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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Book Reviews – September 2007

The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements

by Lynne Viola

Oxford University Press • 2007 • 278 pages • $30.00

Reviewed by Richard M. Ebeling

In The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), historian Robert Conquest estimated that in the early 1930s as many as nine million people may have died during the forced collectivization of land in the Soviet Union. They were shot, tortured, or starved to death. Peasant resistance to the state’s seizure of their farms was dealt with by Stalin through a planned famine that finally broke all countryside opposition to the march into the bright and beautiful socialist future.

In 1931 Lady Astor of Great Britain was privileged with an audience with Stalin in the Kremlin. She point-blank asked him, “And how long are you going to go on killing people?” Stalin calmly replied, “As long as it is necessary. . . . The violent death of a large number of people was necessary before the Communist State could be firmly established.”

One of the few Western journalists of the time who was able to get outside Moscow to visit some of the famine areas in southern European Russia and Ukraine was William Henry Chamberlin. In a series of articles that he wrote on his return to the United States in 1934, he reported seeing skeleton-like undernourished children, adults barely able to walk from hunger, and hushed whispers of cannibalism in a gruesome attempt by some to stay alive. Red Army detachments and units of the secret police attempted to block all roads into these areas to prevent any of the victims from escaping or their friends and family members in the cities from bringing food to those condemned to this terrible fate.

The main target of Stalin’s wrath was the supposedly richer peasants known as kulaks, who were said to be the main opponents and resisters of collectivization. They were labeled the countryside “capitalist class” and therefore the primary “enemies of the people.”

Stalin’s other method of dealing with the kulaks was compulsory exile to some of the harshest and least inhabitable parts of northern European Russia. These victims are the subject of Lynne Viola’s book, The Unknown Gulag, the tragic details of which have never been thoroughly studied before. She estimates that between 1930 and 1933, well over two million people were transported to these faraway regions of the Soviet state.

Hundreds of young Communist Party members from the cities, who knew nothing about the peasantry or farming, were sent to the rural areas to assist in the collectivization. Indoctrinated by the party’s propaganda that the kulaks were the stumbling block to “building socialism,” these communist thugs intimidated and violently abused people when and how they wanted. Inspired by the idea of production quotas under the newly instituted five-year plan, they set up quotas for killing and exiling peasants as quantitative indicators of breaking the resistance to state-run collective farming.

Like much in the Soviet planned society, the details of exiling millions of people had not been thought out beforehand: how to transport and feed hundreds of thousands of families, how they would build shelter, what types of work they would be required to do once they reached their assigned locations. But trains were arranged, and these hapless people were crowded into cattle cars with barely room to stand, little or no food, and no hygienic facilities. The journeys would take two or more weeks to the north Russia territories around the towns of Archangel, Vologda, and Kotlas, or across the Ural Mountains to northern Siberia.

Only slowly were party commissions appointed to decide what was to be done with the exiles. In their secret reports to senior party officials, the heads of these commissions admitted that disease, starvation, and bitter cold weather were decimating the kulak families. It was reported that during a two-month period in 1931, more than 3,000 children who succumbed to the harsh conditions were buried in the Vologda area.

Stalin’s dream was to use the vast army of slave laborers to work in the deep forests of the north to supply lumber for construction projects and to mine for the rich minerals buried above the Arctic Circle. The exiled families were to be divided into groups of 1,500 people and made to construct permanent settlements for themselves in the forest and mining areas. Their sentences would be indeterminate so they might be used for as long as it served the interests of the state. If in the process many died, the multifamily barracks in these settlements would simply be filled with the next group of slave laborers.

Violence was the main tool to maintain order. One of these exiles said, “Here they beat us horribly. . . . They beat us with revolvers while we slept. The commandant broke one man’s skull. . . . There is no defense from anyone. We will likely perish here.” Some attempted to escape; by 1933 the authorities estimated that several hundred thousand had tried. But most either didn’t make it through the frigid land or were recaptured and usually sent to a camp worse than the first one.

