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Dec 10, 2010 8:26 pm

Communism’s Persistent Pull

Plato supposed communism — not only of property, but also of wives and children — to be an ideal social arrangement. Jesus told his disciples to sell all that they owned and give the proceeds to the poor. Through the ages, little sects more numerous than anyone can count have embraced some form of communism as the basis of their utopian communities. John Lennon’s immensely popular, visionary song “Imagine” includes the line, “imagine no possessions, it’s easy if you try.” Even today, when the horrors of communism are known to everyone, social democrats the world over continue to denounce and undermine private property rights and seek to replace them with some form of collectivized property. Since the late nineteenth century, most intellectuals have been hostile to private property rights and have advocated, if not outright communism, at least some “third way” closer to it than to a regime of full-fledged private property.

Why have so many people regarded communism as the most desirable form of social organization?

F. A. Hayek offers a hypothesis in his final book The Fatal Conceit. Hayek argues that human beings act in many ways according to genetic predispositions inherited from a long period of development – a million or more years – during which they lived in small bands similar to, and indeed sometimes nothing more than, extended families. The family, of course, is a sort of communist arrangement: its members, especially the younger ones, live not by producing wealth and exchanging the rights to it among themselves, but by sharing in accordance with at-least-partly altruistic allocations made by the older members. By this means, human beings survived and eventually prospered. Humans who arranged their affairs differently, one presumes, died out, leaving only those who had been molded by and sought to maintain the traditional family arrangement. Little bands and tribes amounted to nothing more than the family writ large and managed their economic affairs accordingly.

When human beings finally began to interact with one another extensively in what Hayek calls “the great society” — the wider world of various tribes and nations and of far-flung markets linking them through commercial exchanges — they retained, according to Hayek, a genetic predisposition to conduct their affairs in the communal fashion of families and small bands from time immemorial. However, Hayek argues further, the altruism and fully-shared information that had undergirded the conduct of the family and the band do not, indeed, cannot exist in the great society. Seeking to replicate those primeval arrangements on a vastly greater scale is a futile quest. It represents only “an atavistic longing after the life of the noble savage.” At its worst, it gives rise to tragic disasters such as those experienced in the twentieth century in Russia, China, and other, similarly collectivized societies.

Hayek’s hypothesis is plausible, but I have no idea whether it is the best interpretation of the persistent human longing for some form of communism. This hypothesis, like most such socio-biological explanations, seems to be a “just so story” – it seems to make sense, but we lack a clear means of testing and possibly refuting it.

Other interpretations of the intellectuals’ penchant for communism certainly have been advanced.

For example, Ludwig von Mises argues in The Anti-Capitalist Mentality that the intellectuals suffer from frustration, envy, and resentment and blame their relatively poor position in the economy and society on “the rich,” especially the capitalists who have gained the greatest wealth by serving consumers most successfully in the markets. The obverse of the intellectuals’ hatred of the free-market system is their yearning for communism or some other system similarly hostile to private property rights.

In an essay titled “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?,”Robert Nozick argues similarly that the intellectuals are people who were good at school work but are not good at practical affairs and therefore fail to gain the great wealth and social position achieved by business people and investors who, however unremarkable they might have been as schoolchildren, have what it takes to succeed in the marketplace. The intellectuals, convinced that the smart people (that is, those who were good at school) should run the world and rise to the top of society, harbor intense resentment toward the people who navigate the market most successfully and hence toward the socioeconomic order that accommodates this success.

Many people have taken notice recently that John Lennon was killed thirty years ago, and a great deal of maudlin sentiment has been on display in this regard. Radio stations have hauled out Lennon’s recording of “Imagine” to adorn this weepy occasion. Although I consider Lennon to have been a gifted song writer, I do not recommend him as a political or social philosopher. Nevertheless, I do not condemn “Imagine” in every regard. The music itself is beautiful and beautifully performed, and I cherish the line, “Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do.” After all, what is a nation-state but a sort of communism in its own right: a violent suppression of competing private protective agencies by a single, all-encompassing, exceedingly presumptive, and often worthless guardian — and a spectacularly obnoxious one, to boot.

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