Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

What is needed by righties for a tolerable communist state?

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-10-08

Ask a member of "Teh Left" what would make a capitalist system tolerable, and you’ll get a list of things that would probably include phrases like "safety net".

What would members of "Teh Right" say would be the minimum necessary "tweaks" to make a communist system tolerable, i.e. a life that wouldn’t make them miserable directly or indirectly?  Putting it another way, what are the things without which life wouldn’t be worth living, or you’d rather die?

I could make a few guesses, but the point of this post is to discover opinions of any readers.

I’d hope that self-identifying "lefties" wouldn’t comment on this thread until self-identifying "righties" have given indications of what they’d need.

I’ll spell out the details of the hypothetical regime (although most righties will probably think such a thought experiment could never be realized in the real world):

  • The regime:
    • Benevolent (not merely benign)
    • Very well informed
    • Very competent
    • Not corrupt (rules governing access to resources apply to everyone, including dictator and administrators)
    • The basic philosophy is "from each according to ability to each according to need"
    • Essentially, no private property
  • The world:
    • Resources available to the state are the same as per capita resources in the real world, averaged across the entire planet.
    • Technological capabilities mirror today’s real world.
  • Skeleton for treatment of individuals:
    • Essentials are provided in a modest way (shelter, food, clothes, education, transport to and from sites of labor)
    • The state provides communal services like libraries, basic sporting facilities, etc.
    • Your occupation and place of work are determined by the state
    • You have some discretion to use resources of your choosing, similar to "pocket money" (let’s say enough to buy a book or CD every week or two – although lets assume libraries have a good selection of those!).
    • You have basic internet capabilities (similar to that offered free to everybody by google)

If any righties respond…

  • Note I haven’t stated whether the "dictators" are simple dictators or there is at least a quasi-democratic selection process… if some selection process is important to you, then mention it in your response.
  • Indicate whether you self-identify as a social and/or economic libertarian or conservative.
  • Remember, this is a thought experiment, you cannot make major changes to the basic system, I’d like to know the "tweaks" (equivalent in size to "safety nets" that lefties would want in a capitalist system) that would be required to make it tolerable.

What do I think would be some of the things righties might nominate?

  • Procedural fairness (ability to appeal decisions, including ability to indicate individual preferences for work and place-of-living, and ability to have input into policy directions similar to privileges to senate inquiries)
  • Basic freedom-of-speech provisions
  • A private life including no intrusive residential surveillance, and "what goes on in the bedroom is no business of the state"-type rules.
  • Ability to indicate preferences for food types (although, with limited resources, everything would probably be vegetarian).
  • Ability to use the "pocket money" resources in a quasi-capitalist manner.
  • If sicker people have access to more health resources, smarter people have access to more educational resources

17 Responses to “What is needed by righties for a tolerable communist state?”

  1. Dave, for a lefty you do write some decent thought-provoking posts. I’m a right libertarian, or a libertarian with some affection for the conservatives, or a slightly risk adverse libertarian if you like.

    Firstly, if the regime you describe above is so benevolent, informed, competent, honest, and moral how come the best it can do is provide a modest living with a vegetarian diet and only enough money to buy a CD or book every week or two, even though the technological standard mirrors the one we have today? This isn’t a competent administration, or maybe you’re being completely honest in saying that communist administrations are bound to be so hopeless that even a competent one couldn’t reproduce anything like the standard of living we currently enjoy.

    Anyway, what would make this tolerable? I don’t think any small adjustments would work for me. To make a tolerable life for myself I think I’d need to be able to dedicate a majority of my life to being able to produce wealth for myself, although I would accept reasonable constraints (backed by hard evidence) on how I did this in the name of environmental protection etc. So I think if the state controlled any more than two of my working days per week, and I couldn’t use the other days to pursue wealth in my own way, I’d hit tipping point. I wouldn’t want to be paying too much tax on the other wealth I created either. If the state let me just earn money in a profession of my choosing and then tax me then I wouldn’t be happy with a tax rate above 35% (so, yes, I’m already not really happy with the tax rates in Australia and they currently influence my working behaviour and dilute any obligation I feel toward this society).

