Why the World is Better Off Without the USSR

There are some great historical events where it’s difficult to tell whether their net effect was positive or not. Contra Brian Leiter, the fall of the Soviet Union isn’t one of them.

The fall of the USSR led to the establishment of numerous successful liberal democracies, including Poland, the the Czech Republic, the Baltic States, and others. Some of these were established before the USSR fully collapsed. But communist regimes in Eastern Europe would not have fallen were not the USSR itself already close to collapse, as it was in 1989-90.

Even the more authoritarian post-communist successor states are all far freer than their communist predecessors were. For example, all of them have vastly greater freedom of speech, freedom of religion, protection for property rights, and freedom of internal and external mobility (nearly all communist governments forbade emigration for most of its citizens, and most also severely restricted internal movement). I am no fan of the quasi-authoritarian government of ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin, but it’s a lot less repressive than the USSR was by any conceivable measure. For example, my relatives living in Russia feel free to openly criticize the government and vote for opposition parties. Even under Gorbachev, public criticism of the government was severely circumscribed and opposition parties were banned until just before the regime fell.

On the economic front, after a difficult transition in the mid-1990s, there have been massive increases in incomes and standards of living. For example, per capita GDP in Eastern Europe (including Russia and Ukraine) rose from 33% of Western European levels in 1992 to 45% in 2008. Those countries that adopted free market policies most rapidly and completely (e.g. – Estonia, Poland, and the Czech Republic) had the highest growth rates and least painful transitions. These figures greatly understate the true amount of economic progress because much of the 1992 GDP consisted of military spending (at least 20% of Soviet GDP at the time) and shoddy communist products many of which did not meet any real consumer demand.

Finally, the fall of the USSR lifted the specter of global nuclear war arising from a confrontation between the two superpowers. Although US-Russian relations are sometimes tense today, there is no realistic chance that the two nations will go to war.

What can Leiter stack against these massive improvements? The following:

[W]hether the collapse of the Soviet Union should be considered a good thing is a separate question. Certainly everyone (except the despots) welcomes the end of totalitarian regimes, though some of the former Soviet republics have remained thoroughly undemocratic, and Russia itself has moved strongly back in that direction. Then, of course, there was the enormous human cost to the collapse (increased mortality, a decline in longevity, and massive economic and thus human dislocation and suffering). Finally, certain other world-historic crimes, such as the U.S. war of aggression against Iraq, are unlikely to have occurred if the Soviet Union had remained intact.

I have covered the points about economic well-being and political freedom above. The evidence of huge improvements in both is overwhelming, even though some of the post-Soviet successor states are far from admirable.

What about life expectancy? It is true that life expectancy in Russia and Eastern Europe fell in the early 1990s. But as this German Max Planck Institute study describes, life expectancy in those countries began falling in the mid-1960s, with a brief acceleration in the early 1990s, that was soon reversed. One can’t blame the fall of the USSR for a trend that long predated it. The same study also shows that life expectancy in Eastern Europe (and to a lesser extent Russia) began to rise again in the late 1990s, possibly because of increased economic growth and improvements in standards of living. Moreover, most of the fall in Russian life expectancy in the 1990s predated privatization of the economy and was probably caused by rising alcoholism (due in large part to falling vodka prices) rather than by economic shocks.

In this context, it’s important to remember that communist-era health statistics and economic data are extremely unreliable and in many cases falsified for propaganda purposes. For example, official East German data absurdly claimed that East Germany had higher per capita income than Italy by 1970 and had nearly equaled Britain. Thus, the above data probably underestimate the extent of post-Soviet progress because they likely overestimate life expectancy and living standards in the Soviet era.

Finally, we have Leiter’s claim that the survival of the USSR might have averted “world-historic crimes” such as the US invasion of Iraq. Without getting into the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War, I think it’s not at all obvious that it counts as a “world-historic crime.” Although the war may not have been worth its cost from a US point of view and was often badly conducted, the replacement of a mass-murdering despot by a relatively democratic government is very likely a net gain for Iraqis themselves. It’s also worth noting that the Cold War era was far from free of bloody proxy wars, many of which had worse outcomes than Iraq. Such conflicts would likely have continued had the USSR survived.

Perhaps more to the point, the USSR had a tendency to commit “world-historic crimes” of its own, such as the mass murder of millions of its own people and – most recently – the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, which ended up killing over 1 million people. Had the USSR survived the 1980s, it is very likely that such atrocities would have recurred. Previously in Soviet history, periods of liberalization (e.g. the mid-1920s and early 1960s) were followed by periods of heightened repression at home and expansionism abroad (e.g. – the Stalin and Brezhnev eras). Had Gorbachev’s reforms fizzled out or been reversed, the same pattern would likely have recurred as more hardline communist leaders returned to power and tried to suppress liberal tendencies.

We cannot know exactly how history would have unfolded if the USSR had survived to the present day. But the overwhelming weight of evidence suggests that the world is far better off without it.

UPDATE: I recognize that Leiter wasn’t suggesting that the fall of the USSR was necessarily bad, merely that the issue is a close call. But even the latter claim isn’t defensible.