Home > central planning, regulation, socialism, the free market > The Contingency of Socialist Utopias: Some Problems of Central Planning and Rationalist Design   [Part 2]

The Contingency of Socialist Utopias: Some Problems of Central Planning and Rationalist Design   [Part 2]

June 30th, 2008


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Only the free market (which is run by, precisely, nobody) is capable of coordinating the largely diffuse information spread among economic agents into forming an optimum output. This is not just an optimum regarding maximal manufacturing output for the lowest possible cost, a common straw man constructed against the free market to paint it as a cutthroat institution of total efficiency. That notion is just a Platonic hangover as if goods are produced for the goods’ sake which ignores why those goods are created in the first place: to enhance an individual’s well-being. The free market forms an optimum output with respect to the amount of resources available, and, more importantly, to the totality of the individual preferences of all market participants.

Very closely related to the information problem of central planning is pricing or, more broadly, valuation of goods, services, or virtually everything whose control and consumption can be transferred from one individual to another. Valuation by demand is self-defining: what someone is willing to pay for something is what it’s worth. No Platonism necessary, no intrinsicism, just pure empirical fact. In a centrally planned system that prohibits free association, value must be decided; otherwise, there is no meaningful way of allocating produced goods among the members of society. Again, suspending the selfish interests of the appraisers, this leads to bizarre information problems and to the humorous possibility of the “value” contributed by producers exceeding the amount of goods and services available in an economy, resulting in people deserving more than is possible to provide.

Another problem with central planning is, in brief, the actual presence of human beings. Markets can’t be avoided; the free market is all about incentives. Proof in practice of markets is the responsiveness to incentives embedded in human nature, no matter what system prevails. Black markets develop in response to government prohibitions; defying the law becomes a business, where risks are taken but large profits are reaped. In totalitarian systems (especially those with distributive wealth patterns, like in communism) individuals use their positions as or connections with bureaucrats and politicians in order to gain a bigger share of the pie. Even in our purportedly “free” economy in which the government intervenes to harness the “dangers” of the free market, interest groups spend billions of dollars yearly lobbying federal, state, and local governments getting laws passed in their favor to the detriment of others and electing politicians and bureaucrats who use the force of the law to increase business profits.

(Incidentally, the few errant cases in which people’s preferences are static and minimized do not undermine this universality of the human condition, for the reason that incentives can be structured to shun accumulation of material possessions or other conventional measures of well-being. Some tribes have a social value of personal prestige over wealth, and thus individual members will often spend all of their wealth on extravagant feasts for the tribe or on constructing large memorial edifices. )

Up to this point I’ve freely switched back and forth between central institutional design and central planning. Though there is a distinction between the two, they ultimately suffer from the same problems. First, even in a static environment, central design and planning simply lack the coordination of information necessary to achieve anything close to efficiency. Gathering the information is either next to impossible or is so costly to achieve that it defeats the purpose of establishing any institutions in the first place. Then, not only must the institution measure up to the circumstances of the time, it must be resilient and adaptable to the rapidly changing and non-ergodic world. The environment changes. Technology changes. People change. If the institution itself entails an active form of intervention (such as value arbitration, as in Marxism), the central planners constantly face the problem of incomplete and changing information.

Any societal plans that establish hard-and-fixed institutions and that rely on constant governance are prone to disaster, especially when abuse of power is considered. Up to this point, I’ve neglected to address that fact, which is the most important of all: much of the preceding discussion generously takes for granted that those involved in the central planning have no interest but doing their job the best they can. For the most part, that means that I’ve ignored an even more fundamental flaw in central planning. Yet even with that, it still had problems, didn’t it?

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