Monday, 28 March 2016

Socialism/Communism and Scale

I've just read a very interesting draft article by Canadian philosopher Joseph Heath.

I don't always agree with Heath, but his work is usually very challenging (in a good way - i.e. interesting).

It is currently available on his page, though he may remove this in the future if it gets reviewed and published.

His argument is that just as computer architecture has to be able to cope with the amount of data required of it so social relations must be able to cope with the amount and nature of social and economic interactions.

He discusses GA Cohen's well known short book 'Why not socialism?' in which Cohen points out that camping trips work fine without a market so why can't society? (He even indicates the reasons why it wouldn't in his book so it isn't a very effective analogy in its own terms).

Heath goes to the trouble of pointing out why - small scale societies have methods to work and these are attractive to us. Which is unsurprising as much of our genetic ancestry would have been based in such societies.

However, the way that these societies function is simply not scalable past about 150 people. So attempts to bring about socialism on a larger scale inevitably result in the kinds of terrible things that Mao and Stalin did in the hope of enforcing their utopia.

Heath is certainly no market fundamentalist - all the other work I have read by him has challenged market thinking (Cattalactic bias as he calls it). However, he concludes that on a social scale markets are a very effective method of allowing economies to function on a huge scale and so capitalism is therefore the normatively required economic system for advanced societies.

Heath's argument is a development of the common conclusion most people have reached (that communism isn't viable for societies of more than 150 people) but he has developed an interesting and well-researched way of presenting it.


Tim Worstall said...

To a great extent he's recapitulating standard economic thought. Money, for example, isn't hugely and greatly useful in that 150 person society bound together with mutual obligations and favours (as Polanyi said was the model of the decent society). But something like money is going to be essential in dealing with strangers.

Hardin pointed out the Tragedy of the Commons and said you need either a private property or a government solution. Ostrom got the Nobel for pointing out that communal management can work too. But only up to a certain size: couple of thousand people tops.

It's a commonplace that families are communist, that voluntary associations can be but that large societies really just don't seem to work well that way.

Over in the classical liberal writing (modern version) you'll come across many a paen to markets as being these wonderful things that allow us to cooperate with strangers, something that nothing else really seems to manage.

This isn't to say that the insight is valueless: it's largely true so how could it be? But it is generally known. However, the point isn't so much about communism or socialism (which are descriptions of who owns, as is capitalism) but about markets or non-markets (as is Cohen's camping trip).

Different axes along which a society can be organised. Myself I don't worry too much about the ownership, there's different workable forms of that. It's the markets which are essential for anything large scale.

dougbamford said...

I'm fairly sure I agree with your comment, Tim (though I'm not sure I followed the latter half). The conclusion isn't surprising, but it is perhaps useful to see the argument laid out in this way.

dougbamford said...

Shepley Orr on twitter has pointed out that David Miller discussed this in his 1989 book on market socialism:
and has followed up more recently:

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