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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism Book Club Commentary, Part 4

Summary:
We’ve now moved on to “War Is Peace.”  Here are my thoughts on your latest comments. LEB: I know you were speaking to the specific Huxley quote, but on the whole I wouldn’t dismiss “Brave New World” so quickly.  Americans have willingly ceded a great deal of their freedom to the government in recent decades… I agree that Americans ceded a great deal of freedom to the government over the last century.  I don’t see that there’s been a net loss of freedom in American policy from 1980 or 1990 to the present. and most people under 30 today seem fairly content to live in a numbed state of consciousness through social media, pornography, calorie-dense foods, video games and recreational drugs.  This is compatible with freedom in the “do what you will in the moment” sense

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We’ve now moved on to “War Is Peace.”  Here are my thoughts on your latest comments.

LEB:

I know you were speaking to the specific Huxley quote, but on the whole I wouldn’t dismiss “Brave New World” so quickly.  Americans have willingly ceded a great deal of their freedom to the government in recent decades…

I agree that Americans ceded a great deal of freedom to the government over the last century.  I don’t see that there’s been a net loss of freedom in American policy from 1980 or 1990 to the present.

and most people under 30 today seem fairly content to live in a numbed state of consciousness through social media, pornography, calorie-dense foods, video games and recreational drugs.  This is compatible with freedom in the “do what you will in the moment” sense of the word, but I don’t think it bodes well for the future of more essential freedoms to the elevation of human character.

Anti-intellectual apathy is the norm in all human societies.  Perhaps things are marginally worse than normal for under-30s nowadays, but I haven’t seen any compelling evidence of this.  What is a non-question-begging measure?

Freedom of thought, speech, association, and religion all seem to be under grave threat so long as the public endures in a state of numbed stupor occasionally punctuated by reactive frustration and outrage.

“Grave threat” seems like hyperbole.  Marginal threat?  Perhaps, though again it’s not clear that things were ever noticeably better.

Henri Hein:

China in the first few decades after the Socialist take-over fits your bill pretty closely. It is the 4th largest country in the world, with population centers such as Chongqing, Wuhan and Beijing isolated by distance and geography. It was surrounded by other failed socialist experiments, or other dysfunctional countries: Soviet Union, North Korea, Afghanistan, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam. Only India was a somewhat functioning country, but you had to cross the largest mountain range in the world to get there, and would probably be shot at if you made it that far. Hong Kong was close, but it had a tiny border and was closely guarded. The rulers told the populace they were living in a Socialist paradise, and the people wanted to believe them. Yet despite this almost perfect setup for Mao, millions of Chinese found their way to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, North America, Indonesia and the Philippines. Millions and millions.

Do you have any source for these numbers?  Nothing readily googles, and they seem far too high.  In any case, “millions and millions of emigrants” out of hundreds of millions spread over a quarter-century of starvation and tyranny hardly sounds like a serious check on tyranny, does it?

Joe Denver:

This seems a bit strange for Orwell. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding him, but even as a socialist, it seems strange to strongly advocate against tyrannical Stalinism, yet also have so much faith that it works.

Compare this with liberals (libertarians), who, if anything, are far too quick to predict the downfall of authoritarian institutions. Likely because they have no faith that these institutions work.

Orwell thought that the Soviet system “worked” in the sense of maintaining an iron grip on power.  And he had excellent reasons to think so; he saw Stalin hold power under extraordinarily dire conditions, mostly of his own making.  Orwell’s mistake was thinking that the Soviet system would be good at perpetuating itself after the fanatical revolutionary generation died off.

Jan:

While TPOC-Orwell is certainly prescient and insightful in some ways here, you give him too much credit as a strategist and war planer…

A two-bloc world is more seems more stable here. Why didn’t 1984-Orwell go for it? One foe should be enough now.

Hard to say.  Perhaps given his experience with British colonialism, Orwell was skeptical that two European powers could permanently maintain control over Asia.  Dramatically, of course, he wanted to have three powers so he could ridicule the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact via the famous scene where Oceania switches enemies in the middle of Hate Week.

