Bait and switch

There was quite a bit of buzz last week about a survey undertaken for the (propertarian) Centre for Independent Studies, the results of which were summarized (reasonably accurately) as Millennials and socialism: Australian youth are lurching to the left. The key finding

Nearly two-thirds of the group view socialism in a favorable light, with similar number believing that capitalism has failed and more government intervention is warranted. Furthermore, Millennials contend that the government has cut its spending on social services such as education and health – something our polling shows they strongly believe should be reversed.

The authors of the report, Tom Switzer and Charles Jacobs don’t present any arguments against government intervention in the economy or increased spending on health and education. Rather their case is “Stalin was a socialist, Stalin was bad, therefore socialism is bad”.

That’s not surprising coming from the CIS, but I was disappointed to see the normally sensible Bernard Keane pull the same trick in a Crikey piece The 10 truths the left can never admit. Like Switzer and Jacobs, Keane states that “Socialism has been tried and, no, it didn’t work”, defending this claim with reference to the Soviet Union and (another favorite punching bag in exercises of this kind) Venezuela*.

Both Switzer & Jacobs and Keane are engaged in a bait and switch here. In ordinary usage, “socialism” means something like “social democracy with a spine”, as I’ve argued here**. That’s primarily due to the fact that any serious social democratic policy is invariably labelled as “socialist” by the political right. In ordinary usage, the term associated with Stalin and Mao is “communist”, and if Switzer & Jacobs wanted to find out how millennials felt about communism they should have asked them.

Switzer & Jacobs know this, which is why they ask about social services spending and not about, say, the dictatorship of the proletariat. But, when they want to attack socialism, they adopt the Stalinist line in which the Soviet Union represents (or did when it existed) “actually existing socialism”.

This won’t work any more. Switzer & Jacobs effectively acknowledge as much, noting that most young people haven’t even heard of Stalin and Mao, unlike Hitler. It’s about as useful as attacking Christianity by talking about the Thirty Years War.

As a talking point/cheap shot, this kind of thing is probably going to be with us for a while. Since Bernard Keane’s analysis of the failure of neoliberalism is pretty much spot-on, I don’t imagine his views on socialism are actually all that much different from mine. Making up lists with titles like “truths the left can never admit” is a recipe for cheap shots, but it’s not very useful.

In addition to word games, arguments of this kind often involve a slippery slope argument of the kind put forward by Hayek in 1944 when he argued that the policies of the British Labour Party constituted a “Road to Serfdom” leading inevitably to communist dictatorship. The fact that he was proved wrong by events (and that he himself ended up backing the brutal Chilean dictatorship) hasn’t stopped him being treated as a prophet by many on the right.

* I won’t discuss Venezuela in detail. But despite the rhetoric of the Chavez-Maduro government, it’s no more socialist than lots of other places.  There’s no real central planning and nothing like comprehensive nationalization. As Forbes magazine (not a friendly source) points out, Venezuela’s problems are typical of developing countries subject to the “resource curse“.

** The headline didn’t get my point quite right, but it’s one of the great traditions of the press that sub-editors and not authors get to write the headlines.

19 thoughts on “Bait and switch

  1. I was pretty ratty about some of Bernard’s 10 points but it was this one that most annoyed me, and so I’m glad you’ve pointed it out here. Where do we redirect people for modern and easy to understand examples of ‘socialism with spine’, other than Scandinavia.

  2. It’s not a surprise to me to be honest. It’s easier for intellectual lightweights to simply make up strawman or point to the worse possible example of the opponent they’re arguing against, this is the same as the tactic of those used by politicians where they point to an extremists who commits criminal acts and state that all who associate with such extremists by religion or politics etc must also be criminals.

    In my opinion, this is one of the results of what I call ‘soft intellectual censorship’ by Australian universities. In the recent years, undergrad economics courses of a lot of university have been reduced to modelling, mathematics and statistics only. There are hardly any university that teaches theories of the different schools or history of economics thoughts such as those of Adam Smith, Marx, Ricardo etc. or even the debate of the Currency School and Banking School of the 19th century about what is money (e.g. Henry Thornton). This results in a lot of ‘intellectuals’ not even knowing anything about who they are arguing against.

    By the standards of those authors mentioned in this post, Australia post WWII is a communist state.

  3. Most young people seem to intuit that someone like Clement Attlee and the early UK Labour Party had to have existed at some point even if there seems to be a broad dearth of similar politicians at present. The youth might view the current market economy as primarily focused on converting the dwindling human and social capital generated by previous periods of ‘social democracy with spine’ into financial capital for shareholders.

    Recommend the new biography ‘Clement Attlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain’ as an even-handed account of the socialist UK PM.

  4. I studied one of the last courses in the History of Economic thought, under GLS Tucker in the 1980s. He introduced the subject as “the wrong ideas of dead men”, but taught me an awful lot, though I have to admit that monetary controversies left me cold and still do.

  5. “It’s about as useful as attacking Christianity by talking about the Thirty Years War.”

