The Morality/Immorality of Communism

This is sort of an adjunct post to Robert Prather’s post on the moral authority of Cindy Sheehan. Robert pointed out that Sheehan has toadied upto communist dictators and I contend that this also calls into question the moral authority of Cindy Sheehan.

The problem is the morality of the Communist system, both in practice and in theory. In practice it is hard to argue that Communism is a morally acceptable system. One only need look at the history of Communism as applied in the real world to see great and horrific abuses of the State’s power against its own people. Under Stalin millions of people dies, mostly of starvation, but tens of thousands were executed by secret police (the NKVD). In Communist China a similar massacre of people took place where millions (10 to 15 million conservatively estimated), again mainly by starvation. In Cambodia the Khmer Rogue, the name of the Communists in Cambodia killed anywhere from 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 again mainly via starvation. In North Korea, a communist country there is no telling how many people have died due to starvation and will die in the coming years. This is pretty much the case in almost all communist regimes. And when the people decide they don’t want to live in the communist system and either want to leave, or change the system, they are often imprisoned, tortured and killed.

On a theoretical standpoint one need look no further than one of the primary principles of communism:

From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

At first glance one might be tempted to conclude that this is a moral stance to take. I contend that it is not. For example, suppose we have a talented individual–call him Bob, and he can make far more than he needs. If Bob wanted to produce enough to cover his needs and then enjoy the remaining time as leisure time this is not allowed. Bob would be forced to produce additional resources and goods to give to those who cannot produce enough to meet their needs. In short, once Bob was done producing for his own needs he’d effectively become the slave of those who cannot met their own needs.

One could argue that since we can’t observe how much Bob can ultimately produce he could simply shirk and enjoy leisure time that way. While true, this also means that those who cannot meet their needs now must go without. In short, there is no mechanism to get Bob to be at his most productive voluntarily. It is either put a gun to Bob’s head, or make do with a sub-standard level of production. In this latter case, it is probably going to be the case that Bob and everybody else will have to make do with less.

Now compare this to the United States. The U.S. relies tremendously on the market mechanism. This mechanism has resulted in tremendous prosperity. Some point to things like measures of income inequality and pronounce the U.S. as somehow deficient. However, income inequality is an imprecise measure for what we are really after. What we really want to measure is people’s welfare. But how do you do that? While this is indeed probably an insurmountable problem, consider this aspect of the problem. How to we represent the welfare for the tens of millions killed in communist societies? After all, many of these people would have lived much longer lives if it weren’t for the communist system. So if we are going to compare some aggregated measure welfare between the two systems (capitalist/market economy vs. communist/collectivist) we should factor in all those dead people. Further, I assert that if we could do this the hands down winner would the capitalist/market economy in terms of promoting and increasing the welfare of people.

The U.S. has had its disgusting moments (slavery of blacks, Native Americans, internment of people of Japanese ancestory, etc.). However, there have been great advances that have also extended human lives, improved human lives, and saved human lives. Is it a mere coincidence that the U.S. and other market based economies are so advanced? Is it merely that the West “stole” resources from the rest of world? Or is it that in market based economies, the quest for profit also provides the impetus for innovation and invention. Was the DVD and DVD players invented because of imperialists going abroad to seize resources, or was it some company that wanted to get an edge on competitors and make some money. I’m going to guess the latter, and unless those who favor the imperialist view can come up with some good evidence, I’m not going to change my mind.

So when Cindy Sheehan goes out there and sucks up to communist dictators and thugs, it is a morally reprehensible act. And then she compounds it by making comments about how the United States is actually the terrorist nation. And no, I’m not going to buy into the babble that market based economies have resulted in far more deaths. I have not seen anything showing anything approaching genocide from anything even vaguely related to market economies.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Political Theory, , , , , , , , , , ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. Andy Vance says:

    I’d say the definining characteristic of Marxist “ethics” is using phantasmal ends to justify otherwise unconscionable means and dismiss disastrous consequences.

    Which explains why a primeval Trotskyite like Christopher Hitchens and his fellow moral cretins of the “Euston” variety are so attracted by the Bush Doctrine.

  2. Rick DeMent says:


    I would argue that there is no such thing as an immoral economic system, to borrow a phrase communism doesn�t kill people; people kill people. Economic systems are all benign, people make them evil. Capitalism can be just as immoral as communism if you parse it down to its basic tenants and people become slaves to the market or more accurately other people who have hit the genetic jackpot and have higher cognitive and personality skills. The evils of communism, as historically practiced, were due to ideological zealots who felt that it was more important to force a particular ideology on the population an enforce it with a dictatorship (complete with the attendant police state) then to allow the people a say in their lives. I am not arguing that communism, in it�s pure form would work, I�m saying that all economic systems in their purest forms will not work including unrestricted free market capitalism which, theoretically, could be implemented in the framework of a dictatorship.

