4
$\begingroup$

So, all my life, I've been told certain things. One of the least controversial is the "truth" that if you pick communism for a country, people will automatically starve. Allegedly, this is because the rulers will (I frankly have no idea if this is even really part of communism) insist on having centralized factories producing food, and then ship this out to every corner of the country so that everyone gets fed, but due to human flaws (or something), the food never ends up where it should?

I've always been confused about this. If that does happen, surely they would not keep doing it for long? Surely their plan isn't to starve their own people to death? Why is it so important to have huge centralized factories and then ship out all the food/goods?

And I don't understand why "the human factor" applies here but not in a capitalist system (or other). And why can't they just have a bunch of local sub-factories which operate according to the same principles, for practical purposes?

I cannot imagine that all the factory workers and food truck drivers just sit around with their hands in their pockets and whistle all day while their fellow men starve, just because they are in a communist country. As lazy and stupid as people tend to be in general, it doesn't go to that extreme... does it?

Surely they have managers/bosses even in a communist factory/food distribution system?

I really hope that somebody will finally clear this up for me, because I'm clearly missing some crucial detail about all this, which people never want to tell me when they say that communism is so bad.

PS: I'm not a communist.

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The discipline of economics does not actually tell anyone "how to be a communist". Historically people did it in different ways. So I’m voting to close this question because it is not about the discipline of economics. If you have a question about the history of communism, History may be a better fit. For political realities, Politics might be a better fit. $\endgroup$ – Giskard May 10 at 14:57
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Amartya Sen is a major economist with a theory about why famines occur in non-democratic regimes. He called this the "entitlement approach". If you read up on that it might help you formulate a more relevant question. $\endgroup$ – Brian Z May 10 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ This blog entry does a fun dive into the math of running a centralized, planned economy, and compares it to a market economy. Spoiler: we still don't have the computing power to run a centralized economy efficiently. $\endgroup$ – Jason May 11 at 0:44
  • $\begingroup$ The first thing to note is that starvation is not typical in established communist regimes - the Soviets did not sustain any after the 1940s, and the Chinese not after the 1960s, when famines had been common under prior regimes. The more pertinent question may be why revolutions induce famines, and that's because economic management typically has to be assumed by those with no experience (entailing mistakes), and secondly the conflict implied by revolution consumes resources and impairs productivity (and underdeveloped societies often have little slack to begin with). $\endgroup$ – Steve May 11 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ "I cannot imagine ... just sit around with their hands in their pockets" - yet they would, and did. The cornerstone of socialism like in the USSR is that there are no private means of production (if not private property at all). These factories and trucks, as well as their output were not theirs (workers'), despite the country being pitched as workers' state. Doing pretty much anything without approval from the top would be (and was) treated as a robbery and a crime. (And going to court wouldn't help them). Doing anything on your own initiative was heavily disincentivised in general. $\endgroup$ – Zeus May 12 at 1:07
9
$\begingroup$

I would like to just add to +1 answer of @fizz.

It is completely true that dictators often are self interested but the problem with communism is not only this but the fact that many ideas that are according to self proclaimed communists at the core of communism are are inherently inefficient.

For example, many communists want to get rid of private property (See the history of economic thought by Grant and Brue).

But a problem is that private property is an irreplaceable institution necessary for economy to prosper (see any economics textbook for example Mankiws Principles of Economics). In fact the famine in communist Russia is often attributed to farm collectivization which took the ownership of the farms from farmers and put them into hands of state where people had little incentive to take well care of them. This being said some level of economic output is attainable even without property rights, pre-historic hunter-gatherer societies existed without them, but it is generally agreed that they are necessary precondition for sustained economic development (See Acemoglu & Robinson Why Nations Fail). Also, lack of property rights is actually the most cited cause of our current environmental problems i.e. over-pollution, over-fishing etc (again see Mankiw's Principles of Economics) as absence of property rights creates the tragedy of commons.

There reason why lack of property rights leads to loss of output and efficiency is that without secure property rights people cant be sure they will be able to use their output in any way. A farmer would not produce any output if all crops are expropriated. Furthermore, due to tragedy of commons in absence of property rights people are locked in prisoner dilemma where everyone is incentivised to overuse resources before anyone else has chance to already collect them. There are also other issues and this is only short and surface level exploration of importance of property rights as full explanation would be way beyond the scope of this answer but I encourage you to explore it more fully in the sources I provided and works cited therein.

Moreover, communists often believe in radical egalitarianism (Again see Grant & Brue). As Marx himself wrote “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Now there is nothing wrong with believing inequality is bad and trying to reduce it but what many self proclaimed communist fail to grasp is that inequality is what gives people incentive to put in extra effort, and hence any society that wants to increase its standards of living has to have some inequality. If someone works hard and gets the same pay as someone who slacks of then what’s the point? People soon learn it’s better not to put extra effort - and consequently many communist countries eventually result to some sort of forced labor which is again much less efficient than free labor where people are properly incentivized. This does not mean that every single action in an economy needs economic incentives (narrowly defined) there can obviously be instances of altruism because peoples' utility can take into account the well-being of others (as famously alluded to already by Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments). Moreover, people also can intrinsically value some work in itself - if you have any hobby where you produce something that would be an example of that. But it is generally agreed upon by profession that no large economic system can function without a system that provides an economic incentives for people to produce goods and services optimally.

