At Crooked Timber, they’ve been having a interesting book club discussion of Red Plenty, a novel about why central planning failed in the Soviet Union. Part of what they’re wrestling with is, did planning fail because of the particular failings of the thuggish, totalitarian Soviet state? Or is any form of central planning, including a truly democratic form of central planning at the heart of many visions of Socialism, doomed to fail?
I’m not a Socialist (I’m not sure what I am). But I think that before anyone tries to figure out whether a democratic centrally planned economy can work, first we ought to ask, would we want it to?
Or to put it another way, would you want to spend the rest of your life in endless meetings about breakfast cereal?
I think most lefties – and for that matter many liberals and even some moderates – believe that ordinary people need a whole lot more say over the major decisions shaping our economy than we’ve got right now. The balance of power today is seriously out of whack.
But in an ideal world, just how much say would we want? Do we want to live in a world where part of our solemn responsibilities as citizens would be to decide together how much & what kind of breakfast cereals were being produced every year? And toothpaste, and sneakers, and paperclips, and computers, and socks, and forks, and boxes, and light bulbs, and paint, and paint brushes, and so on?
Let’s try a thought experiment. Wherever you are right now, stop and take a good, detailed look at your surroundings. Imagine that as a member of a truly democratic society, you were responsible for both voting on and discussing the quantity, quality, etc. of every product or service you see – not just today but for the rest of your life.
Imagine the number of planning meetings – and the endless stream of tweets of “dnt forget, comments on brkfst optns v7.5 due Fri 3PM!” The never ending Facebook discussions: are more sugary breakfast options okay so long as they use natural, sustainably grown sweeteners? Should we encourage more people to make their own oatmeal from scratch by subsidizing the cost of oat grinders (if you think I’m kidding about this last one, check out this video from Chow.com’s “You’re Doing It Wrong” series)?
Now check your stomach. Are you feeling vaguely nauseous?
Mind you, there are some people who like talking about breakfast cereal and who would enjoy having meetings every year to discuss it. Like the characters in Judd Apatow movies. Or one of your friends who’s an “environmentally conscious” parent and who, with the fervor of the football fanatic discussing whether their team will make the playoffs, always wants to engage you in a conversation about the content of their child’s current baby food.
Now imagine being stuck in meetings about breakfast cereal. With both of them. For the rest of your life.
The economy would need to produce an awful lot of high-quality pot to make this work.
So before anyone spends too much time worrying about whether a truly democratic, fully centrally planned economy is feasible, I think we need to have a real discussion about just how much control – and what kind of control – we really want over the economy. I don’t have a clear sense as to what I think the right balance is. But personally, I hope that a fully centrally & democratically planned economy isn’t possible. Because I sure wouldn’t want to live in one.