Freeman

ARTICLE

Book Reviews - October 2007

OCTOBER 01, 2007 by GEORGE C. LEEF

Filed Under : Socialism, Communism

Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag

by Nicolas Werth

Princeton University Press • 2007 • 223 pages • $24.95

Reviewed by Richard M. Ebeling

When a group of formerly pro-Soviet historians published The Black Book of Communism in France in 1997, it caused a firestorm of controversy. The authors each focused on a country or a part of the world in which communist governments had come to power in the twentieth century and showed in gruesome but factual detail the political and economic nightmares those experiments in building a “new socialist society” put entire populations through. (The book was published in English in 1999.)

The French political left was furious that the authors—who were denounced as “class traitors”— should play into the hands of capitalist apologists by suggesting that the noble collectivist ideal had led to nothing but tyranny and murder on a vast scale. One prominent French socialist was only willing to concede this much in the face of the evidence presented in The Black Book: “Agreed, both Nazis and communists killed. But while Nazis killed from hatred for humanity, the communists killed from love.” The end result from the communist episode may have been bad, he was arguing, but at least the communists had good intentions and that made it somehow all right!

The historian who documented the horror of the Soviet Union during the twentieth century in The Black Book was Nicolas Werth, the research director at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. He has now detailed one terrible episode under the Soviet regime in 1933 in his recent book, Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag.

Between 1930 and 1933 Stalin ordered the forced collectivization of the land, during which millions of property-owning peasants known as kulaks were murdered as part of the process of seizing their private farms. About two million of them had been exiled to the frozen wastelands of northern European Russia and Siberia, with almost half dying in the process. (See my review of The Unknown Gulag in the September 2007 Freeman.)

In 1933 the head of Stalin’s secret police, Genrikh Yagoda, proposed to his Master in the Kremlin that in addition to the extermination of rural kulaks, Moscow, Leningrad, and other major cities should be “cleansed” of all remaining class enemies and “social parasites.” They, too, would be sent to the new “resettlement camps” in Siberia that were to be organized to harvest lumber and extract minerals for Soviet industrialization.

The “plan” called for exiling up to 300,000 such “enemies of the people” from the major urban areas of the country. The Soviet government had recently instituted a system of internal passports that specified where an individual was permitted to live and work. All those in urban areas without permission to be there would be exiled.

One area selected for those resettlement camps was in western Siberia, north of Novosibirsk and Tomsk along the Ob River in the Narym region. It was an area of swamps and forests unreachable by boat (the only practical means of transportation) during the winter months when the rivers froze and mostly flooded wasteland during the warmer months. Yet that is where tens of thousands were to be sent to “build socialism.”

In the first months of 1933 the “cleansing” of the cities began. Every police precinct and unit of the NKVD (the old name for the KGB) ad its quotas to assure that it was fulfilling the plan. Train-station searches, random checks of documents on the street, and sweeps through neighborhoods were the most frequently employed ways of rounding up people. Everyone was a target for exile, with no recourse to prove his innocence or mere forgetfulness in having left the documents at home. Women and children passing through Moscow with transit papers all “in order” were nevertheless grabbed and collected at the detention centers. Ordinary workers and even some Party members were accused of having forged papers and were arrested. The elderly and crippled were easy targets to meet the quotas. Names and addresses were not listed on any roster and those detained were forbidden to communicate with anyone to prove their right to live or travel somewhere. The body count was all that mattered every week and every month.

The people were crowded into trains with just the clothes on their backs and the food they may have been carrying. During the long journey to Siberia, the strong and the common criminals among the deported preyed on the old, the weak, and the young. Hundreds died in transit, others fell sick, and some were left naked or with barely anything to wear.

When they reached Tomsk they were herded into another crowded detention center, with little food distributed, nothing to warm themselves during the cold nights, and practically no medical facilities or supplies. The Party officials and secret-police officers in charge were only concerned with sending as many of them as possible farther north before the next transports arrived from the cities with thousands more.

In March and April 1933 over 6,300 of these hapless people were dumped on Nazino Island in the middle of the Ob River, hundreds of miles north of Tomsk. The island was mostly swamp and void of anything to eat. The prisoners were given flour, but no other ingredients or cooking utensils to bake bread. Many of them tried to escape by building rafts to get to shore or to float down river in an attempt to escape. Some drowned; others made it ashore but were hunted down by the local police “for sport.” They treated the escapees as “game” to be tracked and then shot for the fun of it. Dozens were murdered as the hunters boasted to themselves about the ease or difficulty of “the kill.”

