Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Monday, August 30, 2004

Communism v. Capitalism

I have two final summar book reports to make, even though I only read about half of the second one. The first is The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan (Basic Books, 2001) and the second is Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the Richest, Most Powerful Man in History by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Books, 2001).

I selected the title for this post, Communism v. Capitalism, because I think these two books effectively illustrate just how similar the two can be when unchecked.

Aquariums is heart-breaking. I hesitated a long time before buying it, because I knew it was about life in a North Korean gulag, and I wasn't sure I had the stomach for it. It turns out that the author, while pulling no punches in describing the horror, doesn't hit us over the head with the brutality of it all.

The true story is about a Korean family living in Japan during WWII. After the war, the North Koreans started recruiting expatriots to come back to the Fatherland to work toward building a Communist utopia. The husband, who had built an impressive fortune, was indifferent to politics, but his wife was an active communist who convinced the whole family to return. She quickly came to regret that. A few years later, they were all in jail. The author is a grandson of that couple, and he talks about his grandmother never losing her faith in Communism, although she decided the North Koreans weren't "true Communists." The author was nine years old when he was sent to the camps. His "crime" was being the grandson of a political dissident. Apparently, North Koreans believe that political subversiveness is genetic.

When he was finally released, our author tells us that at the beginning, North Koreans were all about two things: money and power. By the time he successfully fled the country, the quest for power had gone the way of the dodo, and money was the be-all and end-all of life in communist North Korea.

As my brother-in-law Trevor noted when I told him about the book, it's ironic when fleeing into China is a vast improvement over your situation. At the time, I had no idea how right he was. When the government started spying on the author again, he and a friend bribed their way north and into mainland China, where they were amazed at how relaxed and prosperous the Chinese were. So that should say quite a bit about how bad North Korea is. Eventually he made his way south, worked for a few months in the port city of Dalian, and caught a boat to South Korea, where he lives today.

The second book, Killing Pablo, is not a political treatise at all. It reads like a Tom Clancy novel (specifically, Clear and Present Danger), but it is non-fiction. The author does not directly discuss capitalism - I only made the connection because I had just finished a book on communism. But really, that's what we're looking at here. Pablo Escobar became one of the world's wealthiest criminals by being a better, more vicious thug than anyone around him. He bought or killed cops, judges, jailers, congressmen, political candidates - anyone he needed.

Escobar eventually turned himself in to the authorities because he worked out a very sweet deal. He was "imprisoned" in a jail of his own construction, all the guards were his employees, he left whenever he felt like it, and he had all the resources at his fingertips to build his cocaine empire. Things went along swimmingly for both drug lord and government for about a year, until Escobar started killing people he suspected of cheating him. In a fascinating little scene, Escobar has taken hostage a Deputy Defense Minister, and he explains, "Doctor, I know you guys are worried about those killings. Don't worry. These are problems among mafioso. They do not concern you."

It is amazing that it never seems to occur to him that murder - even among mafiosi - does in fact concern the government. To Escobar, there was no such thing as respect for human life, only what he could and could not do (and at the height of his power, there was very little of the latter).

This is the heart and soul of Capitalism. That which can make money will make money. Had Escobar not been at the center of the Medellin cartel, someone else would have been (and indeed, his death certainly didn't end the war on drugs, by any means). It is Adam Smith's invisible hand, pure and simple. Escobar doesn't sell drugs because he likes to sell drugs, but because the benefit to him (a zillion dollars and every creature comfort imaginable) offsets the cost (the effort exerted, a very nasty reputation, and the risk of getting shot in the head by Delta Force). Where benefit outweighs cost, the invisible hand moves people.

Adam Smith's theory is not perfect, as Killing Pablo shows. Every government official, cop, judge or reporter who stood up to Escobar risked not only being kidnapped, tortured and/or killed in nasty ways, but also seeing his or her family kidnapped, tortured and/or killed in nasty ways. I can't think of any economic motivation for doing such a thing, and yet people did it. In other words, while there exists an "inivisible hand" pushing people towards profitable economic activity, other forces push and pull in opposite directions.

The Communism in Aquariums is not a perfect match-up for the Capitalism in Killing Pablo, however, because Pablo Escobar never succeeded in his goal of becoming the state. He never exercised the utterly unfettered control over the people that Kim Jong-il and his father exercise. The parallel is only complete in some hypothetical alternate reality where the Columbian government legalizes the cocaine trade and Escobar's methods become official state policy, or else in Saudi Arabia.