Among the many reasons I enjoyed Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, one of the most important is that the story it tells is part of my own intellectual development, on one of the relatively few issues where my ideas have undergone an almost complete reversal over the years. I was once, like most of the characters in the book, a believer in central planning. I saw the mixed economy and social democracy as half-hearted compromises between capitalism and socialism, with history inevitably moving in the direction of the latter.
While I was always hostile to the dictatorial policies of Marxist-Leninism, I thought, in the crisis years of the early 1970s, that the Soviet Union had the better economic model, and that the advent of powerful computers and new mathematical techniques would help to fix any remaining problems. At the same time, I was critical of the kinds of old-style methods of government intervention (tariffs, subsidies and so on) that are now called ‘business welfare’.
Over time, and with experience of actual attempts at planning on a smaller scale, I became steadily more disillusioned with the idea. On the whole, I concluded Hayek and Mises had the better of the famous socialist calculation debate of the 1920s and 1930s, and that their arguments about the price mechanism had a lot of merit. This didn’t, however, lead me to share their free-market views, particularly in the dogmatic form in which I encountered them studying economics at the Australian National University.
Although I hadn’t read him at the time (and I wonder what Corey Robin would have to say on the subject), I agree pretty much with Oakeshott when he says ‘This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics’. This aspect of Hayek is even more pronounced in Mises, for whom free-market economics is a matter of logical deduction, and taken to a ludicrous extreme by their propertarian followers today.
The same kind of thinking was evident in much of the financial ‘rocket science’ that gave us the global financial crisis. The belief was that sufficiently sophisticated financial ‘engineering’ could overcome the realities of risk and uncertainty, producing untold wealth for its practitioners while making society as a whole more prosperous – only the first part of the promise was delivered.
So, rather than switching from central planning to free-market capitalism, I’m now, in Andre Metin’s description of Australia in early C20, a believer in ‘socialism without doctrines’, starting from the historical premise that Keynesian social democracy has delivered better outcomes than either free-market dogmatism or central planning, and looking for ways to develop a new social democratic vision relevant to our current circumstances.
As Red Plenty shows, my enthusiasm for and disillusionment with central planning was about fifteen years behind the same developments in the Soviet Union itself. Spufford gives us a sympathetic picture of their hopes, and of the promise generated by new mathematical techniques like linear programming and optimal control (although entirely free of actual math, the book does a better job than any I’ve read of conveying the feel of these techniques). In 1956, Kruschev makes his famous promise of overtaking the US, and it seems quite credible, but a decade later, all belief in the promise of plenty has been lost. As the book ends, the mathematical programmers charged with making the plan work are pushing the benefits of prices – some at least, like Janos Kornai, would complete the journey to the free-market right, and advocacy of the ‘shock therapy’ approach to post-Communist transition.
Red Plenty is a great book. It would be fascinating to see Spufford tackle the post-Soviet transition and particularly the way in which liberal reformers like Chubais and Berezovsky transformed themselves into oligarchs, with the aid of Western academic economists like Andrei Shleifer. The pattern of naïve faith and disillusionment with free-market economics would make a perfect counterpoint to the story of central planning presented here.