By the end of 1931 “the plan” for the design and construction of these settlements and the work to be done there had been drawn up to the smallest detail. But as Viola explains, “It represented an ‘imagined future’—laid out in endless plans, reports, memos, figures, tables, graphs, and budgets—superimposed on the present-day realities of the Soviet hinterlands. . . . Reality was vastly different—untidy, unmanaged, and shaped more by geographical, economic, and cultural realities than by Moscow ‘s seeming omnipotence.”

These “imagined” exile-populated settlements, which she reminds us were nothing more than “a shoddily constructed institution of forced labor,” were brought down by the nationwide government-caused famine of 1933–1934. Because of the failure of “the plan” and the shortage of food and materials, most of them were closed.

But the human cost was horrific. Out of the more than two million exiles sent to these areas, by 1934 only 973,000 had survived. Subtracting those who succeeded in escaping, close to 50 percent had died. Sometimes, however, there is a perverse justice in the world. Two of the leading party officials responsible for the planning and initial execution of this forced-labor system were themselves arrested during Stalin’s Great Purges and executed in 1937 as “enemies of the people.”

Most of the kulaks who survived were merely transferred to the larger and far more terrifying and lethal Gulag system of labor camps that stretched across the entire length of the Soviet Union and consumed tens of millions of lives during the nearly 75 years of the nightmare socialist experiment.

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In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State

by Charles Murray

AEI Press • 2006 • 140 pages • $20.00

Reviewed by Michael Tanner

If, as Richard Weaver famously wrote, “ideas have consequences,” then Charles Murray is a truly consequential man. Only a handful of thinkers over the past quarter century have had as much impact on public policy. It was his 1984 classic, Losing Ground, that led to a bipartisan consensus about the failure of the Great Society welfare state. Now, ten years after the welfare reform that owes its existence to Murray ‘s ideas, he is back with a thought-provoking approach to government antipoverty policies.

Murray ‘s latest book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, provides a blueprint for doing just that.

By Murray’s estimate, federal, state, and local governments spend roughly $522 billion per year on antipoverty programs, yet poverty rates have barely budged over the past 40 years. As he notes, “Only government could spend money so ineffectually.” His answer, therefore, is to take the money away from the government and give it directly to the people.

Murray would abolish all welfare programs. He would also terminate all other government transfer programs: Social Security, Medicare, and even agricultural price supports. In their place he would provide every American citizen with an annual grant of $10,000 to do with as he or she pleases. The grant would be untaxed for those earning less than $25,000 per year, thereby establishing a floor of national income, and entirely taxed back for high-income earners. There would be no work requirements or other restrictions. All Americans would get that check—but nothing else.

This, of course, wouldn’t actually abolish welfare. In fact, Murray’s proposal would initially be more expensive than current programs. Yet it would sweep away the vast edifice of the modern welfare state—not just the agencies and bureaucrats who administer the dozens of overlapping aid programs, but the rules, regulations, and restrictions that make the welfare state as much the overseer of the poor’s behavior as a dispenser of alms. At a time when big-government conservatives seek to use welfare as a weapon to micromanage the lives of the poor, this comes as a breath of fresh air.

For example, it is widely acknowledged that existing welfare laws act as a disincentive to family formation. Recipients are frequently penalized for marrying. Big-government conservatives would counteract this by creating federal programs to teach the poor about the benefits of marriage, or even bribe welfare mothers into marrying with the offer of additional benefits.

Murray ‘s plan avoids all this. Those who act responsibly, who marry, save for their retirement, purchase health insurance, and so on would be better off. Those who make irresponsible choices would be forced to fall back on private charity. Murray accepts the inevitability that modern societies will redistribute income, but doesn’t want them to run people’s lives.

Yet Murray ‘s proposal is undermined by one simple flaw. His plan would establish as both a legal and philosophical concept that every American citizen is entitled to a minimum income—exacted from the taxpayers. Once that “right” is established, the political process will inevitably expand it. Murray argues that $10,000 is the correct amount. But how long before some politician comes along and says, “No one can live on $10,000. We need to make it $11,000.” Soon another politician, not wanting to be thought less compassionate than the first, will propose $12,000. Look to the current debate over “a living wage” to see how this would work.

