He Leadeth Me and Paul Krugman

Tuesday, October 5, AD 2010

I suppose it may be a symptom of an unbalanced intellectual life, but one question that occurred to me while reading He Leadeth Me (an excellent and moving account of a Catholic priest who was  imprisoned for over two decades in the Soviet Union) several months ago was a question about the failure of the Soviet economic system. In the book, Fr. Ciszek recounts year after year of back-breaking labor for 12-14 hours a day in Siberian labor camps. He and his fellow prisoners lived in squalid conditions, and were provided with hardly enough food to keep them alive. This is all horrible, of course, and I’d recommend Fr. Ciszek’s work to anyone who has a tendency to complain about the difficulties of pursuing sanctification in their jobs.

But it seemed to me that, unless the prisoners were basically digging ditches and filling them back up again,  this type of coercion would increase economic efficiency, given that the inputs required to organize the prisoners were minimal and the workers were producing a great deal. Certainly, Soviet workers in these mines were producing more than unionized U.S. workers of the time. As it turns out, I am not the only who thought this way. As Paul Krugman helpfully explains, claims about the economic superiority of the Soviet Union were commonplace in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and many prominent economists reluctantly concluded that centrally planned economies had unique efficiency advantages:

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