Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Nazi or Commie...Who Would You Rather Have a Beer With?

In a discussion of the ethics (as distinct from law) of boycotting or refusing to deal with people who express political views with which one disagrees, as in the Dixie Chicks fracas, Eugene makes the following observation:
If we hear that a friend refuses to have dinner with people who are Nazis or Communists, we'd probably think he's acting properly; we might think the same if he refuses to do business with them, or perhaps even if he refuses to hire them (though I suspect that some people may have a different view as to the latter).
If Eugene had left out the phrase “or Communists,” this sentence would not have given me pause. But I suspect that many people would *not* treat Nazis and Commies with equal distaste. For some reason, Commies are granted a pass where Nazis are not. Why?

In terms of the sheer number of people killed by these two ideologies, Communism is arguably the worse of the two. This article estimates that the USSR killed 61 million people, as opposed to 20 million killed by Nazi Germany. Of course, the USSR had a much longer period of time in which to do its murdering – over 70 years versus about 12. So while communism was worse in terms of total body count, Nazism was worse in terms of body count per year. The fact that communism killed so many more people in total tells us something significant: part of what made communism so bad was its sheer persistence. But let’s not split hairs: both Nazism and communism resulted in the death of tens of millions of people.

Back to the original question: why are people more tolerant of Commies than Nazis? One explanation: Communists are seen as having made an error of fact, whereas Nazis are seen as having made an error of value. Communism simply misunderstood the crucial role of decentralization and private property in creating incentives for productivity, innovation, and use of private information. It was an error of economic science, not moral belief. Nazism, on the other hand, had at its core a visceral hatred of certain groups. Now, this error of fact versus error of value distinction might *explain* the different treatment of Nazis and Commies, but I’m not sure it *justifies* it. The distinction only provides a defense of historical communists, not present-day communists, because no present-day communist can be unaware of the terrible results of communism as an economic (and political) system. Also, some might argue that communism makes a value error as well, by failing to give proper weight to the moral autonomy of the individual. From this perspective, the difference between Nazism and communism is that the former gave weight to the (severely limited) moral autonomy of at least some people, whereas the latter gave no weight to the moral autonomy of anyone. Perhaps communism could be credited with at least having been an equal opportunity offender (though in practice it was not – Jews were notoriously badly treated in the USSR).

A related explanation focuses on the difference of intent. The communist wants a world in which people are happy and well-fed, whereas the Nazi only wants one in which *particular* people are happy and well-fed – the rest can go to hell. Again, the argument doesn’t quite work for present-day communists – but perhaps they can be accused of being just monstrously ill-informed or misguided, not ill-intentioned.

A third explanation is the greater association of the failure of communism with the bad guys in charge. It’s common to hear present-day Communists say that the communism of the Soviet bloc was not real communism, because it was hijacked by the likes of Stalin and Ceaucescu. Here, too, there is an analytical problem: communism as envisioned by philosophers was a literal impossibility, which meant that the apparatus for central control of the economy would inevitably be used and abused by a privileged class. And as Hayek argued in the Road to Serfdom, there are incentives inherent in such a system for the worst to rise to the top. But present-day communists obviously don’t buy that argument (or haven’t heard it); they think that a properly designed communist system would work after all, avoiding the depredations of would-be despots. I think that belief is dangerous and factually wrong, but it’s not the kind of belief that would warrant classifying the believer as a “bad person.”

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