The book is not a casual read. It packs a great deal of information into a short space, and sometimes the numbers and programmatic interactions fly by in a blur. Murray can unexpectedly veer off to discuss subjects such as tort reform or expected future stock returns. These are topics that have consumed volumes in their own right. It is hard to do them justice in the few pages Murray devotes to them. Many of the details are designed to show that Murray has thought through all the implications of his proposal. This is a testament to his excellence as a scholar, and a treasure trove to policy wonks, but of marginal utility to the average reader.

Also, there’s a general assumption that the reader shares Murray’s view that the current welfare state is a failure. Consequently, the book is unlikely to persuade anyone who starts from a different premise.

Murray says he conceives of his proposal as a “thought experiment.” It fulfills the role brilliantly. His solution is dubious, but if Murray can once more get us to question traditional wisdom, he will have again proven how consequential ideas can be.

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Actual Ethics

by James R. Otteson

Cambridge University Press • 2006 • 349 pages • $75.00 hardcover; $25.99 paperback

Reviewed by Tibor R. Machan

More and more books sympathetic to classical liberalism and libertarianism are coming on the market from publishers that haven’t offered such works until recently. Cambridge University Press has started to take on such works regularly.

This is important because in the contest of ideas, it matters where the ideas are published. It influences their use in classrooms, the promotion of the authors, and so forth, so when a certain line of thinking gains a forum at the more prestigious publishing houses, that can be identified as an advance. Thus James Otteson’s Actual Ethics is a triumph, and all those who value individual liberty should rejoice.

Having said this, I should also note a small quibble, namely, with the idea that classical liberalism and libertarianism are ethical rather than political stances. It is not new, of course, to believe this. Murray Rothbard and quite a few of those who discuss the constitution of a free society suggest that this is a matter of ethics proper, not only of political theory. Yet prominent classical liberals, such as Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek, have held that no commitment to any kind of ethics is involved in championing the free society. (I myself have argued that there is but a minimal ethical substance in such a political position.) This is supported by the idea that ethics addresses the question of how we ought to live our lives, day in and out, while politics is about how human communities are best organized.

Otteson, who has been teaching philosophy at the University of Alabama but is moving to Yeshiva University, contends that ethics is directly relevant to the politics of classical liberalism. In his own words, he is advancing “the simple and . . . inspiring vision of free and independent individuals who take no and brook no violation of personhood, who thus meet each others as equals in personhood, and who seek to provide for themselves and for those they care about a good and happy life.” For him this is an ethical claim, not so much one concerned with politics or law.

Actual Ethics is a work with a unique approach, one that reminds me of John Hospers’s way of philosophizing—common-sense philosophy. Otteson says he is concerned with “how you should live,” yet the book is more often than not about how you should not live, as well as about the important notion that one needs to figure out for oneself the details of how one should live. For Otteson government’s purpose is “to secure people in their lives,” although this could imply a far more extensive role for law than Otteson supports—for example, universal health care. That is why the American Founders’ notion that government is about securing our rights (to life and so on) is, I believe, more precise. But I think Otteson agrees with that position.

Otteson’s achievement here is to make a persuasive case for classical liberalism based on the moral superiority of individual freedom and responsibility. With so much philosophy these days tending to support the expansion of the state, this book is a gust of fresh air.

Actual Ethics has a lot of provocative and well-executed discussion about all the problem areas that critics of the free society keep mentioning—welfare, health care, child care, poverty, education, and so forth. These are all dealt with in admirably accessible fashion, free of the kind of jargon that often mars philosophical discussions of human affairs. For example, Otteson considers various reasons for placing education in the hands of government and although his idea of inviolable personhood would render any kind of state schooling indefensible, he patiently examines most of the justifications and finds them wanting.

Each chapter ends with a long list of relevant publications that would be of great use to anyone wishing to develop some of the nuances of the questions that Otteson is exploring.

