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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3 Responses to He Leadeth Me and Paul Krugman

  • Glad I’m not the only one who gets off on these odd economic digressions when reading some unrelated piece.

    One other item of interest on how planned economies tended not to work as well as might otherwise be imagined — centralized planning also tended to be very good at meeting needs well understood by the planners. However, if the planning was imperfect, so, often, the production. Thus, the USSR might achieve some feat like assuring that every collective farm had an automatic wheat harvesting machine, yet miss the detail of which collectives actually produced wheat. (That being an example I remember reading about at one point.) Obviously, at that point, the accomplishment of producing all the harvesters is semi-wasted effort.

  • I just remember what some anonymous Russian was quoted as saying “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” Slave labor is never really productive.

  • The Soviets simply recreated state serfdom with the added horrors of mass executions, mass imprisonment and man-made famine. Western useful idiots eagerly swallowed make-believe Soviet statistics, and ignored the fact that, at a much higher human cost, the Soviets were simply continuing the industrialization process that already had been well under way during the reign of the Tsars. Russia and its subject states were and are immensely rich in natural resources and manpower, and it took a truly pathological system to achieve simple industrialization in the 20th century through the type of unending misery imposed on their subjects by the Soviet Nomenklatura.