Central Planning – It’s not just for communists anymore
by Matthew K
Posted 23 August 2011
on Le Café Américain
IT’S BEEN A ROUGH FEW WEEKS FOR THE CAPITALIST SYSTEM, WHICH BESTRIDES THE GLOBE like a teetering colossus. Not only has there been stock market turmoil worldwide, and the temporary threat of a US default on its debts, but an esteemed, mainstream economist suggested that Karl Marx was right. In the Wall Street Journal, no less! Karl Marx Was Right
That would be Nouriel Roubini, whose claim to fame came from timely warnings about the US housing bubble and subsequent US stock market collapse. It is important to note that he only said that Marx was right in that capitalism could collapse on itself, not that it actually would.
Most people are familiar with the spectacular failures of central planning in the Communist regimes. According to the resurgently fashionable Austrian school of economics, an economy is too complex to be managed by one expert, or even one committee of experts, regardless whether the clubhouse door reads “Politburo” or “Shark Tank.”
According to the Austrians, society’s fastest path to prosperity consists of allowing every person to decide freely what is in their best interest, with the emphasis on individual transactions.
A biological analogy comes from flocks of birds, schools of fish, and ant colonies, among others. These swarms function extremely well, despite being composed of simple creatures following simple rules, and despite the anarchic lack of a leader directing things. Our own “simple critter rules” in modern society are probably along the lines of “try to get a higher paying job, and pay lower prices for stuff, within the laws of the land, and without making too many enemies.”
A business analogy comes from Toyota. Their quality went from hopeless to fearsome by training every employee to be competent enough to figure out how to do their own job better, and then allowing them to do so. If their management tried to dictate how each task was to be done, they might have peaked at early-80’s American car maker quality levels.
In a similar way, they decided not to try to predict the right production levels for each model, colour, and trim. Instead they pre-built enough cars to fill dealership inventory, and each time a customer purchased a vehicle, they would build one more of that same model, colour, and features. In economic nerd speak, they responded to that “market signal”. So if 5% of Corolla drivers wanted a green car with deluxe extras, in the long run 5% of Corolla production would consist of deluxe green vehicles.
Since the flaws of central planning and benefits of distributed decision-making occur in the public sector, the private sector, and even in biology, we can generalize that the USSR’s economic problem was ultimately that a small group of people would decide how to (mis)allocate most of the country’s resources.
In the past thirty years, there’s been an immense concentration of wealth — particularly in Anglo-American countries (the US, UK, us, the Aussies). The US is at the leading edge of this trend, with the top 1% owning 42% of the wealth, or about six times as much as the bottom four fifths of the population, and a significant portion of the means of production and public information (media) and influence over the course of society.
In recent decades Western capitalism has moved towards the central planning model of a relatively small number of people in charge of directing the allocation of resources. This narrowing of perspective has in turn led to policies progressively more disastrous for the moved and the shaken… which was the Soviet denouement.
I have to credit the influence of the thoughtful blog of a well-to-do American entrepreneur and military strategist, and especially this particular posting: Central Planning and the Fall of US Empire
Capitalism’s path back from the self-perpetuating central planning will require a more equitable, or at least a less inequitable, distribution of wealth and power, by which to rebuild the middle class and promote decision making based on individual choice and a more widely based entrepreneurial meritocracy. Which is what Roubini was complaining about, in saying that too much wealth was being redistributed from labour to capital.
It would be a terrible irony if Marx was proven correct, and unchecked capitalism destroyed itself by evolving the self-crippling features of a centrally planned communist economy. One can only hope that we can reform our current market systems before things get worse.