    Non-economically I’d want full control over how I spent the recreational aspects of my life – I don’t expect to be forced to use state approved facilities. I’d want access to the internet, no censorship and freedom of speech. I’d want my own space, which would look something like a house (and indeed much like private property). I’d want to be able to have my family life private. I’d want a lot of freedom to move between professions and do different things, however realistically I don’t really think I could tolerate the state choosing my profession at all. If the state had a monopoly on education I’d still want to be able to study the things I chose, and not have the chosen for me. If the state had such extreme control over my security and well-being I wouldn’t expect anything less than an excellent outcome. That means I don’t get forced to live in a neighbourhood where I can’t walk the streets at night, I’m not expected to do dangerous things where I don’t decide the level of acceptable risk for myself and I’m never expected to ‘take a hit’ for the state, for example, have my medical treatment deemed too expensive. Basically, if you’re looking after my security and well-being, and I end up in a situation where I can deliver better outcomes for myself, the state has failed and I expect to be compensated for it’s failure as part of the course of justice, and to have the situation immediately rectified so as to never happen again. Having said that, I don’t want the state controlling the level of risk I personally would assume, for example, I wouldn’t expect any limitations on my use of alchohol or tobacco beyond existing ones in our current society. I’d want freedom of movement to travel, even if that was on horseback or bicycle because you’ve banned my car! And if I was in a position where I couldn’t ride the horse or bike because I was sick or too old, I’d want the car back or that public transport better be close to my front door. I wouldn’t tolerate the state claiming I owed a state debt if I had no choice as to whether I accepted it, for example, providing me with a state apartment I didn’t want to live in then claiming I owed them for the privilege, or claiming I owed the state for the crappy library and sporting facilities I don’t use or care for. If I didn’t choose them I don’t owe the state anything for them. I’d also want to be able to holiday overseas, so that means you give me an airfare and some foreign currency or you let me earn the money for one at reasonable pay rates (probably resembling market rates in modern western nations). And I’d want to be able to renounce my citizenship and move to a different country, which I would undoubtedly do, or I’d defect while I’m on holidays.

    However, despite all of this I probably wouldn’t accept the society you describe, and if I happened to be in one that didn’t ask too much of me but just denied my personal freedom, I’d probably live a life of passive-aggressive resistance. I’d be incredibly unproductive and useless, I’d attempt to ensure the system couldn’t work, I’d try to make it so people didn’t really want to employ me in my state mandated occupation, and I’d encourage others to do the same – all the while insisting on every entitlement I could get from the state. I’d also try to coordinate underground networks promoting trade, including from outside countries, pro-freedom information services, overt calls for more democracy, and covert resistance recruiting the favours of influential people and generally undermining the state. If the state was more intrusive into our lives, and wouldn’t just let me leave the country peacefully, for example sending me to work on a collective farm or mine as a punishment for not accepting the party line, or preventing me from leaving claiming I had to repay some sort of debt to the state (as commie nations tend to claim at times), I’d probably try to further disengage and go underground and seek to defect. If that was too hard, I’d just permanently fly below the radar (although that wouldn’t be possible with a family life). At this point if there was an organised violent movement against the government I’d probably sign up.

    Now, after all of that, isn’t freedom superior? All we need to do is respect each others life, liberty and property. You could purchase lots of land with your collectivist friends and start a commune. You could move in and take over a town, and when it became known you were doing that, people like me could just move out and go to another town that had a pro-freedom community. We could devolve political power under the constitution to lower levels of government like the states or councils. We could even give them the ability to tax. You guys could take over one and have the communist state of VIC, and people like me could have the capitalist state of QLD. If we wanted we could trade, or if it wasn’t working out between us we’d be able to have little to do with each other, and people would be free to choose the government they wanted to live under. If this situation evolved I would personally tolerate some restrictions on the movement of people that voluntarily signed up to any political system, so you could prevent capitalists entering communist VIC if you wanted, and even prevent party members from leaving, although I would expect the capitalist QLD to ensure people can move freely. That’s got to be a much better idea than trying to force us all to get along under the rigid rules of an overbearing government that runs every aspect of our lives in the name of the collectivist utopia.

  2. Hey Dave, over at Catallaxy we were wondering what your answer would be to making a capitalist state tolerable to someone like yourself (or an anarcho-capitalist state, or a libertarian state – you choose). You’ve mentioned a safety net, but more details like how big, and what else would you need? Perhaps another blog article if you’ve got the time?

    What about the political system we’ve got now, how tolerable is that to you?

  3. Dave Bath said

    Thanks for that.

    I can address one of your points now (I might return to others later) – you want the ability to choose your profession and the time demanded of you – by pointing to More’s "Utopia" for starters, after mentioning in many hunter-gatherer societies, about 4 hours a day is required to provide shelter and food, not too far from your "two days a week".