Even the goal of the proletariat dictatorship, in the Marxist-Leninist tradition is supposed to be true communism that is property-less, moneyless (i.e. based on barter and communal exchanges), classless (i.e. there are no workers no owners no classes at all) and stateless (Marxism is in its hart anarchist movement as state is only seen as temporary apparatus that dies out once the true communism is achieved).

However, as already mentioned above property, inequality (which implies some sort of class) are important. Money is also important in economics as it provides a solution the issue of double coincidence of wants which otherwise wastes precious time and other resources, and economists agree state is necessary for provision of public goods and very helpful in solution to many problems that are based on externalities. So even if we could achieve the true communism it would probably fail to deliver high material welfare standards.

In fact the only time in human history where the sort of society that Marx thought communism would be was actually in existence, was in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies which were always living at subsistence level.

Hence often unappreciated fact about communist regimes is that they would often not work even if their leaders would be angels. To give you analogy, no matter how a good person you are if you want to cure people using homeopathy you won’t help them.

However, you should also note that communism as mentioned by Giskards +1 comment is badly defined. In economics communism does not even have a definition - you won’t find the term in many modern economic textbooks. The term communism is so often used and misused that it is meaningless. Trying to define it is as trying to define a deity - nobody will probably ever agree on single definition. Here I use the term communism as a system that would describe the ideologies and economic goals of Soviet Union or Maoist China.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @SamuelRussell I am not smuggling in any assumptions I added citations to economic history literature $\endgroup$ – 1muflon1 Aug 20 at 1:19
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ >But a problem is that private property is an irreplaceable institution necessary for economy to prosper. Introspect more. Stating universal claims without evidence, a universal which your entire argument relies upon, is smuggling your assumptions in as a conclusion. Again, try, "According to X, 'Anything other than capitalism is impossible.'" $\endgroup$ – Samuel Russell Aug 20 at 7:49
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @SamuelRussell the fact that institution of private property is necessary for any functioning economy is an economics 101 the same way in physics you can just state that earth revolves around sun instead of citing Copernicus you can state common knowledge in field without citation. However, I added reference to textbook. Also what is capitalism? In wast majority of textbooks word capitalism is not even printed- capitalism does not have in economics set definition. Some people claim USSR was capitalism... so what do you even mean by that last statement? $\endgroup$ – 1muflon1 Aug 20 at 8:24
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @SamuelRussell if you equate capitalism with institution of private property then yes anything else is impossible if you care about peoples material welfare at all since academic literature on the fundamental role of institution of secure private property rights for growth or any sustained increase in material welfare is simply clear cut. In fact according Acemoglu and Robinson seminal work on relationships between institutions and economic development private property is it one of the most fundamental inclusive institutions without which economic development is virtually impossible $\endgroup$ – 1muflon1 Aug 20 at 8:41
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Giskard I edited the answer. Also when I was talking about unfairness I did not meant you are causing distress rather than what I meant is that I think that it’s completely fair for an answer to not drown itself in exploring everything to the smallest detail especially for more general answers. Also I don’t think that I was talking here about different field - I voted to close this question because the original Q talks about socio-economic-political system, I in my answer I focus only on the economic part completely ignoring the social or political aspects $\endgroup$ – 1muflon1 Aug 20 at 10:44
4
$\begingroup$

If that does happen, surely they would not keep doing it for long? Surely their plan isn't to starve their own people to death?

Sometimes alas it is. This has only a little to do with economics in the usual sense and more to do with megalomaniac priorities. For example, if some dictator decides he needs nukes even if that costs millions of lives through starvation... he might go for it. Once someone has a monopoly on power and little democratic accountability there's no "market" for them to worry about except that of thwarting coups or revolutions... There are some works in this area, but they are mostly published in political science journals, e.g. "The Tinpot and the Totalitarian: An Economic Theory of Dictatorship".

There's a somewhat odd term "government failure" which describes a related but different situation (that can even happen in democracies) in which government policies produce a sub-optimal result [e.g. for the voters]. (For a more accessible presentation of the latter see e.g. this World Bank blog.)

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Or simply if some dictator sees that lots of people are starving but doesn't have a reason to fix it because they don't affect him, right? $\endgroup$ – user253751 Aug 20 at 12:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @user253751 : not only that. For a dictator to remain in power, he has to share most of the income with an inner circle of elites. If he spends more on the people, these elites will receive less, so a rival can convince them to depose the current dictator, because if this rival gets the power, the elites will be rewarded more. Therefore even a more moral dictator cannot spend too much on the people, because he will become a victim of a coup. And even if that circle of elites were more moral, they have their own underlings they have to satisfy. youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs $\endgroup$ – vsz Aug 28 at 6:55

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.