    Not really. The Thirty Years war was 400 years ago. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was 30 years ago. Russia today is ruled today by a dictator who made his career as a secret policeman in the Soviet Union and uses the same apparatus of state repression. The only difference is that the apparatchiks are now called oligarchs and there pretense of socialism has been dropped.

  6. @Professor Quiggin

    Perhaps monetary controversies do not interest you and that is fine, the beauty of History of Economic Thought subject is, in my opinion, learning about how to not re-invent the wheel or spend time debating about the same things which has been done to death more than hundreds of years ago.

    What other subjects besides the now extinct History of Economic Thought that teaches you about the actual Adam Smith, Ricardo, Mercantilism, Ponzi schemes that existed since the 19th century, John Locke, Thornton (who argued it is not the supply of money that is important but the circulation), John Stuart Mills, Marx, Bentham (utilitarianism which all modern economics models are based on), Keynes, Cambridge Capital Controversy and more.

  7. @Tom Indeed the loss of HET as a course is to be regretted. Unfortunately,what work is still being in the field seems to stop around 1960. Hardly anything on the the Phillips curve, natural rate, rational expectations, and so on. It’s impossible to understand today’s macro debates without knowing this history, but students get a predigested version, focusing on techniques and stats, as you said.

  8. The thread starter reminded me yet again of Eric Hobsbawm’s classic comment early in Age of Anxiety about the “Death of Historica Memory”.

    Venezuela, one of a whole flock of South and Latin American countries that have slipped back over the last decade after an upswing of hopeful sentiment ridded these places of the usual foreign sponsored tinpot dictators.

    And, as usual, something seems to have gone wrong, but as someone who subscribes to Dependency Theory, I have deep suspicions that a number of downfalls have actually been engineered as much by outside forces determined to keep democracy out of everywhere south of the border as ineptitude and venality involving local kleptocrats.

    For the rest, somewhat what Tom says, methinks, for the rest, how long is a piece of string, as Kenneth Davidson said.

  9. @paul walter
    Yes, and if you consider the interactions between South America and the US over the last 70 years, it’s very easy suspect that there’s probably more than a little American involvement in the current problems. Combined with (and almost certainly exacerbating) the normal resource curse, which Venezuela certainly had in spades.

    As for the rest, well, these days conservative intellectuals tend to pair “postmodernism” with “Marxism” as though they’re basically the same thing. And that perhaps says all that needs saying about the degree of intellectual rigour required to pass for a conservative intellectual these days.

  10. Said a mouthful Joel, Just here from a session viewing the Drum and really as confounded by the conservative mentality as ever.

  11. Paul Walter,

    It’s worth reading the book “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” -by Charles C. Mann, if you haven’t already read it.

    It traces the creation of a world system from about that date. Of course, it traces genocide in the new world, and the export of diseases, plants and animals around the world (to and from the New World).

    From that time on we were doomed (correct word I think) to a rapacious, environment-destroying world system.

    The history of places like Venezuela was steeped in blood, slavery and murder from the start of colonization in 1522 and this went on for centuries. It is is hard to fully recover from that, especially when new layers of more sophisticated Imperialism are added time and again over the centuries.

    We know that the USA has acted repeatedly to prevent the rise of anything like real democracy in many of the nations of South America. Venezuela is one case. So, long story short. Layers of colonial and imperial history, of slavery and exploitation, of high levels of economic stratification and inequality, of foreign interference and sabotage; all layered over a difficult, disease-ridden tropical environment and the so-called resource curse which is really the Dependency curse as you point out.

  12. @John @Tom
    What “loss of HET”? Just Googling turns up courses at ANU, Melbourne and Sydney, the first 3 unis I tried.

  13. Thornton (who argued it is not the supply of money that is important but the circulation), This is something very similar to my own thoughts. What use is all the money secreted away in the Caymans. Money should be spent, spread around, shared. Of course I have nothing to base this on but common sense ( which appears to be far less common than previously thought).

  14. @Declan You’re quite right. I was sure it had been dropped, but I didn’t bother to check. Still a look at the course outlines supports my broader concern. The courses stop at Keynes, with the briefest nod to 20th century heterodoxy.

  15. Prof Q, don’t forget Bernard Keane used to be an enthusiastic booster of neo-liberalism until quite recently.

  16. “Keane: neoliberalism is fine, but what we have is crony capitalism” ***

    Keane is an empty vessel. Why are our public intellectuals (with the honourable exception of Prof Q and a handful of others) so pathetic?

  17. @Declan

    You’re right, I was able to find HET in USYD, ANU and Monash, however nothing beyond that. Note that USYD School of Economics has long been thought as being a “stronghold of the left” in Australia. Also, how is this not a concern given only 1 major university in NSW, VIC and ACT out of Australia that actually has HET?

  18. @John yes there’s a big problem as to what to fit – any of Smith, Marx, Keynes etc. could be a course in themselves. But now Friedman, Galbraith etc. are ‘history’ themselves. The Borges library problem eh?

    @Tom UNSW also has some courses under different names (codes ECON1401 and 3119 – didn’t want to test hyperlinks in the comment filter). So that’s 2 in Sydney and 2 in Vic (Melb + Monash). UWA has one too. UQ does seem to have lost some courses recently.

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