    Whether or not “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs” is moral at its base or not depends entirely on your frame of reference. I mean if I were to spin your point of view to make it sound bad I could argue that if markets rule then there are a class of people whose relatively low cognitive abilities and inherent genetic limitations will forever consign them to a life of hopelessness and despair simply because they were not blessed with the genetic traits that make them successful in a market economy. The funny thing is they may have the traits that would make then successful in other situation like being huge, strong and an ability to fight. That would make that person a feudal lord in the 11th century but in the 21st he�s just a dumb palooka.

    Also you set up a bit of a straw man with you example of Bob. The problem is that the way you present it Bob is a successful guy all on his own, seemingly in a vacuum except for the fact that he is surrounded by people who can not support themselves. Sure if you make it all black and white, cut and dried like that it�s easy to defend your position. The world however is not so cut and dried, the specific laws, rules, and framework of our implementation of capitalism is not pure not is it so easy to parse out and the laws are typically gamed by those who are sucessful at it, makeing them, in turn, more sucessful. There is a symbiotic relationship between shareholders, labor, consumers that is amazingly complexe and to say that one person is worth X and another is worth Y gets into a level of subjectivity that makes it impossible to assess the true value of anyone�s controbution to the economy, so we substitute the ability to accumulate dollars as a marker of worth and that is horribly imprecise, but we do it because it�s easy and there are no other metrics that are better.

    I mean at the end of the day the Bob�s of the world can retreat to their homes with their wealth and tell the world to go away but if things get too out of whack then the have not�s will simply substitute the skill to kick ass for the skill to accumulate dollars the gold standard of value in socity and burn poor Bob at the stake and they will feel morally righteous in doing so. It’s happened before.

    As for the rest of the stuff about Cindy Sheehan and communism that is a pretty thin gruel. If what she says is wrong then it is wrong not because she is in bed with people aligned with a political group, it�s wrong because it wrong. On the other hand if what she says is right then it�s right regardless of who she aligns herself with.

    As for whether market based economies have resulted in more deaths it�s hardly babble, it is about what you consider to be responsible, I�m not saying that market economies are responsible for any deaths but by the same token I don�t consider any deaths in history to be the responsibility of any economic system including communism. I consider those deaths to be the responsibility of the individuals who decided to kill people … period. What was it about communism that forced Stalin to kill all those people exactly? What was it about a market economies that stood by when there were famines in the 60�s and 70�s in China and Africa? Nothing on both counts, people did that stuff, Jackson forced the Indians on the trail of tears not market economies but then again communism didn�t create the killing fields of Cambodia; that was a guy names Pol Pot.

    There is really a lot more to be said because you have thrown a lot of assumptions into a very short post and in order to really get this question down you have to focus on some very narrow things but if there is one point here it is this nutty idea we seem to have that economic systems are anything but benign and that evil people can use any system to do evil things if they want to bad enough. The “ends justifies the means” is hardly an invention of communism.

  3. DL says:

    The neo-Marxists in the Dem and Rino mold would have us believe there was nothing wrong with communism just the unfortunate way it was mishandled .

    The crux of the matter is they , in their heart of hearts, believe they should control people just as Stalin believed it. That is the problem -they don’t trust democracy -frankly the way people are led by lies and vote so poorly for their own selfish needs and desires at the expense of what’s good for the country -I’m tempted to go along withsome of that thinking.

    BUT -there is no better system -unfortunately.

  4. Maggie says:

    Two articles about snuggling up to Communists/dictators/thugs.

    Did I miss seeing even one mention of JIMMY CARTER?


  5. Rick DeMent says:

    There is a lot wrong with communism, but there is a lot wrong with everything. Communism doesn�t kill people, if it did every farmer in America would be dead. People kill people, it�s that simple. Free markets can kill people, which is why we tax ourselves in order to pay for social goods, so that if someone shows up at an emergency room without insurance they don�t have to die. But again at the end of the day it�s not really the free market that killed anyone, it�s the person who decided to let someone else die because they couldn�t pay the bill.

    The is this huge investment in the idea that Communism kills people that that it is inherently evil while free markets are inherently good. This is fuzzy headed thinking at best. There are no purely free market economies outside of a Grateful Dead concert parking lot in the late 70�s.

  6. Rick DeMent says:

    And why does this program add those goofy charactures?

  7. Thanks for explaining all this for the benefit of those who weren’t paying attention during the Twentieth Century. Also, it’s always fun to drive a Leftist crazy by mentioning how the National Socialists (i.e., Nazis) were SOCIALISTS!

