Mises Daily Articles
Why do people vote for Communists?
I recently participated in a conference in Prague during what was my first visit to a post-communist country, excepting a short visit to Berlin in 1991, when I was probably too young to fully appreciate what I could see around me.
Prague is a wonderful city today, one the most fascinating places in Europe. Walking in the streets, I tried to imagine how those streets might have looked just a few years ago, when the communist regime was still in power. Those softly multi-colored buildings could not have been that way twenty years ago. Residents told me that the city was very grey. People were poorly dressed and sad.
Life without freedom, under a communist regime, is only half a life. Surely the citizenry remembers. Surely they have learned. Why, then, does a substantial percentage of the population appear to support a reversion back to communism?
During a talk with Simon Bilo, former Mises Institute fellow and one of the organizers of the conference, I was informed that the Communist Party in the Czech Republic got more than 20% of the total votes in the last political elections. It is now the second largest party in the country. I knew that Communist Parties in Eastern Europe remain a strong power and enjoy some measure of popular support.
Still, it is strange. It cries out for explanation. Why do some wish for slavery? Why do people still support Communist Parties?
In Italy, we have a Communist Party as well. Its weird name is Communist Refundation (Rifondazione Comunista). It typically gets about 6% of the vote total. In fact, most countries have Communist Parties, such as Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, and so on. Even the US (actually two).
We might theorize that people vote for communists in Italy because people have no experience with the total state. People are merely chasing fantasies or ignorant ideals, or maybe following some intellectual guru. Maybe communists are too young, or maybe too old, to fully understand the implications of their votes. They enjoy the relatively higher freedom of our country, and voting for communism means rebellion. If they knew what communism is really like, they would probably change their minds.
This simplistic view had to be abandoned in Prague. People there know very well what communism is. They experienced the devastating effects of eliminating private property in the means of production. It means canceling all freedoms. They lived for forty years in a nightmare and just woke up.
So, why do more than 20% of all Czechs still believe in it? What is the driving force of votes to Communist Parties both in former Communist countries and in the other ones?
There are many possible explanations, but the one that I find most compelling is that some people, by virtue of having been socialized under statist conditions, are not attracted to the responsibility that comes with the idea of freedom.
To believe in private property rights and a free society means to make a great call for responsibility: what society should do should be done by you, or by others in cooperation with you, but not by the collective. The obligation falls on individuals, and everyone is made responsible for his actions. If you make a mistake, you pay. If you succeed, you get the benefit and are free to choose what to do with it.
In contrast, the enlargement of the state always means an attack on responsibility. Under a communist regime, self-responsibility is eliminated. The more a government intrudes into citizens’ lives, the less people feel a sense of responsibility for their actions. Bureaucrats do not typically have full responsibility for their actions. Politicians, central bankers, and judges do not pay for their mistakes. They experience a kind of immunity from bearing blame for the consequences of their actions during the time they are in power.
The same holds true for police officials, public surgeons, public school teachers, etc. All mistakes that are made by public employees are often paid for by others. The bill is paid by taxpayers, by people sent to jail mistakenly, by people killed in public hospitals, by Iraqi citizens, etc. Not even people who earn private salaries are fully responsible under the State. Under the larger and larger safety nets created by the state, firms get more and more dependant on public help in order to survive. Big companies lobby for subsidies, duties on imports, and other kinds of help. Banks and large industries such as airlines hope to be declared “too big to fail.”
Individuals are also less and less responsible. In Europe many people grow up with the idea that the State owes them something: jobs, health, free education, vacations, happiness, and deliverance from despair. People are led to believe that the State will always care about their problems and address their community concerns. People are made to believe that whatever they do (they lose their job, they get sick, they become depressed) the State will be there to help.
