Whether this widespread belief is based on a clear conviction that there would be no economic problems in a socialist world, or whether it simply proves that the people who hold it do not know what economic problems are, is not always evident. Probably usually the latter. This is not at all surprising. The big economic problems which the economist sees and which he contends will also have to be solved in a collectivist society, are not problems which at present are solved deliberately by anybody in the sense in which the economic problems of a household reach solution. In a purely competitive society nobody bothers about any but his own economic problems. There is therefore no reason why the existence of economic problems, in the sense in which the economist uses the term, should be known to others. But the distribution of available resources between different uses which is the economic problem is no less a problem for society than for the individual, and although the decision is not consciously made by anybody, the competitive mechanism does bring about some sort of solution.
No doubt if it were put in this general way everybody would be ready to admit that such a problem exists. But few realize that it is fundamentally different not only in difficulty but also in character from the problems of engineering. The increasing preoccupation of the modern world with problems of an engineering character tends to blind people to the totally different character of the economic problem, and is probably the main cause why the nature of the latter was less and less understood. At the same time everyday terminology used in discussing either sort of problem has greatly enhanced the confusion. The familiar phrase of “trying to get the greatest results from the given means” covers both problems. The metallurgist who seeks for a method which will enable him to extract a maximum amount of metal from a given quantity of ore, the military engineer who tries to build a bridge with a given number of men in the shortest possible time, or the optician who endeavours to construct a telescope which will enable the astronomer to penetrate to still more distant stars, all are concerned solely with technological problems. The common character of these problems is determined by the singleness of their purpose in every case, the absolutely determined nature of the ends to which the available means are to be devoted. Nor does it alter the fundamental character of the problem if the means available for a definite purpose is a fixed amount of money to be spent on factors of production with given prices. From this point of view the industrial engineer who decides on the best method of production of a given commodity on the basis of given prices is concerned only with technological problems although he may speak of his trying to find the most economical method. But the only element which makes his decision in its effects an economic one is not any part of his calculations but only the fact that he uses, as a basis for these calculations, prices as he finds them on the market.
The problems which the director of all economic activities of a community would have to face would only be similar to those solved by an engineer if the order of importance of the different needs of the community were fixed in such a definite and absolute way that provision for one could always be made irrespective of cost. If it were possible for him first to decide on the best way to produce the necessary supply of, say, food as the most important need, as if it were the only need, and would think about the supply, say of clothing, only if and when some means were left over after the demand for food had been fully satisfied, then there would be no economic problem. For in such a case nothing would be left over except what could not possibly be used for the first purpose, either because it could not be turned into food or because there was no further demand for food. The criterion would simply be whether the possible maximum of foodstuffs had been produced or whether the application of different methods might not lead to a greater output. But the task would cease to be merely technological in character and would assume an entirely different nature if it were further postulated that as many resources as possible should be left over for other purposes. Then the question arises what is a greater quantity of resources. If one engineer proposed a method which would leave a great deal of land but only little labour for other purposes, while another would leave much labour and little land, how in the absence of any standard of value could it be decided which was the greater quantity? If there were only one factor of production this could be decided unequivocally on merely technical grounds, for then the main problem in every line of production would again be reduced to one of getting the maximum quantity of product out of any given amount of the same resources. The remaining economic problem of how much to produce in every line of production would in this case be of a very simple and almost negligible nature. As soon as there are two or more factors, however, this possibility is not present.
The economic problem arises therefore as soon as different purposes compete for the available resources. And the criterion of its presence is that costs have to be taken into account. Cost here, as anywhere, means nothing but the advantages to be derived from the use of given resources in other directions. Whether this is simply the use of part of the possible working day for recreation, or the use of material resources in an alternative line of production, makes little difference. It is clear that decisions of this sort will have to be made in any conceivable kind of economic system, wherever one has to choose between alternative employments of given resources. But the decisions between two possible alternative uses cannot be made in the absolute way which was possible in our earlier example. Even if the director of the economic system were quite clear in his mind that the food of one person is always more important than the clothing of another, that would by no means necessarily imply that it is also more important than the clothing of two or ten others. How critical the question is becomes clearer if we look at the less elementary wants. It may well be that although the need for one additional doctor is greater than the need for one additional school teacher, yet under conditions where it costs three times as much to train an additional doctor as it costs to train an additional school teacher, three additional school teachers may appear preferable to one doctor.
As has been said before, the fact that in the present order of things such economic problems are not solved by the conscious decision of anybody has the effect that most people are not conscious of their existence. Decisions whether and how much to produce a thing are economic decisions in this sense. But the making of such a decision by a single individual is only part of the solution of the economic problem involved. The person making such a decision makes it on the basis of given prices. The fact that by this decision he influences these prices to a certain, probably very small, extent will not influence his choice. The other part of the problem is solved by the functioning of the price system. But it is solved in a way which only a systematic study of the working of this system reveals. It has been already suggested that it is not necessary for the working of this system, that anybody should understand it. But people are not likely to let it work if they do not understand it.
The real situation in this respect is very well reflected in the popular estimate of the relative merits of the economists and the engineer. It is probably no exaggeration to say that to most people the engineer is the person who actually does things and the economist the odious individual who sits back in his armchair and explains why the well-meaning efforts of the former are frustrated. In a sense this is not untrue. But the implication that the forces which the economist studies and the engineer is likely to disregard are unimportant and ought to be disregarded is absurd. It needs the special training of the economist to see that the spontaneous forces which limit the ambitions of the engineer themselves provide a way of solving a problem which otherwise would have to be solved deliberately.