    I’ve linked to you here: LINK

  8. legion says:

    It’s not that Communisim was mishandled, it’s that it _can’t_ be well-handled. It’s an intriguing concept, but it can only function if every single person in the system is satisfied being treated exactly the same as everyone else – having the same stuff, being just as useful/valued, etc. If even a small fraction of the people are willing to screw the system (and the rest of their society) to be a little better off than everyone else, the whole system fails. Competition is far too basic a drive, and one Communism completely fails to address…

  9. McGehee says:

    Where political and economic systems go wrong is when they seek to “perfect” man or his institutions. People can say what they like about capitalism, but it has the advantage, in terms of feasibility, of accepting man as he is, and the consequences of that fact as they are.

    Communism claimed it could perfect man by first perfecting society. Socialism accepts that man can’t be perfected, but assumes society can be as a way of compensating for man’s flaws.

    I’d say that an economic system with such built-in fatal faults that it simply cannot be made to work, might be deemed immoral for being inherently doomed.

  10. Rick DeMent says:

    Just like a total free market system will eventually devolve into massive inequality and revolution of the have not’s over the far fewer haves. Which is why wew have a mixed economy.

    Actually in smaller groups communism works out fairly well as most early tribal groups were essentially communist in nature. So is the revenue structure of the NFL as compared to Major League Baseball (but there the economics and competition is separate). You also fail to understand that while competition is a basic drive money as a reward for competition is not a universal standard. We are so used to thinking of monetary reward and the be all and end all we tend to forget that the most important breakthroughs in technology, knowledge, and human understanding where made by people who where not wealthy. High level mathematics is occupied by a rare subset of individuals who are uniquely devoted to their work and toil for long hours and will never be one tenth as wealthy as someone who takes their concepts and applies them to the specific pursuit of wealth. So what motivates them to succeed? What motivates a person to become a world-class single scull rower? Wealth? Can’t be, there must be some other motivation.

    I agree that as a practical idea communism is a non-starter, but any system in a pure form is a non-starter as well. We are arguing a straw man. There is no pure free market and there is no pure communism. There are however dictators and system gamers. And there is no such thing as an inherently immoral economic system. So to tar something with the notion that they aere sympithetic to communism is silly. Either an idea stands on it’s own or it dosen’t.

  11. Bithead says:

    Rick; The oddball chrs in C/P operations has to do with code page conversions, I think.

    Steve; Shocking as this may be, we’re in agreement here, but I’d extend your comments about Sheehan snuggling up to the Comminusts, to inlude such as Jimmy Carter, and various other Democrat leaders.

  12. Steve Verdon says:

    Just like a total free market system will eventually devolve into massive inequality and revolution of the have notâ??s over the far fewer haves.

    I see no reason for this to be the case.

  13. Rick DeMent says:

    I see no reason for this to be the case.

    Steve read history…

  14. Steve Verdon says:

    No Rick you read history. History is repleat with government committing horrendous acts. I see very, very few horrendous acts being committed by markets, or even by the actors in markets. About the only thing I can think of that comes close is slavery. With governments on the other hand we have them murdering millions and millions of people over usually very short time periods. And even with slavery we have many totalitarian governments stretching back to the dawn of time engaging in the same activity.

    As for income inequality, again, I see no need to subscribe to the Marxist notion of immiseration of the proletariat. I know you didn’t use that term, but that is basically what you are implying. That capitalism needs to continually increase inequality to the point of revolution.

    My point is that I don’t see why this has to be an inevitable result of a market based economy. The notion of comparative advantage suggests that everybody can be made better off by free trade unless of course government has intervened to make some richer than they should be.

    I see nothing in history to make me thing that markets are going to inherently redistribute wealth in an extremely unequal way. I see nothing in economic theory that suggests this. The only thing I can see that might lead to this kind of outcome is government.

    By the way, the only strawman in my original post and in this comment thread is yours. You claim I deal only with communism in the pure form and hence it is not appropriate to claim people who snuggle up to these kinds of people are bad. The only problem is that the second paragraph deals with the application of communism which, if you were to read history has perhaps the worst track record when it comes to human welfare. In shrot, I look at communism from both how it is applied and its theory and conclude it is immoral. Maybe the theory could be cleaned up, and thereby the application less horrendous. However, my guess is that the system would look more and more like capitalism. Such things as letting people retain some of what they produce over and above their needs could help solve the principle agent problem that runs rampant through communist systems. But then that starts to smack of capitalism.

  15. floyd says:

    steve ,rick; he who controls the past controls the future!