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Habits of failure.

Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, "Eurocommunism" is finally gone. From the dictionary, that is. The word wasn't a term of abuse coined by right-wing talk radio to describe Scandinavian social democracy. Rather it was, as Canadian columnist Robert Fulford notes, Moscow's own word for a Bolshevism with Western characteristics sure to take root in France and Italy any day now--"now" being some time in the 1970s.

After 40 years of disuse, "Eurocommunism" has at last lost its place in the Oxford Concise Dictionary. If obsolete words take a long time to die, the habits that accompany obsolete ideas linger even longer.

Communism's decline and fall was part of a wider phenomenon, the loss of faith in central planning everywhere. America ended the 1970s disillusioned with the Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and Richard Nixon's price controls. In Britain, the carefully managed relationship between government, labor, and industry had shattered, bringing Margaret Thatcher to power. By the 1980s, even avowedly socialist leaders on the European continent retreated from planning. It's a familiar story.

And there was more: American industry--once tightly concentrated under the belief that very large companies with huge economies of scale would own the future--professed a new decentralist strategy. By the 1990s, IBM seemed a living fossil, AT&T the tiny, lizard-like descendant of some great reptile that once ruled its ecological niche.

Today it can be hard to understand why there was ever a vogue for bigness in business and government. But there were reasons: creative destruction of small enterprises had cleared a path for consolidation by the beginning of the 20th century. And the planning that went into fighting and winning World War II seemed to vindicate omnicompetent government. The technocratic mentality that took root in Cold War America owed as much to the mystique of the Strategic Air Command as to the thinking of a John Maynard Keynes.

Communism was the biggest central plan of all; its downfall dramatized conclusions the West had already reached. Nobody plans like the old days any more. Yet the tools of planning continue to be used--and those who wield them are flailing wildly.

The Federal Reserve, an embodiment of planning, acts as if it has a monetary strategy. But it only has tactics--so we get successive rounds of "quantitative easing," regardless of any effect. President Obama's attempts at stimulus also show what happens when old devices are employed long after the ideas behind them have ceased to be relevant. The result is even more wasteful than the planning of old: this time no Hoover Dams are being built.

Don't just blame the left. Right-wing hawks long for another Cold War--and try to force terrorism into that mold--because that's the environment for which all their habits are adapted. In economics, too, shopworn techniques play out in Republican policy, as the tax cuts and deregulation that remedied the malaise of the 1970s--the anti-planning plan, as it were--are urged over and over in a crisis of a very different kind. Remember the rebates Bush mailed to taxpayers in 2008 every time you think of Obama's impotent spending.

The death of an idea, even the removal of a word form the dictionary, is never enough. Something better has to replace it, or the old reflexes will remain.

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Title Annotation:Eurocommunism
Publication:The American Conservative
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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