Nazino Island was soon nicknamed “ Cannibal Island ” because the police and the handful of medical personnel who would periodically visit found the remains of several dozen bodies that had been torn apart, the organs eaten. Even the living were used as a food supply. Some women had their breasts cut off, and both men and women had legs severed by their stronger fellow exiles for the meat.

By June, when a commission arrived to investigate what was too shocking for even the Moscow authorities to ignore, they found that two-thirds of the 6,300 people who had been left on the island had “disappeared.” They had died of hunger or cold, or been killed and eaten, or hunted down and murdered, or simply vanished in the vast surrounding wastelands.

The commission of inquiry, of course, found scapegoats among the lower-echelon authorities, while other policemen or NKVD officers were merely transferred to new duties or even promoted to positions of higher authority elsewhere in the Gulag. Yagoda, the secret police chief, made his excuses to Stalin but finally fell victim during the Great Purge of 1937, when he was put on trial as an “enemy of the people” and executed when his Master no longer had any use for him.

The approximately 4,000 who “disappeared” on Nazino Island were at most 1 percent of the total who disappeared in 1933 through the process of forced resettlement. One million people were exiled to Siberia that year, and almost 340,000 of them vanished without a trace. For Nicolas Werth, the terrible episode on Cannibal Island captures the very core of the Soviet experience, especially during the Stalinist period. It represented the “decivilization” of human existence and the total destruction of humanity in the name of building utopia.

Richard Ebeling is the President of FEE.

Unwarranted Intrusions: The Case Against Government Intervention in the Marketplace

by Martin Fridson

John Wiley & Sons • 2006 • 309 pages • $24.95

Reviewed by Robert Batemarco

Bernard Baruch once gave the following advice: “[A]pproach each new problem not with a view of finding what you hope will be there, but to get the truth, the realities that must be grappled with. You may not like what you find.” While he was surely not the one to whom Baruch, who died in 1965, proffered said advice, Martin Fridson, author of Unwarranted Intrusions, seems nonetheless to have taken that message to heart. Stripping away the layers of pretexts politicians use to conceal their ulterior motives, Fridson exposes a wide range of government programs as little more than legalized bribery to voters and donation-mongering interest groups.

Most chapters of this book share a common template. They start off with the ostensible purposes of some government program, proceed to show that the problem it purports to solve is either not a problem or one not remedied (and in some cases made worse) by the proposed solution, and then reveal the real (usually hidden) beneficiaries of that program. A final brief section titled “The Bottom Line” neatly summarizes each chapter.

Not one to avoid complexities, Fridson examines alternative ways of quantifying the effects of the policies he scrutinizes while not neglecting necessary qualifications. Nonetheless, he does so in a way that is accessible to those not formally trained in economics. In addition, he places each of these issues in context, with a broad array of background information, which I find to be one of the strengths of the book.

A prime example of his method is found in the chapter on payola. The author traces the practice of payola back through several generations of audio technology to the late nineteenth century, when publishers of sheet music paid artists to perform their songs. Fridson shows that rather than constituting a problem, paying for exposure of music is a time-honored and efficient means of allocating scarce airtime. He follows this with evidence that the crackdown on this practice in the late 1950s was motivated by two desires: first, that of the largest record companies of the time to stifle the competition of small up-and-coming labels and, second, that of nipping in the bud what most adults saw as demonic music—rock and roll. I found this fascinating chapter also noteworthy because it is one of the only times I have seen the late Murray Rothbard, whose 1956 analysis of payola was the chief source for this chapter, criticized for not going far enough.

Other chapters discuss areas with far greater impact on the overall economy than payola. Fridson takes on the misguided and self-serving legislative attacks on outsourcing, insider trading, short-selling, ATM fees, and market-set rents. One theme that pervades his treatment of these topics is that no government attempt to override free markets can be justified without a clear demonstration of market failure. He proceeds to show how much less there is to these supposed market failures than their advocates would have us believe.

In addition to demonstrating how rare an occurrence true market failure is, the author turns his critical faculties to government programs, uncovering the myriad ways in which they are actually designed for failure. His specific targets include Social Security, deposit insurance, and campaign-finance laws. Not content merely to attack, Fridson takes pains at least to outline measures that would work far better than those he criticizes. His analysis relies heavily on Public Choice theory and its fundamental insight that the majority harmed by these policies are not harmed enough to find it worthwhile to do something about it, while the beneficiaries will fight tooth and nail to maintain their ill-gotten gains.