I would like to end this brief review by commending Otteson for invoking the ideas of the late Julian Simon, especially the extremely important notion that the greatest resource for making advances in our lives is the individual’s initiative, the creative mind. I would also like to take exception to Otteson’s calling me something of an anarchist. His list of those who are supposedly in the anarcho-capitalist school is debatable. But that debate will have to await another book. Actual Ethics has so much value to offer that this minor mistake can be set aside.

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Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History

by Paul Moreno

Louisiana State University Press • 2006 • 325 pages • $49.95

Reviewed by George C. Leef

Among the virtues of free markets is that they provide all who wish to compete the opportunity to do so. Free markets are not burdened by coercive interference that favors some groups and shuts others out. That is particularly beneficial for people who are of a religious sect, nationality, race, or other group that is widely disliked. Even if most people choose to discriminate against them, they can still succeed by working for or selling to those who don’t share the general prejudice, or at least who will put prejudice aside in favor of good-quality work.

On the other hand, where a market is subject to government regulation, unpopular groups are often excluded or handicapped. That is because dominant groups are able to exercise their political power to pass laws that stamp out competition from outsiders.

Black Americans have suffered a great deal from official discrimination in the labor market. For example, under the Jim Crow laws enacted in southern textile-producing states, it was illegal for a mill owner to employ black workers in better-paying positions. The job of loom fixer, among others, was by law a whites-only job. Many owners would have been glad to hire or promote people for that job just on the basis of work quality, but racist politics dictated otherwise.

Labor unions have long used both legal and illegal means to secure for their members higher pay than they would be able to get in a free market. In the early years of America, virtually every labor union admitted whites only. Racist sentiments teamed up with the desire for economic advantage to produce overwhelming hostility toward any blacks who had the temerity to try to compete. In his book Black Americans and Organized Labor, Hillsdale College history professor Paul Moreno gives a detailed account of the one-sided battle between blacks and unions. It’s a “warts and all” picture that reveals much about the ugly, coercive side of organized labor that is usually kept hidden from the public. Moreno quotes Samuel Gompers, who once ranted that “Caucasians are not going to let their standard of living be destroyed by Negroes, Chinamen, Japs, or any other.” The early civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph clearly understood what the unions were all about when he said that the American Federation of Labor was “the most wicked machine for the propagation of race prejudices in the country.”

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, violence was often used by white unionists against black workers and white-owned businesses that employed them. Moreno gives some revolting instances. What he labels “the bloodiest race riot in American history” took place in New York City in 1862 when white workers rioted against a tobacco-manufacturing company that had hired black workers. Hundreds were killed and injured before the riot was put down by army troops. Violence was illegal, of course, but the unionists were certain that they could get away with it.

One of the key themes in the book is that black workers and white business owners were allies against the attempts to cartelize the labor market by unions. In the post-Civil War South, Moreno writes, “industrialization could have undermined the region’s racial hierarchy, but segregation forced business to conform to it.. . . Railroad owners balked at enforcing racial segregation and fought the laws in court—joining Homer Plessy, for example, in challenging the requirement of separate accommodations in New Orleans streetcars.” Frequently businesses that chose to employ black workers were targeted by unions with violence.

Nor was racial animosity confined to the South. In Northern states unions used their power to ensure that skilled trades remained exclusive white preserves. One favorite tactic was to get occupational-licensing laws passed, and then to use their control over apprenticeship programs to keep anyone they didn’t like from learning the trade.

Eventually some unions began to soften their stance against blacks, a combination of receding racial hostility and self-interest. (The money of black union members was just as good as that of whites.) Political pressure was building for legislation to forbid racial discrimination by unions, and most union officials supported it, although there were some who opposed it and even declined to comply until forced to do so.

Unionists like to talk about what they call “labor’s bitter struggle”—which is their rhetoric for efforts at establishing legally protected cartels—but the really bitter struggle was that of black (and other minority) workers to be allowed to compete freely in the labor market. Paul Moreno’s book beautifully tells the story of that struggle but also makes a bigger point, namely that society must not allow interest groups to use the law as a sword to cut down competition from other people.

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  • 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.