Knowledge is the new black.
21 August 2017 23:36 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Socialists say capitalism kills. They’re lying.

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

The Black Book of Communism is a devastating accounting of the death toll of that odious ideology. Modern socialists, however, claim that capitalism kills more people every five years than communism did in a century. Are they correct?

Every now and again, one comes across the argument that capitalism kills just as many people, or more, than socialism has ever done. The idea is well encapsulated in a meme doing the rounds in forums such as r/LateStageCapitalism on Reddit which claims to tot up “The Annual Human Cost of Capitalism”. It alleges that at least “20-million easily preventable deaths annually” are attributable to capitalism. Over five years, it argues, this is more than the 94-million deaths, which The Black Book of Communism attributes to communism since 1917.

Judging by the colours, the image was created by anarchist communists or anarcho-syndicalists, and the obvious conclusion that one should draw is that capitalism is worse than socialism.

For all its “gotcha” appeal, it is just rhetorical sleight of hand. For one, it compares apples with oranges. For another, if these death statistics are accurate at all, they are not attributable to capitalism. Let’s consider these points.

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, compiled and edited by Stéphane Courtois from the work of several academics, was published in France in 1999 (free download). It is a harrowing account of the crimes of practical communism, under regimes such as the USSR, China, Cambodia, North Korea, and those of several African, Latin American and European countries. It summarises the death toll as follows:

U.S.S.R. 20-million deaths
China 65-million deaths
Vietnam 1-million deaths
North Korea 2-million deaths
Cambodia 2-million deaths
Eastern Europe 1-million deaths
Latin America 150,000 deaths
Africa 1.7-million deaths
Afghanistan 1.5-million deaths

This adds up to just north of 94-million, covering the period 1914 to 1991.

It is important to note that these numbers do not include all deaths, and in particular, do not include deaths due to unsafe drinking water, hunger or disease. The Black Book authors counted only the deaths attributable to crimes by the state against the people, such as deliberate massacres by communist regimes or formal policies that directly led to large-scale deaths such as Maoist China’s “Great Leap Forward”. Courtois describes it thus:

Thus we have delimited crimes against civilians as the essence of the phenomenon of terror. These crimes tend to fit a recognisable pattern even if the practices vary to some extent by regime. The pattern includes execution by various means, such as firing squads, hanging, drowning, battering, and, in certain cases, gassing, poisoning, or ‘car accidents’; destruction of the population by starvation, through man-made famine, the withholding of food, or both; deportation, through which death can occur in transit (either through physical exhaustion or through confinement in an enclosed space), at one’s place of residence, or through forced labor (exhaustion, illness, hunger, cold). Periods described as times of ‘civil war’ are more complex – it is not always easy to distinguish between events caused by fighting between rulers and rebels and events that can properly be described only as a massacre of the civilian population.”

Unlike the totalitarian repression of communist regimes, deaths due to lack of clean drinking water, hunger, or disease are not deliberate crimes against civilian populations. The Black Book only counts crimes and massacres in communist countries, and not the death toll attributable to material conditions. If it did, it would have reached a far higher total than 100-odd million.

So the two counts – 20-million every five years and 94-million since 1914 (or 1917) – are not at all comparable. One cannot draw any conclusion from these numbers one way or the other, except perhaps that our socialist meme-makers could not find crimes against civilians under capitalist regimes that measure up to the crimes committed against populations living under socialism or communism.

But let’s try to make a comparison that would enable us to reach a conclusion about the relative death tolls of capitalism versus socialism in the ordinary course of events. We can ignore the Black Book’s accounting of communist state terror, and focus on the three causes of death listed in the image: those related to unsafe drinking water, hunger, and disease.

No country is purely socialist or communist, of course, and no country is purely capitalist. We can only place countries on a sliding scale between these two extremes. Capitalism is characterised by private property rights, individual freedom to trade for goods, services or labour, both at home and abroad, and small government with light regulation and low taxes. Socialism, by contrast, requires deep state involvement in the economy. It restricts and regulates individual freedoms to labour and trade, and nationalises key enterprises and resources. At the extreme, it seeks to abolish private property altogether and concentrate state power in the hands of supposed representatives of the proletariat. As Trotsky said about socialism, “dictatorship is necessary”.

Between the extremes of free markets and socialism, one can find mixed economies, ranging from largely free democratic welfare states to corrupt, corporatist or cronyist governments, to the neo-Marxist state-led economies of so-called “developmental states”. All of these are to some degree unfree.

A good proxy for the continuum on which countries lie is the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index (EFI) for 2016. It includes 159 countries for which adequate data exists to assess measures of economic freedom, such as size of government, its cost to the taxpayer, legal and property rights, sound money and inflation, freedom to trade across borders, and the regulatory burden.

A socialist country would score low on many, or most, of these measures. A capitalist country, by contrast, would typically score high. This map gives a high-level overview of where these 159 countries rank on the EFI:

It should come as no surprise that living standards strongly correlate with economic freedom. In a previous column, I presented a series of charts that show economic freedom is associated with higher income per capita, higher economic growth, lower poverty rates, higher life expectancy, and more political rights and civil liberties.

