Communism was always a mystery to me. Why was it that all the countries supposedly founded on the egalitarian ideals of Marx ended up as repressive police states? Was it just a historical accident, or is there a deeper reason?
In this post I will argue that the failure of communism was the inevitable result of a failure to manage complexity. I expect this thesis to be somewhat controversial--chime in if you have an opinion. Also, I am not a history expert, so please forgive and correct any errors I make. As in many other areas, my thinking on this issue owes a large debt to Yaneer Bar-Yam.
Let's start with Marx's principle: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." According to this principle, everyone performs the tasks they are good at, and the goods and services produced are redistributed to those who need them. If this process runs smoothly, the needs of the entire society are taken care of.
However, as we all know from personal experience, it's complex enough to figure out what one person's abilities and needs are. Imagine trying to discern the needs and abilities of an entire country, and how best to match the needs and abilities with each other. To do this in a way which takes the idiosyncasies of each individual into account would be a massive complexity overload; it would take practically every individual in the country just to do the planning, with no one left to do the actual work.
So how did the USSR and other communist societies deal with this problem? Recall from last time the only way to control a complex system is to coercively reduce the system's complexity. This is precisely what happened in communist countries: they turned into permanent police states. In order for the leaders to control the economies they were trying to plan, the populace had to be forced into conformity and regimentation, i.e. lower complexity. People were forced into occupations that were not the best match for their talents, and governments made the simplifying assumption that everyone's needs were pretty much the same. It was the only way the organizational problem could be solved.
These simplifications worked, for a time. Eventually, in the USSR, people grew tired of the coercion and the economy stagnated. Gorbachev sought to reinvigorate the nation by allowing some economic and political freedoms, not realizing that the lack of freedom was precisely what was made the organizational system possible. No longer able to control the recomplexified system, the government fell.
So could communism ever work? Not, in my view, on the scale of a whole country. The principle of need and ability could be applied to smaller groups, where the organizational challenges are less severe. We see this, for example, in cooperative communities such as the kibbutzim of Israel (though even these are suffering from complexity management challenges.) In these smaller communist societies, you miss out on the efficiency provided by economies of scale, and there is no opportunity for highly specialized professions such as neurosurgeon or theoretical physicist. But the upside is the possibility of a society where everyone's needs are taken care of. Not such a bad deal.
Join us next time when we ask, "Does capitalism do any better?"
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