However, the point is moot, since, second, there are nukes in 1984. An even bigger arms race seems inevitable, and sooner or later one bloc will gain the upper hand (or is feared by the others to do so). Result in that world is the same: All-out war.

Aren’t nukes precisely what makes Orwell’s stalemate plausible?  Nuclear weapons are the standard explanation for why the Cold War stayed cold for the major powers, no?

Brian Kennedy:

I don’t think two bloc worlds are more stable, and I *sorta* think that the International Relations/Historian Academics (I am neither) think so as well.  Rome/Carthage, the Central Powers/Allies, Axis/Allies, etc.   In a two power dynamic, everything is zero sum, so if you have the advantage, press it.  Which makes a war to determine everything inevitable.

“Inevitable” is way too strong.  But it’s believable that two-bloc worlds are more likely to lead to total war than three-bloc worlds.

In a three bloc dynamic, it is not so simple.  Yes, two powers could gang up and totally defeat the third power, but then you are in the two bloc dynamic, do you want to enter that if you are the weaker of the two victories powers?  No. So you switch sides.

Plausible for most of history.  It wouldn’t have made much sense for the British to team up with the Soviets against the Americans after World War II, though.

If the Cuban Missile crises had triggered WW-III, later historians would have said it was just the event that triggered the inevitable war, just as they now say that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand triggered WW-I.   Europe had gone through multiple crises pre WW-I, which eventually triggered a war.

Hindsight bias is mighty, yes.

So too the Cold War, though after the Cuban Missile Crises, those crises tended more towards Kabuki Theatre.  Because nukes, I would posit.

Agree.

Donald Fagan:

“If you’re still not convinced, noticed how easily the European powers surrendered their entire empires after World War II.  Since they never really “needed” their colonies, they swiftly let them go with minimal domestic side effects when imperial fervor waned.”

I think you’re way off here. The European colonial powers were exhausted financially after the war and no longer had the juice to maintain empire in the new world of the superpowers.

This is a fine explanation for why the Netherlands gave up the Dutch East Indies; they lost control during World War II and lacked the resources to reestablish control in time.  But “financial exhaustion” really doesn’t explain the British or French collapse.  With the possible exception of British India, their mighty economies largely recovered before the independence movements gained the upper hand.  And again, if the colonies were actually profitable for the colonial powers, letting them go would have made their long-run financial outlook worse, not better.

How do you explain attempted British intervention in the Suez in 1957, and the diplomatic (as well as national) humiliation their failed efforts earned them?

I’d call it a last gasp of nationalistic pride.  The loss was humiliating, but not impoverishing.

David Henderson:

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the late Jonathan Kwitny’s book Endless Enemies:

The excuse for intervention [by the U.S. government], of course, is the notion that if we don’t fight, Moscow will win by default. Yet as one travels the globe, from Indochina to Cuba to Angola, one finds that the Third World countries where the Soviets are alleged to have the strongest influence are precisely those countries where we have fought. Meanwhile, in countries that weren’t militarily threatened by the United States, where Soviet influence has had a chance to flunk on its own merits, it has. In Egypt, in Ghana, in Algeria, in Somalia, in Nigeria, in Indonesia—except in occupied countries along the Soviets’ own border, the Russians have been kicked out.

I’m tempted to agree, but it’s complicated.  Maybe the U.S. was more likely to fight in arenas where the Soviets were more determined to win a lasting victory.  The Soviets were “kicked out” of the countries where they were dabbling all along.  Until 1989, what explicit Marxist-Leninist dictatorship ever lost rule of a country after securely gaining it?  The closest example is Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, where one Marxist-Leninist dictatorship lost power to another.

Henri Hein:

For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves;

War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.

Continuing my efforts from previous posts, this time I am just going to list some geniuses that were produced by poor parents:

Michael Faraday
Srinivas Ramanujan
Alfred Nobel
Marshall Mathers
Alexander Hamilton
Gauss
Abraham Lincoln

You’re getting a little ahead in the reading, but you make a useful point.  I’m going to focus on the fact that riches fail to intellectualize most people, but it’s also worth pointing out that poverty often fails to “stupefy.”

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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