to reanimate the GDR, and they condemned the Stasi and the Berlin Wall. But they could not completely let the dream go.

Image by Pezibear, via Pixabay, license.
On the other hand, there were (typically younger) socialists, who felt no such attachment. They saw themselves as the vanguard of a different kind of socialism -- less rigid, less dogmatic, less ideological. They saw GDR nostalgists as die-hard reactionaries. And when they looked around the world for a place where socialism was evolving in a way that was new, exciting, flexible and democratic, that place turned out to be Venezuela.


Back then, it was the Chavistas who would look down on nostalgic comrades who still retained an attachment to earlier, discredited socialist projects. Now, suddenly, they find themselves in that same unfashionable role. [bold added]
Niemietz is trying to help this generation's socialists see that they are heading down the same path. And he offers the following as to why he argues that they are:
But the truth is that mass participation and radical democratization always had been idealized by socialists, including by socialist leaders who led successful national movements. But these dreams never survived, because it simply isn't feasible to run a large society and a complex economy in this kind of participatory way. Democratic socialism works perfectly fine in small, self-selecting and homogeneous high-trust communities with relatively simple economies, the prime example being the Israeli Kibbutz. But that model is not scalable (and hasn't even aged particularly well in Israel itself). There is a reason that, even at the height of the Kibbutz movement, Kibbutzim never grew beyond a certain size. There seems to be an upper limit of around 1,500 people, and even that is rare: Most Kibbutzim have fewer than 500 members.

Regardless of what socialists say they want to build, socialism can only mean a society run by large, hierarchical government bureaucracies. It can only mean a command-and-control economy directed by a distant, technocratic elite. The reason it always turns out that way isn't because revolutions are "betrayed" by selfish or undisciplined actors, but because no other path is possible... [bold added]
This is probably the "best" example of the "noble but impractical" argument I have ever seen, and it can very easily serve as a starting point for making the argument -- that socialism is immoral -- that needs making: (1) Define what "works" means. Many, if not most non-socialists and many young idealists regard furthering human prosperity as "working." (Movement leaders almost certainly don't, although they will never openly admit it.) Doing this can pave the way towards explaining why it is actual capitalism (as opposed to our current mixed economy), that is life-promoting. (2) Explain more clearly why socialism does not "scale". Most people can understand wanting to keep what they earn and can understand from thought experiments that socialism will make many (including themselves) "unwilling to work." What they need to see more clearly is that socialism relies on the use of government force to "scale" and what that means, namely the poverty and repression that always follow. (3) Discuss why initiation of force against individuals, including by the government, is wrong, because it prevents that person from doing what he judges necessary to prosper. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but a better historic understanding of the failures (and limited "successes") of socialism can aid in making the argument that it is immoral.

This is a fascinating article and can be useful, via the tactic of "steel manning", to understand how best to fight socialism as the immoral system that it actually is.

-- CAV


SteveD said...

It was an interesting article although I find it frustrating that the author, like many others, didn't go one step further and ask the burning (and obvious) next question: If socialism isn't scalable and only works in smaller groups; what does that say about the nature of human beings? There is plenty of relevant psychological and sociological research he could cite. Of course that also leaves the opposite question: why does socialism sometimes (but not always) works with smaller and more tightknit groups.

BTW, I like the tactic of steel manning (or even just chasing the best of your opponent's stated arguments). Too often these days, after reading an article, I'm given a devastating case against a weaker argument in which the main point or better arguments was glossed over or completely ignored. In these cases the whole article would seem to be a waste of time.

Gus Van Horn said...


"[W]hat does that say about the nature of human beings? ... [T]hat also leaves the opposite question: why does socialism sometimes (but not always) works with smaller and more tightknit groups?"

Good points. In fact, IIRC, Ayn Rand may have said that a tiny (and perhaps also primitive) economy can be run -- non-disastrously or some adjective like that -- communally or top-down. I'm looking for the exact quote the next time I have a chance.


Kyle Haight said...

The limited scalability of socialism may be connected to the Dunbar Limit. This is a cognitive limit on the number of close social bonds a person can maintain, which is typically no more than a couple of hundred people. Groups of people smaller than the limit can function successfully under a wide range of organizing principles because the people involved have direct knowledge of what the other people are doing, which helps keep everybody accountable. When groups grow significantly larger, such that no single person knows what everybody else is doing, the problem of coordinating activity becomes much more difficult, and systems of organization that seemed to work fine suddenly break down.

This is one of the reasons why small businesses often face a crisis when they grow rapidly -- they have managerial practices that don't scale because of the Dunbar Limit.

Broadly speaking, I think socialism sometimes seems to 'work' with small, tightly knit groups because of three factors. First, the people involved all value each other, and are therefore motivated to act to support each other. Second, because of this, there is a substantial harmony of interests among the group members. Finally, the small group size means that everybody is aware of what the others are and are not doing, which enables accountability and coordination of action without a price system.

When you have much larger groups these factors break down. People don't all value each other because they may not even know of each other's existence. More heterogeneous groups have a greater diversity of values and goals, so there's less of a perceived harmony of concrete interests. It's harder to hold people accountable for the consequences of their actions, and it's harder to coordinate with others when you don't know what they're doing. The formal institutions of a free society are designed to solve these kinds of problems at scale.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for making these points, Kyle.

I'll add that these problems partially overlap with the related problem of central planning taking thinking and knowledge out of an economy.