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Centralization of Power and Communism

May 2, 2013

“No one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” – George Orwell

“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”
– Milton Friedman

Communism, in the ideal, is the reallocation by force of economic resources to the workers. Such a massive undertaking requires massive amounts of centralized power. Decentralization is anathema to communism, because any decentralization implies inequality. “From each according to their ability…” implies the ability to take anything from anyone. Islands of isolated political power would thus result in islands of uncontrolled wealth, and more importantly, islands of political opposition to the central state. Thus, pluralism is anathema to communism. Any independence implies inequality as people use their freedom to become better off than others.

Communism succeeded in the first half of its unofficial motto. Communist regimes were incredibly efficient at extracting wealth from their populace, driving them beyond the brink of starvation to squeeze every last drop of surplus value from them.

Where Communism seems to have fallen by the wayside is in the second half of the motto: “…to each according to their need.” The concentrated economic surplus from an entire economy is an incredibly valuable prize to control. Such a prize would attract all sorts of people interested in capturing it. Who is likely to win such a contest? The type of person to meekly hand out an equal share to everyone else in the country? The suggestion that anyone who controlled it would simply hand out equal shares to everyone defies belief. Has anyone in the history of humanity ever distributed their wealth equally to all other humans? Would such a person be willing to lie, cheat, and murder their way to the top of a political party? Would they stay altruistic?

Marx himself recognized that it would not be easy to “sweep away by force, the old conditions of production”. It takes a certain kind of person to be willing to kill a million people to achieve an ideological goal. You can’t be a kind of sloppy, disorganized sociopath, you must get up very early in the morning. Perhaps there would be enough true believers to fill the ranks of the proletarian army, but what if there were not? Non-believers need to be motivated by rewards, and the more heinous the deed, the higher the reward needed to induce compliance, and the more sociopathic the people you would attract.

So now we’ve got a massive prize up for grabs and a combination of sociopathic individualists and idealistic altruists competing for it. Who wins? The top seat could go to anyone, if they are clever enough, but after that things get interesting. Suppose you have two types of people competing for memberships in the Politburo, idealists and pragmatists. Idealists want what is best for the country and think long and hard about what that is. The pragmatists will do anything for power and wealth. Idealists will inevitably have disagreements with the leader and will be willing to fight over those disagreements. Pragmatists will not. Regardless of who is the top dog, they will want people who are loyal and willing to implement their polices. Dissension and lack of cooperation hurts the leader regardless of whether the leader is an idealist or a pragmatist. Thus over time, idealists will be replaced by pragmatists, often in quite spectacular ways. A big group to suffer under Stalin were other communists with different ideas of how the state should be run. One interesting side effect of this phenomenon is that once the charismatic leader dies, the government is almost completely filled with pragmatists who are chiefly concerned with political survival, such as the current Chinese leadership. Often that produces surprisingly good governance (relative to what came before) so that the risk of rebellion is minimized.

Pyramid of Communism.png


Each position in the “pyramid of capitalism” was simply replaced by a communist equivalent. Kings were replaced by secretaries and chairmen, clergy replaced by propaganda ministers and bourgeois replaced by members of the party. Maintaining control over a government requires a flow of rewards to one’s followers. Those who support the regime get more than those who do not and then you are back to inequality. Creating equality through violence is self-defeating. The capacity for violence is not a disembodied force, it requires groups of people willing to wield it. They need to be motivated and controlled and that requires hierarchy.

Happy May Day!

Further Reading:
The slope of the pyramid can be quite steep.
The Iron Law of Oligarchy
The Museum of Communism
Econtalk with Caplan on Socialism
Art Cardin on capitalism vs socialism


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