Why Rothbard was wrong on the Soviet Union, and why it matters now
I am spurred to write this because, thanks to tweep @jdenigma, I was introduced to Murray Rothbard’s “plan for desocialization” of the Russian economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rothbard’s plan was first published in 1992, in the Review of Austrian Economics, and can be found at the Mises Institute website.
In the conclusion of his article Rothbard lays out a summary of his proposal:
The dimensions of the proffered Rothbard Plan for desocialization should now be clear:
- Enormous and drastic reductions in taxes, government employment, and government spending.
- Complete privatization of government assets: where possible to return them to the original expropriated owners or their heirs; failing that, granting shares to productive workers and peasants who had worked on these assets.
- Honoring complete and secure property rights for all owners of private property. Since full property rights imply the complete freedom to make exchanges and transfer property, there must be no government interference in such exchanges.
- Depriving the government of the power to create new money, best done by a fundamental reform that at one and the same time liquidates the central bank and uses its gold to redeem its notes and deposits at a newly defined unit of gold weight of existing currencies.
All this could and should be done in one day, although the monetary reform could be done in steps taking a few days.
The terms and timescale of this proposal are rather breathtaking, considering we are speaking of a major industrial power encompassing a population then numbering about 150 million people, with the world’s largest accumulation of nuclear weapons. Moreover, this was not by any means a typical Western economy: it was heavily centralized, and effectively consisted of a collection of large industrial monopolies created from scratch by an extremely powerful central authority employing the labor of several generations.
For all intents and purposes, the Soviet Union was one giant interlocking company, masquerading as a nation-state — a company town with its own military, police force, courts, diplomatic staff and government.
At the bottom of this immense, complex structure were the women and men who were held as virtual prisoners of a rather brutal and arbitrary party-state management apparatus, which extended its control to every sphere of public and private life. For the most part, they lived at its mercy, although it may be true the grip on their activities was nowhere near as tight as in the days of Stalin.
As might be expected, Rothbard’s plan went nowhere, and mainly comes down to us as the musings of a thinker who boldly conceived on a grand scale about dismantling the existing state.
I made just such an attempt several years before Rothbard along the same lines as part of my honors thesis for my degree in Economics. My ideas, however, began with the assumptions I made above: that the Soviet Union was a company town, and addressing the chronic problems of its final years was not likely something to be undertaken without focusing on the masses of working people trapped under the weight of an oppressive totalitarian monstrosity.
Like Rothbard, I thought a plan of action should be undertaken quickly; but unlike Rothbard, I proposed to start at the bottom of society, not the top. I was not interested in markets, or property right, or laws, or money — I was concerned with the folks who would be threatened by the attempts to establish these.
So, I proposed a simple reform:
Reduce hours of labor by forty percent.
That was my entire proposal.
The problem of the late Soviet Union was not the lack of markets, money or property rights; it was the vast accumulation of superfluous working time embedded in the economy by a rather startling increase in the productivity of labor in the decades following Stalin’s rise to power.
The quickest way to fix this problem was simply to give people more time away from work — to essentially starve the gigantic machinery of production of its supply of human labor power, and force it to restructure and become more efficient. What people did with their newly acquired free time, was not a concern of government.
Not surprising, the Yeltsin government ignored not only Rothbard’s plan, but my own plan as well. Actually, in both cases our effort was not intended to influence events in the former Soviet Union, but to think seriously about what dismantling the state looks like using a real life case study.
Events brought Jefferey Sachs, then at Harvard University, to “advise” Boris Yeltsin on the economic policy of the new Russian government. While differing significantly from either Rothbard’s approach, and my own, I think it is fair to say, Sachs proposed a solution a magnitude closer to Rothbard’s than my own. In place of the then existing centrally planned economy, Sachs’ plan sought to establish a working market economy in one bold move.
It was a fucking disaster! — a cruel and unmitigated catastrophe for a nation of honest working people who had no inkling what was about to hit them. A crippling generational cataclysm, from which Jefferey Sachs emerged with his reputation intact, while women were reduced to prostituting themselves for food. Almost immediately the entire wealth of the nation fell into the hands of a tiny oligarchy of former managers of the old state-run economy.
Sachs now has opinions on how the West should fix its current crisis.