    In "Utopia" you were expected to work half the day doing what you were told, and the other half working at something you wanted to do, something "useful" that the village elders gave the nod… a bit like Google get employees to spend 1 day a week doing something that interests the worker…  "blue sky" stuff (and many Google products had their genesis in these things, such as Google Docs).

    For example (not from the book, but it follows the basic idea), if you were told to do gardening half the day, and you enjoyed it, you could continue doing more gardens the rest of the day.  Or teach gardening, or learn pottery, or play music at the old folks home, or be a doctor if you had the ability.

    The thing is, (see Humanistic psychology – I was a fan of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, especially their hierarchy of human needs including self-actualization), most people enjoy doing the things they are best at, really enjoy pushing their talents as far as they go, and therefore work at those things very efficiently.  A wise ruler/regime would figure out what you were good at, and tell you to do it or something similar.  Why waste your talents? 

    Could the percentage of the population with real musical talent provide enough music for the entire population?  Could those who like working with their hands satisfy the needs of the population for the sorts of things DIY fans do… construction, cabinet-making, plumbing, electricians, etc?  Could the percentage of the population who were psychologically and intellectually suited to being a health professional satisfy the health needs of the population?  (OK, so the regime might say "be a physiotherapist" for half each day when you wanted to be a gerontologist,… but I cannot see the regime saying "don’t be a gerontologist the other half of the day")

    If the answer to the above questions is "yes", then not too many people wouldn’t be all they could be.  If you are dumb, but love kids, why not work in a child-minding centre?

    And remember, even if the "do what we tell you" half day is digging ditches, there is the other half day to push yourself at something useful that interests you more.

    I’ve used Utopia as it’s recognized as a proto-communist text, and the split of work into half days mirrors the half working day of hunter-gatherers.

    Would this sort of thing suit you as far as choosing your work goes?

  4. Michael Fisk said

    This isn’t a hypothetical question at all because two such tolerable Communist regimes already exist in Laos and Vietnam.

  5. most people enjoy doing the things they are best at, really enjoy pushing their talents as far as they go, and therefore work at those things very efficiently. A wise ruler/regime would figure out what you were good at, and tell you to do it or something similar. Why waste your talents?

    If people ‘enjoy doing the things they are best at, really enjoy pushing their talents as far as they go, and therefore work at those things very efficiently’ why do they need a ‘wise ruler/regime’ to tell them to do it?

    Would this sort of thing suit you as far as choosing your work goes?

    I acknowledge that civil society imposes a level of burden on citizens, so in that capacity I agree the state must come at some sort of cost. I think the optimum way is to pay that cost through tax, allowing people complete freedom to decide how they earn the money. However, if the state felt it wanted direct labour instead of tax I’d be happy to give a day or two a week so long as no other significant tax burden was imposed. I don’t think I’d like the half-day scenario personally, I’d prefer to give one or two full days to the state then own the rest of the week for myself. As for the state being better at selecting the type of work you do, I’m not sure it would be. I subscribe to your claim that most people ‘enjoy doing the things they are best at, really enjoy pushing their talents as far as they go, and therefore work at those things very efficiently’. Therefore, we’re better using a spontaneous order to get people into the areas they’re best at, and reward them financially for being extra productive, like a market does naturally. I believe that people are happier and more emotionally satisfied when they are allowed to live by their own decisions, and since we will be spending such a large amount of our time at work (even based on your 4 hour/day scenario), I think it’s better for personal choice in this area.

  6. I would want a realistic way of changing many of the things you have provided as “givens”. That is, I could only ever tolerate them transitionally, knowing I could get to something I could tolerate indefinitely. After all, you haven’t specified anything that would entrench those “givens” – and, if it turns out that entrenchment would happen or would be read in as implied, well, straight away there is more constraint of the sort I would find intolerable.

    Which “givens” trouble me?

    – Benevolent regime (that’s a bad thing – “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive… those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end…”, from C.S.Lewis);

    – Very well informed regime (ditto – I would prefer it like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a “tyranny redeemed by inefficiency”);

    – Very competent regime (ditto);

    – Not corrupt regime (if it had all the previous damning virtues, this would deny refuge here too – think of the corrupt police chief in “Casablanca”);

    – The basic philosophy is “from each according to ability to each according to need” (who defines? I say I need for this to go away);

    – Essentially, no private property (then on what shall I stand, what being can I have, if all I touch and am is swept away?);

    – Your occupation and place of work are determined by the state (ditto);

    – You have some discretion to use resources of your choosing, similar to “pocket money” (I am not interested in more than subsistence but less than I can make something of, it is neither the one nor the other like a boat with only half the fuel it needs to reach a safe haven).

