Does socialism need to be corrupt?

Brazil is going through a deep crisis right now. It is tempting to say that this is the greatest crisis in the country’s history, but I am quite afraid to make this comment. Unlike England and the United States, which have experienced significant institutional stability in the past 200 or 300 years, Brazil has gone through several political breakdowns in its history, and the current economic crisis is far from the hyperinflation of the 1980s. But there is a characteristic that links the present crisis to the previous ones: the presence of a tendentially authoritarian state.

Although Brazil was governed by an openly socialist party only between 2003 and 2016, this does not mean that socialist characteristics were not present in the country much earlier. One of the central theses of F.A. Hayek in the Road to Serfdom is that the democratic socialist parties of Western Europe (notably the Labor Party in England) had more features in common with the Nazis and fascists than they would have liked to admit. In other words, the differences between left (even a moderate left) and extreme right were illusory: they both had the fundamental characteristic of trying to plan society centrally.

The opposition between spontaneous order and central planning was one of the central theses in Hayek’s career. In Fatal Conceit he develops this theme a lot, showing how the opposition between central planning and lack of planning is a fallacy: society will forcibly be planned. The question is by whom: for a small group of people on behalf of all the others, or for a large group of individuals, each with limited responsibilities? According to Hayek, this distinction between central planning and individual planning is one of the central separations between an authoritarian society (left or right) and a truly free society.

It is difficult to say if the PT (“worker’s party”) government between 2003 and 2016 was the most corrupt in Brazilian history. Homesick people can always claim that corruption was also present in previous governments (it was just not investigated), and possibly they would be right. Before becoming a country ruled by a socialist party, Brazil has always been a patrimonialist country. And this is a fundamental point that adherents of socialism cannot understand: Brazil has never been a capitalist country, at least not in the sense that the liberal tradition employs.

Starting from Hayek, we conclude that central planning is impossible. Planners do not have the information they need to make their plans. As Mises taught, without private property there is no price formation, and without price formation the economic calculation is impossible. This opens space for what Hayek calls a fatal conceit: the assumption that it is possible to run a country from a central body, a presupposition that not only fails to achieve its goals, but also leaves piles of corpses on the way.

The PT government was probably the most corrupt in Brazilian history because it was what most rejected capitalism. The opposite of the free market is the attempt to centrally plan the economy. To centrally plan the economy, an army of administrators is needed. To watch over these administrators, a host of supervisors is needed, and so on. Corruption is inevitable.

Socialist governments are always among the most corrupt, and the reason is simple: the more government, the more corruption. A simpler, more decentralized government is not perfect. But it’s the best we can wish for. It would certainly be a government with less control over money, and thus less likely to steal.

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7 thoughts on “Does socialism need to be corrupt?

  1. Do you think, then, that treating ‘the authoritarian problem’ as completely separate from ‘the knowledge problem,’ as Lavoie, for example, does in “National Economic Planning” is flawed?

    • Hello Zachary! Tobe completely honest, I’m not familiar with Lavoie. In my viewn, authoritarian governments believe they have a knowlodge they don’t have. Economic freedom and political freedom can’t walk apart for long (although we see this happening now and then).

  2. You last paragraph made me think of this paper:

    http://www.peterleeson.com/Weathering_Corruption.pdf
    Could bad weather be responsible for U.S. corruption? Natural disasters create resource windfalls in the states they strike by triggering federally provided natural-disaster relief. By increasing the benefit of fraudulent appropriation and creating new opportunities for such theft, disaster-relief windfalls may also increase corruption. We investigate this hypothesis by exploring the effect of disaster relief provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on public corruption. The results support our hypothesis. Each additional $100 per capita in FEMA relief increases the average state’s corruption by nearly 102 percent. Our findings suggest notoriously corrupt regions of the United States, such as the Gulf Coast, are in part notoriously corrupt because natural disasters frequently strike them. They attract more disaster relief, which makes them more corrupt.

    • That’s interesting. But I wonder if other factors are not in place as well. Maybe there’s a tendency for corruption in the culture all along. I wonder how things happen in Japan, for example, after natural disasters.

  3. The opposite of the free market is the attempt to centrally plan the economy. To centrally plan the economy, an army of administrators is needed. To watch over these administrators, a host of supervisors is needed, and so on. Corruption is inevitable.

    I think a deeper and more detailed explanation should be given here, especially if you want to convince people that aren’t already deeply immersed in the ideas of free-market economics. I have a couple of essays in which I explain the origins of government corruption. The first is one of my essays devoted to socialism: Why Socialism is Always Oppressive, Dictatorial and Corrupt. Here I explain general corruption in terms of the conflict between the collectivist base of socialism and the actual, individualistic nature of human beings.

    In my essay, What I’d Like to See Gary Johnson Say to Bernie Sanders Supporters, I explain cronyism and “regulatory capture” in terms of the motivations inherent in being a government regulator.

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