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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Book Reviews – November 2007

Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe

by Robert Gellately

Alfred A. Knopf • 2007 • 696 pages • $35

Reviewed by Richard M. Ebeling

In his recent book, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, Florida State University historian Robert Gellately tries to explain the nature and the power of the Nazi and Soviet regimes in the first half of the twentieth century and how they were able to bring about so much death and destruction.

Gellately argues that Hitler’s was a “dictatorship by consent.” After the failure of his putsch in Munich in November 1923, Hitler decided that the only successful means to power was to use the democratic institutions of the Weimar Republic to end Germany’s decadent bourgeois “Jewish” democracy. He appealed to and came to embody all the desires and frustrations of the German people. When Hitler spoke, he mesmerized huge crowds who heard him express their humiliation by the Treaty of Versailles, which had branded Germany as solely guilty for World War I and then burdened them with reparations to the victorious allies. He captured their yearning for restored national greatness and power and their fears of unemployment and poverty during the Great Depression.

Millions of Germans saw Hitler not as the imposer of a “new order” but the provider and guarantor of a bright and beautiful future after he came to power in January 1933. In the 1930s, before the outbreak of the war in 1939, Nazi thugs or state executioners killed hundreds of Germans and sent thousands more to concentration camps. The remainder of the population either passively or actively supported the new Germany. The Nazi meat grinder was set in motion to kill millions of “non-Aryans” after the war began—Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, and “impure” Germans who were either mentally or physically handicapped or “irredeemable” enemies of the state.

Gellately explains that there was nothing similarly consensual about the establishment and maintenance of the Soviet regime in the Old Russian Empire. Yes, there were many revolutionary idealists who willingly fought and killed to create a socialist utopia. Also, propaganda and indoctrination turned millions of Soviet subjects into supporters of the system. And there were countless Soviet sympathizers and fellow-travelers around the world who served as apologists and agents for the regime.

But Lenin and Stalin approached their task with a totally different mindset from Hitler’s. Being good Marxists, they believed that while the end of capitalism was “inevitable,” the masses were the victim of a bourgeois “false consciousness” imposed by the capitalist ruling class. The workers needed to be led and “reeducated” into being new socialist men. This required a revolutionary vanguard that would be ruthless in destroying the old order and creating the socialist utopia.

Gellately emphasizes that the Soviet nightmare was not the result of a “bad” Stalin who perverted the intentions of a “good” Lenin, which is how many historians have attempted to explain the Soviet experiment gone wrong. Gellately documents that the ideas of domestic terrorism, public executions, torture, and enslavement in what became the Gulag labor camp system were all Lenin’s. He ordered the crushing of all opponents, including those on the “left,” immediately ended any freedom of speech and the press, and nationalized the economy. He only stepped back from the totalitarian state in 1922 with his “New Economic Policy,” which reprivatized small and medium-size industry and trade and allowed a limited market in agriculture, when he realized that he was faced with so many rebellions among peasants and workers that his government might be overthrown.

Stalin was the great intriguer and manipulator within the Communist Party after Lenin’s death in 1924 and came to full power after 1928. But then he merely reinstituted Lenin’s radical vision with the collectivization of the land, the destruction of small private enterprise, and the imposition of five-year plans in 1929. Stalin also imposed with a vengeance the totalitarian terror state Lenin had first implemented after the revolution of November 1917.

Gellately emphasizes aspects of Stalin’s policies during World War II that have usually been ignored or only given limited attention. As the German army approached in October 1941, anti-Soviet graffiti began appearing on buildings, with workers grumbling that soon KGB agents would be getting what they had been meting out to them. Stalin ordered any citizens who fled the city without written orders to be stopped and if necessary shot—and dozens of men and women were killed for fleeing.

Stalin also ordered a scorched-earth policy as the German army advanced. But rather than just mandating the destruction of all facilities or supplies that the Germans might use after local residents had left, the order was to destroy everything and not allow the population to retreat. That policy left millions of people with nothing in the face of German occupation.

