Daily Archives: March 21, 2013

Wintrobe on the Soviet Union

Looking through some old notes, I found these passages from Ronald Wintrobe’s book The Political Economy of Dictatorship. I think he offers a very clear explanation of why the history of the Soviet Union unfolded as it did.

These considerations reveal the basic contradiction of Communist rule. The ideological basis of communism is solidarity. In order to promote that solidarity, markets and private ownership are suppressed. But in order to make the system work, it has to function as a bureaucracy that is under political control. But in any bureaucratic system, vertical control is paramount, and solidarity among the work force interrupts this control and lowers output and productivity. This result is especially likely when the whole society is organized as a single bureaucratic system, such as in the former Soviet Union and other Communist countries. The more the system operated as any bureaucracy must, the more the contradiction between its reality and its promises, as embedded in its ideology, became apparent (p. 214).

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[T]he classic Soviet system, like any bureaucracy, did not run primarily on orders or commands but on exchange. The basic difference between a bureaucratic and a market system is that exchanges within bureaucracy are based not on laws but on trust or loyalty. Under communism, loyalty to the Party combined with the Party’s capacity to repress opposition became the source of its power. Consequently, when the Party was strong, either because it was ruthless in its use of repression or because it was believed to be capable of fulfilling its promises, the system was capable of good economic performance. The fundamental prediction of this model is therefore that in a Soviet-style system, there is a positive correlation between the power of the Party and measures of economic performance such as economic growth.

The basic problem with such a system as an economic system lie in the conditions for running any large bureaucracy efficiently; bureaucracies require vertical or hierarchical loyalty and not horizontal solidarity among co-workers, which can be used to escape Party control and therefore tend to lower productivity. In turn, this implies that there is a fundamental contradiction between the promises of communism — essentially, equality and solidarity — and efficiency. . . . over time, this contradiction became more and more apparent, and the system could only maintain itself, Stalin-style, through the use of the purge and other techniques for breaking up the horizontal networks and other nonsanctioned alliances which tended to grow up within it (p. 217).

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The central problem of any bureaucratic system . . . is that over time, horizontal trust (as well as vertical trust) tends to accumulate and the accumulation of horizontal trust is ultimately very damaging to the efficiency of the system from the point of view of the leaders. We would predict that this problem was particularly acute in the Soviet system, with the intertwining of the Communist party and the state, as well as the consequent absence of an institutionalized takeover mechanism (such as general elections in politics or hostile takeovers in business) or any other mechanism which could “shake up” the loyalties which tend to accumulate within such a system. Consequently, the only weapon available for this purpose was the purge (p. 225).

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Support Card; boycott Superman

In case you haven’t heard, Orson Scott Card, a writer I like and admire, is being targeted by a sort of self-appointed House Un-Homosexual Activities Committee, which has succeeded in pressuring DC Comics to drop Card’s contribution from an upcoming Superman anthology.

Card’s views on sexuality, whether or not you happen to agree with them, are reasonable, humane, and — until approximately five minutes ago — thoroughly mainstream. The attempt to hound him out of the job market because of them is evil.

I’m aware that the people at DC aren’t the real villains here, that they’re “just following orders” from the McCarthyite canaille. Nevertheless, you can’t boycott a mob; and DC, as the brand that represents Superman, does have something of an obligation to stand for truth, justice, and the American way. I am therefore boycotting the company (I don’t read comic books anyway, but I had been planning to see the upcoming Man of Steel movie; not anymore) and encourage others to do the same.

(Thanks to John C. Wright for bringing this to my attention.)

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McDermott’s Aquinas

I’ve been reading Timothy McDermott’s Aquinas anthology (Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings. Oxford University Press, 1993). Overall I recommend it, though with reservations.

Aquinas will often begin a discussion with a numbered list of questions and then, many pages later, refer back to these by their numbers alone, requiring the reader to flip back through the book trying to find where exactly Aquinas said what “the fourth question” was. (This annoying feature of St. Thomas’s style makes any attempt to read his work on an e-reader an exercise in futility, as I know from experience. Actual pages to flip are a must.) McDermott ameliorates this considerably with bracketed additions to the text. For example:

[Article 7] The seventh question [Does the goal determine the kind more specifically than the object, or vice versa?] we approach as follows: . . . (p. 352, brackets and boldface in the original).

It’s hard to overstate how much more enjoyable such little touches make the reading experience.

Another plus of McDermott’s translation is that he is not a slave to etymology, as so many Aquinas translators apparently are. Just because the original Latin uses the word accidens, for example, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the best English translation is accident — a word which no longer means in modern English what it meant to Aquinas — so McDermott opts for incidental properties instead. This often makes Aquinas’s meaning much more transparent. One downside, though, is that most other Aquinas translators are slaves to etymology, so someone who reads only this translation will not learn the etymologically correct technical terms (such as accident) which most English-speakers use when discussing Aquinas. A translator’s note at the beginning of one of the passages highlights the sort of confusion that may arise:

Deliberately, ‘condition’ translates dispositio, ‘disposition’ habitus, and ‘habit’ and ‘custom’ consuetudo. ‘Moderation’ and ‘courage’ translate temperantia and fortitudo; ‘deiform virtue’ translates virtus theologica.

This is obviously bound to lead to misunderstanding when the reader attempts to discuss this passage with someone who has learned the more etymologically conventional technical meanings of disposition and habit. And, while many people have heard of the “theological virtues” — faith, hope, and charity — no one who hasn’t read McDermott is going to know what you’re talking about if you start throwing around the word deiform.

McDermott, however, is evidently sensitive to these possible sources of confusion, which is why he includes several helpful “notes on the translation” like the one quoted above. The index also includes the original Latin in parentheses for certain key terms. All in all, his approach is perhaps an acceptable compromise between clarity and “backward compatibility” with other translations.

One slightly annoying feature of the translation is McDermott’s insistence of referring to Muslim scholars by their original Arabic names, using Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sīnā in place of the more familiar Averroës and Avicenna. — the equivalent of insisting on calling Confucius Kǒngzǐ. Since the Latinized names are of course the ones Aquinas used, and are also the ones that modern English-speakers will be familiar with, it’s hard to justify translating them back into Arabic, and I have to assume he did so for political (not to say politically correct) reasons.

More grating is McDermott’s decision to “translate” Dionysius as Pseudo-Dionysius — ridiculous, since, whatever modern scholarship may have to say about it, Aquinas believed he was quoting the actual Dionysius the Areopagite, the disciple of Paul, and he referred to him as such. McDermott’s anachronistic rendition is the equivalent of translating Romans 10:16 as “For Deutero-Isaiah saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?”

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