The graveyard of failed socialist states is vast. In recent decades, examples are replete: from the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the horrors in North Korea, to the recent nightmare in Venezuela, the evidence looms large and tragic.
Yet among its faithful, there is a persistent belief that “real” socialism does work. (G. A. Cohen’s lecture reflecting on Al Capp’s creature “the shmoo” is provided below as one of the more colorful examples.) It has simply never been tried before.
This is an odd argument. The Bolsheviks seized power in textbook Marxian fashion and created a socialist empire that lasted for 70 years. As the economist Bryan Caplan has pointed out, the Bolsheviks were detested by their fellow socialists for many reasons—but a lack of commitment to socialism was not one of them.
So why, despite its bloody and impoverished track record, do so many educated people still favor socialism and interventionism over free markets?
There is a long-standing hypothesis in psychology that helps us understand. It’s called cognitive dissonance theory.
The concept was explored recently in The Conversation by Arturs Logins, a philosophy researcher at the University of Southern California.
“According to cognitive dissonance theory, first developed by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, people seek to avoid the internal discomfort that arises when their beliefs, attitudes or behavior come into conflict with each other or with new information. In other words, it doesn’t feel good to do something you don’t value or that contradicts your deeply held convictions. To deal with this kind of discomfort, people sometimes attempt to rationalize their beliefs and behavior.
In a classic study, Festinger and colleagues observed a small doomsday cult in Chicago who were waiting for a UFO to save them from impending massive destruction of Earth. When the prophecy didn’t come true, instead of rejecting their original belief, members of the sect came to believe that the God of Earth changed plans and no longer wanted to destroy the planet.
Cult members so closely identified with the idea that a UFO was coming to rescue them that they couldn’t just let the idea go when it was proven wrong. Rather than give up on the original belief, they preferred to lessen the cognitive dissonance they were experiencing internally.”
Logins uses this example to explain why a scheduled analysis of the eDNA of Loch Ness—the lake where a prehistoric monster resides, according to legend—is unlikely to change the minds of many who firmly believe the creature exists.
Logins likely is correct in his analysis. But before we laugh at those who believe a prehistoric beast could exist undetected for decades in a relatively tiny Scottish lake, we might analyze ourselves.
There is a good chance that cognitive dissonance— a beast that severs us from reality—is lurking beneath the surface.
[Image Credit: Youtube]