There are, however, several prime targets that the powerful logic of Unwarranted Intrusions lets off the hook. For one, it identifies schooling as a pure public good, which as such ought to be provided by government. However, the characteristics of nonexcludability and nonrivalry, sine qua nons of public goods, clearly do not describe education. He also shows unwarranted optimism on the ability of economists (including himself) to discern the optimal amount of education independent of market tests, in contrast to his clear-headed discussion of the optimal level of saving in Chapter 2. The book’s chapter on the stock market could have been strengthened by taking greater note of government monetary policy’s role in generating bubbles and cyclical instability, which are then invoked to justify further interventions. Although Fridson does raise these issues in Chapter 13, he does not draw the requisite connections to the fullest extent possible.

Still in all, this book makes a giant contribution to our understanding of how the political process can never be the solution to the problems of anyone except those who would rather obtain resources through force than through voluntary exchange.

Robert Batemarco is vice president and senior director of analytics at a marketing research firm in New York City.

Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy

by Jim Powell

Crown Forum/Three Rivers Press • 2006/2007 • 317 pages • $27.50 hardcover; $15.95 paperback

Reviewed by John V. Denson

Jim Powell’s new book on Theodore Roosevelt (hereinafter T.R.) is more of an economic history of the Progressive era than a biography of the former president. With it, he completes a valuable trilogy with his prior books, Wilson’s War and FDR’s Folly. In these books, he conclusively refutes many mainstream historical myths, and Bully Boy takes all the luster off T.R.’s reputation.

Powell demonstrates how T.R. created governmental monopolies while alleging that he was fighting monopolies created by the free market. His conservation efforts were counterproductive, and he was basically a champion of the “progressive” idea of increasing the power of the federal government while diminishing individual rights and the concept of federalism created by our Founders.

Although Powell doesn’t compare T.R. with Mussolini, having read an excellent biography of the Duce (Mussolini: A Biography by Denis Mack Smith) shortly before reading Powell’s book, I noticed many striking similarities. Bully Boy shows that T.R. deserves the label of “America’s Mussolini.” For example, Powell quotes T.R. as saying, “I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power into one man’s hands.” Both T.R. and Mussolini believed in personal rule via a vast bureaucracy to control the economy and no doubt Mussolini would have agreed with T.R.’s view that “politicians could solve the problems of the world if only they were given enough power.”

The close similarities between Mussolini and T.R. aren’t limited to their egocentric personalities and authoritarian economic policies, but are most glaring in their praise of war and its “benefits.” Smith states that Mussolini “began to refer more frequently to war as one of the few truly ennobling and energizing facts of human experience and to imperialism as the supreme test of a nation’s vitality.” Smith quotes Mussolini as saying, “War is the most important thing in any man’s life” and that “only through military glory could a country become great, only battle makes a man complete. . . .”

That militaristic view closely matches T.R.’s. Powell writes, “Theodore Roosevelt believed war was glorious, even healthy for a nation. He thought that reasons for participating in war should not be limited to national defense. He insisted that the United States should intervene in affairs of other nations and enter into other people’s wars to do good.” Furthermore, T.R. claimed that war actually made for better men and a better world. He longed for the excitement of combat, and at the beginning of the Spanish-American War he resigned his position as assistant secretary of navy to seek glory on the battlefield. Powell also gives us this chilling T.R. opinion: “No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war.”

Powell’s book discusses the many aggressive measures T.R. took in gaining federal control of the economy in order to eliminate the free market. Powell writes, “Theodore Roosevelt claimed that politicians and bureaucrats could achieve fairness by interfering with the economy.” He introduced the slogan “The New Nationalism” by which he meant that the executive power should act as the steward of the public welfare—and of course it was only high-minded politicians like himself who could discern what “the public interest” was. T.R. was absolutely blind to the dangers of turning the power to control the economy over to government officials.

A point that comes out repeatedly in the book is that T.R. disliked the concept of laissez-faire capitalism and liked the concept of state capitalism, where politicians act in concert with favored businesses and industries. T.R. called himself “a Hamiltonian” with regard to the government’s supposed need for broad powers to regulate the economy. If you connect the dots, you will see a straight line from Hamilton to Henry Clay to Lincoln to T.R. to Wilson and finally to FDR. All those politicians believed that the federal government should be in control of the economy, but certain businesses should be favored by a partnership with the government through subsidies and other benefits.

The funny thing about T.R.’s great confidence in his ability to direct the economy is the fact that his own attempt at running a business—a ranch he bought with some of his large inheritance—was a complete failure. Powell observes that “Roosevelt knew little about business, as his disastrous ranching losses made clear, and he certainly never seems to have thought about the function of prices in an economy.”

Although many people think that T.R. stood for “rugged individualism,” in actuality his authoritarian views were quite hostile to real individualism. In conclusion, Powell depicts T.R. as one of the most energetic presidents, but demonstrates that this trait was disastrous for the peace and prosperity of America.

