We see this kind of thing all the time, in microcosm. The market does not require people to believe in it; but the centrally planned economies that live inside a market economy, known as corporations, do. Everybody knows that financial incentives alone are not enough to make a company succeed; it must also build morale, a sense of mission, which makes people work at least somewhat for the good of the company rather than think only of what is good for them. Luckily, under capitalism an individual company can fail without taking the whole society down with it - or it can be reformed without a bloody revolution.
Why did people stop believing in socialism? Part of the answer is simply the passage of time: you can't expect revolutionary fervor to last for 70 years. But perhaps also the unexpected resurgence of capitalism played a role. By the 1980s Russia's elite was all too aware that the country, instead of overtaking the capitalist nations, was slipping behind - that Russia was failing to take advantage of new technology, that if anyone was challenging the West it was the rising nations of Asia. Communism lost any claim to the mandate of history well before it actually fell apart, and perhaps that is why it fell apart.
In the end, then, capitalism triumphed because it is a system that is robust to cynicism, that assumes that each man is out for himself. For much of the past century and a half men have dreamed of something better, of an economy that drew on man's better nature. But dreams, it turns out, can't keep a system going over the long term; selfishness can.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Command and belief
Paul Krugman looks at the way that belief can augment the command economy within the firm and more broadly.