  7. Dave Bath said

    Michael@5 asks (read his comment for context)

    …why do they need a ‘wise ruler/regime’ to tell them to do it?

    I’m imagining that it
    * provides the opportunity
    * would give direction as to where the work is needed (you’re gardening in THIS street/park today)
    * mightn’t be /exactly/ what you want, but exercise the same basic gifts, e.g.:
    ** you might prefer to play rock and roll, but the old folks home needs something a little more mellow for their singalong (hey, you are still being a muso)
    ** you might prefer carpentry, but maybe there is a great need for electricians that year (you are still doing something with your hands that could be called “DIY”)
    ** you might prefer marriage counselling, but you might be /told/ to help resolve tenancy disputes
    ** you might prefer to be an astronomer, but the state needs more secondary science teachers

    In other words, the /compulsory/ work would be along the lines of how the military decide where to put you.

  8. Dave Bath said


    You haven’t been playing the game! No fun! Listing the points you object to and going “this sucks” is just going to get the same old boring debates going on and on and on…

    Perhaps you just could have said “No tweaks to this would make my life tolerable. I’d defect or put myself out of my misery.”

    I’m after something in the spirit of my brief statement over at Catallaxy in response to a mirrored question, or the one from Michael Sutcliffe, although I’m hoping a Catallaxian posts a more detailed question.

  9. In other words, the /compulsory/ work would be along the lines of how the military decide where to put you.

    Hey Dave, I’m thinking of the military, especially in their employment of the enlisted ranks, when I think how bad a top-heavy overarching hierarchy can be at extracting the talents of individuals who would otherwise happily organise themselves into a productive organisation! So notoriously bad at it, and have been for so long, that soldiers who have served a long time often joke about the roundabout way they came to be where they are. Just a couple of days ago I had an entertaining story from an ex special forces soldier and unarmed combat insructor, who came out of his basic and initial employment training as a cook who couldn’t work out what had happened to him!

  10. Dave Bath said


    Yeah… good story about the cook! They don’t put /that/ in the recruitment ads! What next, putting guys prone to seasickness on big boats? Color-blind electricians?

    Let’s say the hypothetical regime was competent enough to avoid clusterf***s, that it works the way the military /should/.

    I’ll admit my analogy was colored by when I became a cadet sergeant. We were told to put down our preferences (I think mine were, in order, medical, sigs, quartermaster, non-specialist [wrangling grunts, drilling them in weapons and marching], and lastly “pioneer” [construction]) and take our chances. Got medical.

  11. What I would need — the freedom to have a small part of the country where me (and friends) could escape the government and set up our own rules. When I came onto government property, I would obey their rules (just like I do now when I visit other countries), though I may not come much because I assume there will be a very heavy entry “fee”.

    In return, if I ever run a country I’ll give the same opportunity to the communists. Indeed, if I ran a country, it would be nothing but free choices of people to set up their own communities. There is no need to choose systems at the top-down level. Let a thousand systems bloom, and the better ones will become more popular. The only rule needed is non-initiation of violence and tolerance for all voluntary acts.

    Another option would be to have the government system fully decentralised, so that all coercive powers rested with the local governments, and then to allow people to easily break away and form their own local governments. But of course I would support this… it’s basically anarchy (and I’m a libertarian anarchist).

    As for minor tweaks, I’m not sure there could be anything. The described system is effectively slavery, and you asking if changing the breakfast menu would make me happy being a slave. I would consider becoming a terrorist (though not a suicide terrorist, because I don’t want 72 grapes).

  12. Dave Bath said

    John@11 mentioned

    allow people to easily break away and form their own local governments

    OK, this looks like something a number of cults (more common in the US, but not unknown in Australia – "The Family/Children of God" that set up near Berwick comes to mind) would love, and have attained (in practice, if not in fact) from time to time.

    For want of a better term, I’ll call these secessionist areas "microstates".

    The practices of these cults included abhorrent treatment of children.  They got away with these depravities for years, even without breaking away formally from the state.  Microstates would make things even easier for these cults, and under such conditions, they’d become more common.