It would be astonishing, therefore, to find that economic freedom is also associated with unsafe drinking water, more hunger, or a higher disease burden. Our socialist meme gives no specific citations for any of its figures, which are therefore hard to verify. But we can (and must) do better.

To assess problems with potable water, we can use two sources. The World Health Organisation (WHO) published a report entitled Comparative Quantification of Health Risks, which included a chapter on unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene. Alongside it, it published a map which shows deaths caused by unsafe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, by country. The similarities with the economic freedom map above are easy to spot.

Because it is hard to calculate a correlation when all you have are ranges (and when you have to read those ranges off a map, which takes forever), let’s turn to the World Bank’s data on the percentage of population per country with access to an improved water source.

The first point to note is that worldwide, access to safe drinking water has improved dramatically, from 76% in 1990 to 91% in 2015. Only Algeria, Bulgaria, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe buck that trend.

There are 153 countries that have data for access to improved water sources as well as an EFI score. The correlation between access to clean water and economic freedom is 49%. This is highly statistically significant, with a probability (p) of less than 0.01%, which means there is only a one in 10,000 probability that the correlation is due to chance. Usually, p<5% is considered a statistically significant result.

Of the 46 countries that score a perfect 100% for access to clean drinking water, 38 are in the top half of the economic freedom charts, and 27 are in the top quartile. Only one (Belize) is in the bottom quartile. Conversely, of the 39 countries that have less than 85% access to clean drinking water, 33 are in the bottom half, and 24 in the bottom quartile. None is in the top quartile.

Economic Freedom Ranking 100% access to clean water <85% access to clean water
Top quartile 27 0
Second quartile 11 7
Third quartile 6 9
Bottom quartile 1 24

Clearly, lack of access to clean water is strongly correlated with a lack of economic freedom. This means attributing deaths related to unsafe water to free markets is a socialist lie. In a capitalist world of clean water, dirty water is associated with socialism, corruption, war or a combination of the three.

To assess the hunger claim, we’ll use the 2016 Global Hunger Index (GHI) compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). It calculates a hunger score based on the undernourished share of the population, the prevalence of wasting and stunting in children under five, and the under-five child mortality rate.

Because many rich countries aren’t even part of the GHI, there are only 110 countries which have both GHI and EFI scores. Still, the correlation between high hunger levels and low economic freedom is 37%, which is statistically very significant with p<0.1%.

Of the 110 countries, 46 suffer serious levels of hunger. Of those, seven have levels the IFPRI describes as alarming. Of the 46 serious cases, only one country (Guatemala) appears in the top quartile of the EFI. Nine are in the second quartile, 13 in the third quartile, and 23 in the bottom quartile. Of the alarming cases, six out of seven are in the bottom half of the EFI table, and none in the top quartile.

Economic Freedom Ranking Severe hunger Alarming hunger
Top quartile 1 0
Second quartile 9 1
Third quartile 13 3
Bottom quartile 23 3

It is evident that hunger is also correlated with a lack of economic freedom, which means that attributing hunger deaths to free markets is equally dishonest. In a world of capitalist plenty, starvation is associated with socialist holdouts, corrupt regimes, or countries ravaged by war.

The disease figure is strange because few (if any) official statistics bodies use the term “deaths from curable disease”. In its statistics, the WHO doesn’t even distinguish preventable causes of death from unavoidable ones, in part because it is hard to define “preventable”. Cancer or heart disease, for example, are often curable, and sometimes preventable, so how should such deaths be categorised?

To simplify matters and work with reliable statistics, let us instead consider the WHO’s age-adjusted death rates attributable to infectious and parasitic diseases, non-communicable diseases, and injury.

There are 157 countries which have both a WHO death rate and an EFI score. The correlation between high death rates and low economic freedom is 53%, which is even more statistically significant than either the hunger or unsafe water association, with p<0.01%.

Of the top 40 countries, which have death rates below 600 per 100,000 population, 35 are in the top half of the economic freedom rankings, and 25 are in the top quartile. Of the bottom 40 countries, with death rates exceeding 1,250 per 100,000 population, 31 are in the bottom half of the EFI, and 23 are in the bottom quartile.

Economic Freedom Ranking Top 40
(lowest death rate)
Bottom 40
(highest death rate)
Top quartile 25 0
Second quartile 10 8
Third quartile 3 8
Bottom quartile 1 23

This shows that deaths due to injury or disease are once again correlated with a lack of economic freedom. Attributing such deaths to free markets is also false. In a capitalist world, death is associated with socialism, corruption and war.

So the three causes of death at issue, unsafe drinking water, hunger and disease, are not correlated with free-market capitalism, but rather, with a lack thereof. If socialists want to critique the capitalist system – and between Keynesianism, corporate welfare, the surveillance state, cronyism and corruption there is a lot to critique – they could start by not being blatantly dishonest.

On the other hand, if they were honest, they’d lose the ideological battle. They’d be forced to admit that socialism is the great failed experiment of the last century, while capitalism has produced large and sustained improvements in socio-economic conditions for the vast majority of the world’s population.

And if socialists were honest, I’d miss out on opportunities to expose their mendacity. Bless ‘em. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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