The unrivalled tragedy of communism
This column was first published in the National Post in February 2015, in response to a columnist who argued capitalism had killed many more people than communism. That misunderstood how open trade is a human activity, not an ideology. And then there were his other errors...I am re-posting this given the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx' birthday on May 5.
The unrivalled tragedy of communism
Mark Milke, National Post, February 9, 2015, A8
In a recent column in The Globe and Mail on communism and capitalism, Roy MacGregor made an astonishing claim: While "millions have been the tragic victims of communism," he wrote, "that number pales, surely, in comparison with the victims of capitalism."
Surely, it does not.
MacGregor attempted to link communism and capitalism as mere ideological flipsides of the same economic coin. But few claims could be more errant than to equate a theoretical, utopian theory given new life by a 19th century German academic on how people should behave (pretend incentives don't matter, equality of result is desirable) with observable human reality (people always buy, sell and trade - the prerequisites to widespread prosperity).
It is unclear how MacGregor defines communism and capitalism. But we have a hint. In the case of capitalism, he writes of "crimes" that "extend back beyond the Crusades and the spice wars to the very first deal that went badly sour."
To conflate the existence of religious and commercial wars with a concurrent open system of buying, bartering and selling, mistakes the existence of freedom with abuses committed in its sphere. It's akin to blaming a mugging in Central Park on the park itself.
Capitalism, courtesy of one useful definition, assumes this basic premise: that "subject to certain [justifiable] restrictions, individuals (alone or with others) are free to decide where to invest, what to produce or sell, and what prices to charge." Such activity, from the earliest Babylonian fishermen to bankers in Boston, has existed forever when not forcibly prevented by rulers.
Some years ago, the late British economist Angus Maddison catalogued the last 1,000 years of the world economy in a landmark OECD study. He noted how the wider adoption of free trade (one aspect of capitalism) was first beneficial to Western Europe, then the Americas and more recently, East Asian countries. Every society in history that participates in capitalism prospers.
My colleagues at the Fraser Institute have found similar results. Consider economic freedom, which occurs within a framework of property rights, sound money, the rule of law, and sensible regulation and taxation. Economic freedom allows people (including the very poor) to create wealth; it also correlates with increased life expectancy and greater civil liberties and increased political rights.
Contrast that with communism, briefly defined as "economic systems in which the government owns the means of production."
Space does not permit a full cataloguing of all of communism's failures. Communism, when practised in fact (China before Deng Xiaoping's reforms as one example) requires the abolition of individual choice and complete subjugation to the ruling elite - precisely because choice otherwise undermines forced collectivism.
One result has always been economic shortages of every conceivable good; another is endemic repression as governments seek to smother a basic human impulse: to openly barter with others and buy goods and services at an agreed-upon price.
As Jeanne Kirkpatrick famously wrote in 1979, unlike traditional dictatorships, which abused direct opponents but felt no need to control every aspect of every citizen's life, revolutionary communist regimes created refugees by the millions. Kirkpatrick argued that was because such governments "claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee."
Those that did not flee suffered even more: In 1999, a number of French authors catalogued communism's death toll: nearly 100 million people.
Unlike the iron fist of communism, capitalism's incidents of harm result not from government oppression but from the nature of freedom itself. In theory, practice and historical record, between capitalism and communism, there's no comparison.