    So, either the libertarians wanting to permit microstates don’t mind the actions of such cults, or can offer suggestions as to how such crimes against children can be prevented or punished from outside the microstate.  Remember, these microstates under John’s proposal would have "all coercive powers".  Would war against the offending microstate be the only option?

    But this objection doesn’t invalidate the need libertarian commentators have expressed. While I see other implementation difficulties, I’ll need a bit of time to try and think what the underlying psychological need is (and it’s probably the same that involves the need for choice of profession as expressed by Michael), and how this need could be at least partially accomodated (although by a different implementation) under the hypothetical communist system. I’ll have to go and blow the cobwebs from my memories of Maslow and Rogers!

  13. Dave Bath said

    Michael Sutcliffe@1 included the following points that I’ll grapple with now:

    I’d want access to the internet, no censorship and freedom of speech. I’d want my own space, which would look something like a house (and indeed much like private property). I’d want to be able to have my family life private.

    I cannot see any reason why a private family life, freedom of information access (although I’d certainly provide internet filter capabilities to individuals with customizable blacklists and whitelists), and freedom of speech (exceptions for extreme libel/slander or exhortations to violence) are incompatible with a communist state.  Insofar as real communist states have curtailed these freedoms, they have deviated from my notion of proper communism (enforce common property:yes, enforce common thought:no).

    So, at least a couple of Michael’s needs have been satisfied, I reckon!  Michael’s comments merely reinforced the importance of this.

    The "own space" for a residence is something I thought I’d covered, as I see it as a pretty important human need.  I was imagining something like a rent-free tenancy, with "quiet enjoyment of the premises".  The residences allocated to individuals would change over time… young adults probably grouping and applying for something like a shared house, newlyweds in smaller units, families with children in larger spaces. The allocation would also be sensitive to individual circumstances (Mobility difficulties? You get a ground floor unit.  Young and fit?  Upstairs should be fine).

    Even in a free market, it’s quite a runaround trying to find a place to live!

    I’d imagine I could develop a network algorithm (trained by backprogation, or selected for fitness and bred) that could find a reasonable (if not optimal) solution to residence assignments based on the size of the "family", proximity to work and close relatives/associates, and a number of other factors.  Decent urban planning (residential, work and recreation precincts fairly close) would make the optimization easier – ever played the LinCity family of games where placement is important to overall efficiency?

    (And, not to worry if you are a heathen, you can get LinCityNG MicroSloth Windoze binaries free and with idiot-proof installation.)

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  15. The freedom to leave.

    If I must stay and beg for minimal freedoms then I want space that is mine, time that is mine, friends that are mine, the right to whinge and moan loudly. The rule of law to make managing a totalitarian state somewhat predicatable. Food and warmth etc are assumed but obviously if I don’t have them then I want them. Also guns for me and all my many, many friends because we might want to go hunting sometimes. ;-)

  16. Dave Bath said

    Thanks for that.

    I’d be interested to read more on “space/time that is yours” … what do you mean, and would this mean more space/time than “24/7 – sleep – workinfordaman – transport_to_from_work” than is common in Oz?

    The “friends that are mine”… I think that’s absolutely necessary. The problem is that I cannot think of a system that doesn’t force you to mix with despicable types… unless your society is so ordered as to remove anything that /turns/ people nasty.

    Right to winge…. just take THAT from lefties and you’ll have a riot… free speech (ruling out unjustifiable slander, inciting violence, etc) would have to be a given if you want reasonable ideas to improve governance.
    On hunting… firearms necessary (would hunting using other mechanisms do? crossbows? running after bunnies/cats and wringing their necks satisfy the bloodlust?) what about leaving the guns in safe repositories outside urban areas (and hey, common ownership of recreational tools… you wouldn’t have to buy them!) What were you planning to hunt? (Hopefully not us lefties)

    Rule of law… der… procedural fairness implies the ability to know the rules and have them applied consistently.

    Interesting that you want warmth/food a RIGHT. Big tick. So… what about the homeless/starving we have now?

    Interesting about “rule of law”… that’d be one of things I’d be desperate for in an absolutely libertarian state… as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in a libertarian state I’d be looking to contract law to provide controls over things that weren’t obvious (like murder), even though in my communist utopia I wouldn’t have contracts (apart from the social contract).

  17. TerjeP (say tay-a) said

    I didn’t say food was a right. I said if I didn’t have it I would want it.

    The reality is that humans can live within the most dreadful of circumstances. However I don’t want to live in a totalitarian state. Why would you want to?

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