John Denson is editor of and contributor to two books, Reassessing the Presidency and The Costs of War. He is also author of A Century of War.

Great Philanthropic Mistakes

by Martin Morse Wooster

Hudson Institute • 2006 • 157 pages • $14.95 paperback

Reviewed by George C. Leef

The University of Chicago was founded with John D. Rockefeller’s money, and numerous public libraries were created through the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie. People hear about philanthropic success stories and generally assume that charitable foundations are doing wonderful things with the fortunes of the nation’s superrich. In fact, there is a common view that the charitable work done with the wealth amassed by business tycoons is a “giving back to society” that at least partially atones for their undoubted transgressions against law and/or morality.

But how often do people think about philanthropic blunders? Who reflects on the possibility that charitable foundations might actually do harmful things with the money at their disposal?

There is only one such person who comes to mind: Martin Morse Wooster, author of Great Philanthropic Mistakes. Wooster has made quite a study of philanthropy. His earlier book, The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent, examined the tendency for charitable foundations to be taken over by “experts” who overwhelmingly have a leftist outlook and steer the foundation’s giving in ways that are often radically at odds with the philosophy of the donor. With his current book Wooster delves into the hubris of those “experts” who usually think there is no limit to the good they can do with vast sums of money. The trouble is that they often do no good at all—and sometimes considerable harm.

Wooster focuses on eight cases where huge foundations made mistakes: the Rockefeller Foundation’s attempt to recast American medical education; the Lasker Foundation’s war against cancer; the population-control campaign of the Ford and Rockefeller foundations; the Ford Foundation’s “Gray Areas” program; the Carnegie Corporation’s public-television campaigns; the Ford Foundation’s school-decentralization initiative; the MacArthur Fellows program; and the Annenberg Foundation’s public-school-reform crusade. After reading about each one, my mind was drawn to Milton Friedman’s observation that no one spends other people’s money as carefully as he spends his own.

Foundations don’t act. The people who run them do. Wooster’s eight cases center on foundation decision-makers who had grand visions for changing the world. Arguably, the one who best exemplifies the typical mindset was Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy. Bundy, who ran the giant in the 1960s and 1970s, once declared, “I may be wrong but I am never in doubt.” It’s that lack of doubt that is the root of the problem time after time. Ford’s “Gray Areas” program is an excellent example.

The basic idea behind this program was to fund community organizations in impoverished areas, mostly inner cities. Ford Foundation officers assumed that activists in each community would know best what kinds of programs would be most beneficial. Thus Ford created new community organizations that would have great latitude to do whatever their leaders wanted. The result was a set of organizations “so flexible as to be virtually spineless, agencies whose very existence was dependent on their ability to write proposals that reflected what their sponsors wanted to hear,” as Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom put it.

The “Gray Areas” groups, primed with Ford money, proceeded to “do their own things.” One, named Mobilization for Youth, spent its money organizing the poor to advocate for hefty increases in federal welfare programs and fomenting rent strikes in New York City. The community activists that Ford executives so smiled on found innumerable ways to squander money, and it’s hard to find any lasting benefits.

Another illustrative failure Wooster highlights is the Annenberg Foundation’s gigantic effort at public-school reform in the 1990s. Walter Annenberg made his money in magazines, especially TV Guide. His foundation announced in 1993 the “Annenberg Challenge” in which it put up half a billion dollars and asked other philanthropies to toss in some of their money as well. Government schooling was going to get a huge financial boost with the money designated for “reform” efforts. Foundation executives made big splashes around the country hyping their “transformative” programs. All the funding, however, went into the educational status quo, which happily absorbed the money and went about business as usual. In 2002 the Annenberg Foundation published a report loaded with bromides such as, “[P]ublic education in America is better than its image,” but conceding that public schools had not significantly improved despite all the money lavished on “reform.”

Summing up, Wooster writes, “The grant maker usually finds himself surrounded by mendicants, courtiers, and flatterers. Faced with all this flattery, he naturally becomes more than a little full of himself.” Combine that with the common belief among those people drawn to foundation work that they can design and implement programs to make the world better and you have the perfect formula for the dissipation of wealth.

George Leef is book review editor of The Freeman.


Download File

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

October 2007

ABOUT

GEORGE C. LEEF

George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

comments powered by Disqus

EMAIL UPDATES

* indicates required

CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
Download Free PDF

PAST ISSUES

SUBSCRIBE

RENEW YOUR SUBSCRIPTION

Essential Works from FEE

Economics in One Lesson (full text)

By HENRY HAZLITT

The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


By FREDERIC BASTIAT

Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


By F. A. HAYEK

There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life.


By JEFFREY A. TUCKER

Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


By LEONARD E. READ

No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)