Furthermore, as the Soviets reoccupied territory in 1943 and 1944, Stalin commanded that close to a million people of various ethnic groups who were suspected of collaborating with the Germans be rounded up and sent to Siberia or Central Asia. Thousands died in transit or in exile. Most of these groups were not allowed to return home for more than ten years, until after Stalin’s death.

Unfortunately, the collectivist tragedy of the twentieth century did not end with Hitler’s and Stalin’s deaths. It has continued, now, into the twenty-first century.

Richard Ebeling is the president of FEE.

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Depression, War, and Cold War

by Robert Higgs

Independent Institute/Oxford University Press • 2006 • 219 pages • $35

Reviewed by Burton Folsom, Jr.

In Depression, War, and Cold War, Robert Higgs has written a brief but superb account of the Great Depression, the economic effects of World War II, and America’s proclivity for unnecessary military spending in the postwar period.

This iconoclastic book is a coherent collection of ten essays on the political economy of the federal government’s welfare and warfare policies spanning the crucial decades of the twentieth century. When Higgs’s essays are put side by side, they send a persuasive message that military spending, whatever its international political effects, did not rescue the country from the Great Depression, did not increase standards of living during World War II, and did not provide weapons at competitive prices after the war. Quite to the contrary, Higgs strongly advances the thesis that the federal government only managed to delay economic recovery and to squander wealth with its economic and military meddling.

Higgs writes that “the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression by creating an extraordinarily high degree of regime uncertainty in the minds of investors.” That is to say, investors would have jump-started our stalled economy in the 1930s had it not been for the uncertainty caused by the policy spasms emanating from Washington. And in an attack on a durable myth, Higgs concludes that the war “itself did not get the economy out of the Depression,” because real private investment and real personal consumption sharply declined during the war. Stock market prices, for example, in 1944 were still below those of 1939 in real dollars.

What the war did do, Higgs argues, was to improve “economic expectations” that business would be allowed to invest freely after the war and that jobs would then be available. In part those higher expectations among businessmen reflected their relief that President Franklin Roosevelt had shifted from his attacks on property rights during the 1930s to his all-too-eager willingness to let big business monopolize war contracts.

Meanwhile, the making of weapons created inefficiencies during and after the war. Higgs describes the rise of “cost-plus contracts,” which allowed large corporations to win risk-free contracts that guaranteed profits regardless of efficiency. Such contracts were rare before 1940, but then became common. Senator Harry Truman, chairman of the Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, wrote, “Huge fixed fees were offered by the government in much the same way that Santa Claus passes out gifts at a church Christmas party.”

After the war, vote-hungry congressmen worked with “pork hawks” to win military contracts—whether the country needed them or not. In several essays Higgs attacks the notion that the high military spending in the Cold War era was undertaken just as a defense against the Soviet threat.

To cite one instance, politicians in Pennsylvania persuaded the Department of Defense to buy 300,000 tons of costly anthracite coal to ship to military bases in Europe. At one point, since most of the coal was not needed, it was stockpiled locally—20 feet deep and covering 45 acres. As Rep. Dan Flood of Wilkes-Barre said, “I use all of these opportunities, advantages, seniority, and all this stuff for the purpose of helping whatever is left of the goddamn anthracite coal industry.”

Higgs has other painful stories. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, Congress continued to fund the A-7 subsonic attack plane even though it had been surpassed by the F/A-18 and F-16 planes. The A-7 plane, however, was produced by a Dallas company and the delegation insisted that funding to their Dallas friends be perpetuated.

Part of what makes Higgs’s book so valuable is that he tackles crucial economics topics that most economists and historians either neglect or do not understand.

Almost all historians, for example, take it for granted that federal spending in World War II lifted the submerged American economy out of the Depression tank. Few analyze that conclusion; they assert it as fact. And once such an alleged fact is established, the next step is to look at other ways the federal government, by various kinds of subsidies and tinkering, can improve economic development. Higgs, however, by persuasively challenging the effects of military spending, calls into question the ability of federal spending to promote real growth in the U.S. economy.

In challenging the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” Higgs urges readers to focus not just on any benefits accruing to Dallas for making obsolescent planes or to Wilkes-Barre for stockpiling coal, but to focus on the flow of dollars out of the hands of hard-working taxpayers all over the country—all of whom could have invested or spent their money more wisely and beneficially.

