~(Theory → ~Practice)

How often have you heard the line, "Communism is great in theory, but it doesn't work in practice"? I've always disliked this argument. After all, if it doesn't work in practice, what good is the theory? But until I read Glen Whitman's recent post on Schopenhauer, I didn't realize that it is the very definition of an invalid argument. Whitman quotes a number of Arthur Schopenhauer's thirty-eight stratagems in "The Art of Controversy," among them Stratagem XXXIII:

"That's all very well in theory, but it won't do in practice." In this sophism you admit the premises but deny the conclusion, in contradiction with a well-known rule of logic. The assertion is based upon an impossibility: what is right in theory must work in practice; and if it does not, there is a mistake in the theory; something has been overlooked and not allowed for; and, consequently, what is wrong in practice is wrong in theory too.

The definition of a valid argument is an argument in which it would be contradictory (impossible) to have the premises all true and the conclusion false.

Now, a valid argument doesn't necessarily provide us with a true conclusion. One can argue, for example:

  1. All men are 20 feet tall.
  2. Micha is a man
  3. Therefore, Micha is 20 feet tall

Now, this is a perfectly valid argument--the conclusion follows directly from the premises--and yet the conclusion is false. The argument remains valid, however, because one of the premises is false as well. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess which premise is false.

In order for an argument to be sound, the argument must be valid--i.e. it would be contradictory to have the premises all true and the conclusion false--and every single premise must be true. A sound argument provides us with a true conclusion.

The interesting thing about Schopenhauer's point is that the belief that communism can be fine in theory but fail to work in practice contradicts the most basic rule of logic. Any theory that does not work in practice must necessarily not work in theory either. If an argument leads to a conclusion about the world, and empirical observations show us that the conclusion is false, then something must have gone wrong in the theory. One can argue about whether the empirical observations properly test the conclusion of the argument, but once one has conceded this point, one cannot then claim that the theory is still true.

Here's some anecdotal evidence for this phenomenon. Yesterday, I visited Jewschool, a weblog run by Mobius, an anarcho-socialist online acquaintance. While browsing around, I came across this recent post, advertising two new t-shirt designs. [Note to Mobius: Love the first, hate the second.] Mobius and I have gone back and forth on the legitimacy of using the Soviet hammer and sickle and whether Jews should be proud of what it represents. Personally, I'd rather wear a swastika, but to each his own.

Anyway, in Mobius's new post, he links back to an old Catallarchy post of mine from a few months ago. In the comment thread, I came across this pearl of wisdom from "richie":

communism cannot be fully rejected by the left, as it IS a fine ideology on paper. the fact that it has never worked stems from the flaws in humanity, not in the system itself. that said, i don't think those flaws will ever be truly removed from humanity. reject the past consequenses of communism all you won't, but don't reject the idea, as it is something to be studied and learned from.

To which I replied (and note how, as a greedy capitalist, I permit myself the luxury of using capital letters):

Richie, how could a social system which necessarily depends upon human action be fine on paper if it completely ignores the nature of those it purports to control? That's like saying that my economic theory works fine on paper, as long as humans can learn to flap their arms and fly. Well, no, that doesn't work on paper.

And I agree that we should study and learn from communism's failure, if only to learn what not to do. I don't see any reason not to reject the idea communism if we as decent people are willing to reject the past consequences of communism. How many more failures and deaths are necessary before everyone rejects this horrible idea?

How many indeed?

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My international politics professor, Alexandras Shtromas, delighted us one day when he said, with his thick accent, "You all listen to zat communist propaganda; you all listen to that Homer Seempson. Homer Seempson says 'oh, communism works in theory.' Zat is all communist propaganda."