I think there is a lesson in the differences in the approach taken by Rothbard and myself: forget the state-dominated economy and think about people. It is a lesson that should be observed without exception in the present deficit debate.
Yesterday, Mark Thoma offered us an American version of this concern for markets over people in the form of a false menu of options on the deficit debate: we can reduce debt or we can reduce unemployment. This typical Hobbson’s Choice politics, for which the Fascist State excels — offer the sheeple two unpalatable choices:
“Come on Sheeple, do you want to be buried in debt or starve in your freezing houses this winter.”
Since, this is a democracy, the choice between these two options is yours. The menu offered is carefully calibrated for two entirely different audiences: the Tea Party patriot, and the socialist-minded progressive. It is a subtle play on the “Southern strategy”, but with a twist: neither side of this argument is made to change voter’s minds. Which is to say, the aim is not to convert Red states to the blue column, or Blue states to the red column, but to play them off against one another as is.
The argument against deficits is made to both sides on exactly the same terms: more spending will mean more people living on government handouts. If you imagine these folks as the unprecedented numbers of unemployed who have been locked out of the market in labor power — you’re on one side. If you imagine them as lazy niggers who have no wish to work and only want to suck on the teats of producers, you are on the other side.
The “debate” over the deficit requires no more than a fairly adept management and knowledge of The Singular Division in American society — race. This division already exists in ready made form in society — a festering pus-filled wound that is periodically tortured by the Fascist State.
Please, do not tell me I am oversimplifying things — the object of politics is oversimplification. That is why you’re debating the deficit. All this debate comes down to is the deficit on the one hand, and a dysfunctional social stratum of chronic losers on the other. Before you even began debating the deficit you had already formed this simplistic model of the issue in your mind.
For the Tea Party patriot, the deficit comes in the form of everything they are not: smelly brown people speaking in unintelligible tongues. For the socialist minded progressive, it is the unfolding of history: civilization is measured by the degree of the state control of society. The progressive sees society as one giant factory, and wants only for it to be managed according to the principles of Fred Taylor. For the Tea Party patriot, society is a suburb set on the edge of a dangerous crime-ridden ghetto — they want it to be managed by the principles of Bull Connor.
The debate over the deficit does not invent these different views of society, but takes them as its premise. Since, as with all premises of this type, they are self-evident to the participants, we throw no light on the debate by admitting them. All will admit this is a debate on whether society is a prison pen for incorrigibles, or the interior of some gigantic hive of worker bees. Although hesitant to admit to their own views, they well admit that of their opposites — their arguments consists of counter-exposures. So, we only do here for both together what they each do only for the other.
But, anti-statists are not disinterested observers, standing on the sidelines of the great debate. To really grasp the implications of this debate, we must, account for our own presence as well as the contending factions. If we are successful, we won’t end up like Mark Thoma, who imagines himself on the sideline offering value-free advice to the Fascist State.
The first assumption has to be, that we are motivated by the same social process as Tea Party patriot, socialist-minded Progressive and Mark Thoma with his value-free advice to the Fascist State. If we are going to assign the values of Bull Connor to the Tea Party patriot, and the values of Fred Taylor to socialist minded progressives, it is only right to assume Mark Thoma’s value-free advice to the Fascist State is not really free of values.
The values of the Tea Party patriot appears to her as “commonsense thinking”, and this is also true for the socialist minded progressive. So, Mark Thoma’s value-free advice to the Fascist State, like Jeffrey Sachs’ value-free advice to the Yeltsin government in 1992, appears to him as value-free advice, because, for him, it is common sense.
Based on a read of Rothbard’s plan for desocialization of the Russian economy, it would seem anti-statists too are subject to this double fallacy: it is not value-free, but it appears to be sensible to us and without value bias. Rather than trying to argue our view is value-free, we must openly admit our bias, and declare this bias as our starting point.
But, even this is not enough: we must also subject this bias to the same scathing critical treatment we apply to Tea Partiers, progressives, Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Thoma.
No. The world is not a prison pen, nor a factory floor; and our choices are not value-free, and must themselves be the subject of criticism. We must find a place to stand, without for a moment deluding ourselves this place, fraught with hidden fault lines, is Terra Firma. Which is to say we declare we are anti-statists while never imagining we completely grasp the full implication of this position all at once.