Burton Folsom is the Charles F. Kline Professor of History and Management at Hillsdale College. He is the author of The Myth of the Robber Barons, now in its fifth edition.

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Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st-Century America

by Timothy Sandefur

Cato Institute • 2006 • 126 pages • $19.95 hardcover; $11.95 paperback

Reviewed by George C. Leef

Property rights are under constant and often successful attack in the United States.In 2007 the idea that an individual is entitled to own property and do with it as he pleases is fast becoming a relic of our quaint, long-forgotten past. One reason for that unhappy circumstance is that the general population has a dwindling understanding of the importance of property rights. The enemies of private property, who maintain that its use should be controlled for “the public good,” have made great inroads into the only ultimate defense that institution has—the belief in its essential rightness.

Timothy Sandefur, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation who has fought in the trenches against the anti-property onslaught, sees the danger we face. To combat it he has written this excellent book. The Cornerstone of Liberty is a primer covering four crucial topics: why private property is important and must be defended; the place of property rights under our Constitution; the weakened state of property rights today; and the author’s views on the course of action we need to follow if property rights are to be restored. This is an important project, and Sandefur is to be congratulated for his good work.

His chapter “Why Property Rights Are Important” gets the book off to a blazing start. If readers don’t understand the moral and economic reasons for insisting that the rights of individuals to acquire, use, and sell property as they choose must be protected, they certainly won’t get much out of the book. Sandefur wants to see that they do. “Private property,” he writes, “is one of humanity’s great discoveries, like fire, DNA, or the scientific method. Like fire, property has the ability to release a kind of unseen power from nature. . . .” That is why societies that have defended property rights have rising standards of living and both social and technological progress. Conversely, the easier it becomes for people to deprive owners of their property, the less energy people put into productive work.

When societies regard private property with hostility, far from reaching some communitarian utopia, they not only get poorer but their people also lose the ability to live the lives they choose. Unless individuals can say, “This is mine and no one may take it,” they’re left at the mercy of those who are in control. Sandefur reminds us that people with the power to take property are usually anything but merciful—and not just in dictatorships, but also in “free” countries like the United States. Collectivists say that private ownership is based on greed, but what truly unleashes greed is the ability of some to take things from others.

To brilliant effect Sandefur quotes Frederick Douglass, who, after escaping from slavery, utterly delighted in his ability to earn money. Nothing contrasted so completely with the life he had known in slavery as to be able to call something his own.

In his next chapter, Sandefur demonstrates that the Constitution was meant to offer property owners a high degree of protection against the depredations of government. He quotes James Madison, who said that the proper role of government is the protection of property since “that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own.” Unfortunately, legislators and judges have not been faithful to Madison’s vision. Sandefur recounts the dismal history of the erosion of constitutional protection for property rights.

Next, Sandefur gives us the really bad news—the current state of the law. It is no exaggeration to say that every American has only a tenuous hold on his property (real estate and personal property) because the law is sympathetic to eminent domain and other forms of takings, such as civil asset forfeiture. The author’s analysis of the recent Kelo decision on eminent domain is exemplary.

Can anything be done, or is the United States going to continue drifting away from property-rights protections? Sandefur is not a pessimist. He is a fighter and argues that it’s possible that the American people could come to take property rights as seriously as they did two centuries ago. “Only learning, understanding, and teaching others about the principles of property rights and their importance . . . can solve the problems posed by eminent domain abuse, land-use regulations, and civil asset forfeiture laws,” he writes.

Americans have been dozing while special-interest groups and their political lapdogs have done their dirty work in undermining private property, but there is hope that they are awakening. The outcry over the Kelo decision indicates that many Americans, for all the socialistic rhetoric they have heard, still believe that it’s fundamentally wrong for government to take away private property.

George Leef is book review editor of The Freeman.