The perverse result of all this is that citizens no longer bear full responsibility for their actions. All this can be explained through the concept of the moral hazard. The mechanism works as follows: on the one hand the responsibility of public employees is transferred to everyone affected by their mistakes (among these, the taxpayers); on the other hand, taxpayers demand also for a shift of their responsibility to the State. Given the taxes they pay, they should get something back, shouldn't they?
Everything I have described thus far is in the setting of a democratic state. Let us now imagine the situation is under a communist regime. In this case, we do not have a partial shift of responsibility from some subjects to other subjects. Responsibility is simply abolished. There is no private property and therefore everything is dependant on the State. No individuals are responsible for anything.
When democratic or communist institutions have been established for several decades, the way back to liberty is very difficult. People become used to safety nets and responsibility shifting. The transition process must be very difficult. We do not know what the transition would be like from partially responsible societies (under democratic regimes) to fully responsible societies (libertarianism). This has never happened before.
But Eastern European countries have experienced in recent years the transition from irresponsible societies (under communist regimes) to partially responsible ones (under democratic regimes). From these transitions, we’ve learned that people cannot learn to be responsible overnight. The more a society loses touch with mechanisms of cause and effect, the more there is going to be a demand for shifting blame. This demand might take the form of votes to Communist Parties.
Freedom is not easy to cope with once people have become accustomed to slavery. I recall a movie (I cannot remember the name) about people who had been set free from prison after 40 years. Their reintroduction in the free world where people expect you to be responsible for what you do was not easy. Similarly, when you have lived for 40 years under communism, the way back is tremendously difficult.
The way back from democracy to a free society is equally difficult.
It is no longer decisive to argue that a free society is a more prosperous society. Many people now argue that prosperity is not the same as happiness, and so the case for it comes into question. It is certainly true that more and more people in Western societies suffer from problems such as depression and various forms of mental illness such as eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), etc. I have no data to prove it but it is probably true that the percentage of people suffering from depression in the United States, in Sweden or in Italy is higher than the same rate in Nigeria or India.
Actually, it may not be prosperity so much as state-provided dependency that promotes depression. Most people in Western countries were born relatively rich. They went to school until they were 18 without needing to work; after that, they possibly went to college and graduate school, thanks to government money. Perhaps they found a job (finally gaining total control of their lives) at 25–26 years old. It is well known that in Italy people tend to live with their parents longer, deferring the time when they take control of their lives. If you do not need to be responsible for yourself until you turn 25, then it is hard to break the habit of dependency.
Also, individuals who were born in rich families lack a full appreciation for the difficulties of wealth creation. The older they get, the more they might feel the burden of not being responsible for their wealth. The richer the parents are, and the more the rich themselves benefit from government largess, the parents are not in a strong a position to impress upon their children the need to take responsibility for themselves. This is a problem that poorer countries feel to a lesser extent.
By taking away from us the responsibility of our actions, and prolonging the dependency stage of life, the democratic interventionist state limits our ability to be happy. Most people are totally unaware of these mechanisms. But we are all affected by them. In social-democrat countries people get frustrated because they no longer enjoy a life they completely have control over. They work to give half of their income to the State to satisfy someone else’s wishes and to pay for someone else’s mistakes; at the same time they ask for their own wishes to be satisfied by others and for their own mistakes to be paid by others. This frustrating condition is among the reasons depression arises more and more in countries where the State has major roles.
Thus does the state itself create the psychological conditions that cause a certain subset of the population to imagine a world in which the state does all, cares for all, and keeps everyone in a permanent state of infantilized dependency. The larger the state, the more it corrupts the mind and the culture.
One might imagine all of society under communism as a kind of extended stay at the ever-providing home of mom and dad, where all goods and services are provided by someone else besides themselves. Communism means never having to leave the nest.
Ah yet the truth about communism and state planning in general is that it leads not to security and happiness—the blessed memory of life under the care of mom and dad—but to regimentation and abuse, to a world that is grey, stagnate, and lacking any creativity and beauty, to a world that looked like Prague in the old days and not the glorious new ones. May we never go back.