May 2008

Reductio ad Stalinum

Tim Worstall is no fool. He’s extremely right wing (in the libertarian, rather than the overtly dictatorial, sense… though in truth, I tend to see the two as being far closer than most right-wingers would admit, but that’s a discussion for another day) and an outspoken champion of free markets. Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that he’s misguided rather than evil, and I believe he has of the same opinion of me (could be wrong, of course). This means that dialogue is possible without it inevitably descending into insults and obfuscation.

That said, because I know he’s not a fool, I tend to get a little irritated when I see him deliberately misinterpret my position in order to make it appear foolish (or if you’re also a right-winger, then perhaps “more foolish than it really is” would be a better choice of words… even the most dogmatic free-marketeer will accept that there are levels of left-wing foolishness and the “moderately foolish” can be easily painted as the “very foolish” given selective quotation and/or the use of insupportable assumptions).

Recently, in response to my Constructivism entry, Tim posted One Way of Looking at the World. Here he takes the following statement of mine:

By “heavily taxed” I do — of course — mean “nationalised”. I do not view non-renewable natural resources as appropriate commodities to be traded for profit.

and asserts that such an approach is “not a very clever one” because, sarcastically, “The Soviets certainly did that really well”.

This is a personal bugbear of mine. Essentially the idea is that by advocating a particular philosophy (in this case the removal of a specific resource, commodity, or set of resources / commodities from the free-market system and placing them into collective ownership), one is automatically advocating the worst historical example of that philosophy.

There’s an obvious logical fallacy there, and it’s an annoying one. But, let’s be frank, we are all guilty of occasionally shielding our beliefs with fallacious reasoning. Those beliefs are precious to us and, as such, we may not always be entirely discriminating when it comes to defending them. However, ultimately we do ourselves a disservice when we slip into this mode of debate. If I object to the principle of private corporations on the grounds that many of them actively supported Hitler’s Germany, I would be rightly lampooned, and the phrase Godwin’s Law would quickly rear its head. Yet seemingly intelligent people see no absurdity in tarring all talk of collective ownership with a Stalinist (or Maoist) brush.

Similarly, when I object to free markets in non-renewable resources, I do not bang on and on about Enron every fecking time. That’s because I’m smart enough to be aware that nobody (well, nobody sane) is actually defending the corrupt and disastrous implementation of free-market principles. When a pro-capitalist* defends the free market in oil (for example) they tend not to use the Exxon Valdez oil-spill to support their position. So objecting to the free market in oil on the grounds of Exxon’s environmental record is not particularly useful (an oil tanker run by an anarcho-syndicalist collective could still end up running aground and polluting the wilderness).

Far more useful is an approach which acknowledges that any general philosophy can be corrupted and subverted and that human error can creep into the best systems. So instead of focussing entirely upon those individual corrupt instances (or, as is often the case, the very worst of those instances), one instead addresses the very claims made by proponents of that philosophy. It is only then that honest debate emerges and progress can be made towards — if not a common ground, then at least an understanding of one another’s position.

But so long as I insist that private corporations are evil because they were willing to trade with Nazi Germany, I will look just as foolish as the capitalist who insists that collectivism can never work because the Soviets couldn’t manage it.

* I use the word “capitalism” as a short-hand for the free-market corporate consumer capitalism as it exists in the world today, as opposed to an abstract text-book definition.

Note: I had planned this piece to include an explanation of exactly what I mean by ‘collectivism’, the extensive — though far from universal — cases in which I would seek to implement it, and the reasons I believe it is the only route towards sustainability. But that deserves a post of its own. This one turned out to be more about the internal logic of rhetoric, than about the specifics of economic systems. It’s safe to say though, that I am not a proponent of Soviet-style quasi-militaristic dictatorial collectivism.

Posted in: Opinion