The idea that the Earth is flat is a rapidly growing trend on social media. The Flat Earth Society’s Twitter feed has the best part of 100,000 followers.
The fact that the planet is a sphere has been known since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. The astronomer Eratosthenes demonstrated it with a simple but brilliant experiment based on the length of the shadow of the noonday sun at two different places.
The evidence of major natural experiments, which contrast the performances of economies based upon market-oriented principles with those based upon the planned economy ideology of socialism, is decisive in just the same way.
Compare the US and the Soviet Union, East and West Germany, North and South Korea, India and China under different forms of socialism versus under different forms of capitalism. In each example, the capitalist country performed far better than the socialist one.
This is discussed in an interesting new book by Kristian Niemietz, head of political economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), entitled “Socialism: the failed idea that never dies”. (As a disclaimer, I am a member of the IEA’s academic panel but was not involved with this book).
The main theme describes the attitudes of western left-wing intellectuals towards socialist societies. The author covers the Soviet Union, China under Mao Zedong, Cuba, North Korea, Cambodia, Albania, East Germany, and Venezuela.
Niemietz identifies common trends in how western believers in socialism have reacted to each of these regimes.
There is an initial honeymoon period, where the experiment generates some evidence that it might be working. The Soviet Union in the 1930s, for example, was industrialising rapidly. Western admirers such as George Bernard Shaw conveniently ignored the mass famines in Ukraine and the millions of people in the labour camps. They eulogised the new type of society.
Eventually, the negative evidence becomes too strong to sweep under the carpet. Supporters then become angry and defensive. They question the motives of their critics and there is a frantic search for excuses.
The third and final stage sees western socialists deny adamantly that this particular example ever constituted real socialism. Socialism did not fail, because the country was never actually socialist to begin with.
These points are not just of abstract interest. Niemietz sets out in detail how the current Labour leaders, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, have gone through exactly these three phases in their attitudes towards Venezuela.
The final part of the book considers why such an obviously wrong idea continues to attract support.
Niemietz recognises that this is probably a job for psychologists, but being an economist, he looks to see what economic theory can say.
A key point is simple cost benefit analysis. Western intellectuals can acquire prestige and admiration for defending socialism, but never have to incur the costs involved of actually living under that system.
But if Corbyn and McDonnell have their way, the bien pensants of North London would learn for themselves what socialism actually means. Unfortunately, the rest of us would as well.