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Elements of Justice

by David Schmidtz

Cambridge University Press • 2006 • 243 pages • $70.00 hardcover; $24.99 paperback

Reviewed by Aeon J. Skoble

There’s a style of philosophical writing that is obscure, jargon-laden, and essentially inaccessible to nonspecialists. Happily, one of the most talented contemporary philosophers, David Schmidtz, is not a practitioner of that style. His newest book, Elements of Justice, is the kind of philosophy book that treats a serious topic in a thorough and well-organized way, while remaining entirely accessible to the intelligent lay reader. Schmidtz’s topic is justice, something everyone ought to take an interest in, and his rigorous yet readable treatment of it will be of value for academics and non-academics alike.

Some say that justice is a matter of giving each person his due. But that isn’t as helpful as it seems. It simply pushes the question back: how do we figure out what people are due? Schmidtz, who teaches philosophy at the University of Arizona, argues that while justice is primarily about what people are due, we cannot figure this out in an abstract way. Rather, we must look to the practical context in which the people are operating. Schmidtz breaks this down further, examining principles of desert, reciprocity, equality, and need. He sees those principles as the components of justice, and argues that if we can come to a better understanding of how they work, we will thereby come to a better understanding of what justice is.

“Different principles apply in different contexts,” Schmidtz tells us. That simple yet frequently overlooked point is the key to parsing the sorts of conflicts that typically emerge in discussions about justice. For instance, some believe that need is the overriding principle, while others regard equality as paramount. On Schmidtz’s view, this isn’t the best way to think about it. Neither of these component principles, he says, can be the entirety of justice, although in particular contexts one may predominate. For example, need might be the predominant principle in a child-parent context, determining what the children are due, whereas equality (in the sense of equality before the law) is what adult citizens are due. And even then, the context offers further refinements to our understanding.

Schmidtz makes an analogy between philosophical theories and maps: they’re abstractions, first of all, but can nevertheless be accurate. Qualities like detail and scope are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Maps are only useful in context. (A map of the earth won’t show you how to get to the train station in your town.) Similarly, a theory of justice can only apply its subsidiary principles in a context. Thus the way we talk about desert or reciprocity or need will depend on a consideration of that context. That is why, for instance, we might need to differentiate between a parent giving equal shares of his estate to his children and citizens in a republic being entitled to equal protection of the law, but not to equal shares of the total wealth in the society.

As he clarifies these principles and shows how justice depends on them (and on their being properly understood), Schmidtz defends several theses that speak to common myths and misconceptions. For example, he shows how liberalism isn’t about atomistic isolation, a frequent canard of the communitarian left. And he shows how pluralism does not entail moral relativism, a perennial concern on the right. He devotes separate chapters to close examination of two of the best-known modern philosophers, John Rawls and Robert Nozick—the former chiefly associated with the welfare state and the latter a proponent of the minimal state.

Readers of The Freeman will be particularly interested in Schmidtz’s arguments to the effect that the mere fact of income inequality does not necessitate forced redistribution by the state. He argues that the badness of poverty does not justify the disruption of a thriving economy. Rather, he maintains, to eliminate poverty we need a thriving economy coupled with a firm commitment to equality under law.

Of special note is the book’s structure. It is divided into six major parts: What Is Justice?; How to Deserve; How to Reciprocate; Equal Respect and Equal Shares; Meditations on Need; and The Right to Distribute. Each begins with an overview of a set of philosophical concerns, usually with a humorous anecdote to set the stage. The anecdotes are mostly little vignettes the humor of which derives from a misapplication of some ethical principle—for example, a judge issuing a ruling in which he lets someone off on a serious charge, on the grounds that he owes the person a favor: the virtue of reciprocity in action!

Within those parts are five or more chapters dealing with particular topics. For example, under “Equal Respect and Equal Shares,” Schmidtz examines the hot “equal pay for equal work” controversy. Each chapter opens with a thesis statement, followed by a careful elaboration and ending with a set of puzzles for further reflection. These “further reflection” opportunities are doubly valuable: the active participation they require not only involves the reader in philosophical practice, but also demonstrates that even when a satisfactory answer to a problem is reached, there may be further questions. By combining clear argumentation with the asking of probing questions, Schmidtz embodies philosophy at its best.

Aeon J. Skoble is an associate professor and chair of the philosophy department at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts.

  • 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.