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Monday, November 26, 2012


THERE is reason to believe that we are at last entering an era of reasoned discussion of what has long uncritically been assumed to be a reconstruction of society on rational lines. For more than half a century, the belief that deliberate regulation of all social affairs must necessarily be more successful than the apparent haphazard interplay of independent individuals has continuously gained ground until to-day there is hardly a political group anywhere in the world which does not want central direction of most human activities in the service of one aim or another. It seemed so easy to improve upon the institutions of a free society which had come more and more to be considered as the result of mere accident, the product of a peculiar historical growth which might as well have taken a different direction. To bring order to such a chaos, to apply reason to the organization of society, and to shape it deliberately in every detail according to human wishes and the common ideas of justice seemed the only course of action worthy of a reasonable being.

But at the present day it is clear—it would probably be admitted by all sides—that during the greater part of the growth of this belief, some of the most serious problems of such a reconstruction have not even been recognized, much less successfully answered. For many years discussion of socialism—and for the greater part of the period it was only from socialism proper that the movement sprang—turned almost exclusively on ethical and psychological issues. On the one hand there was the general question whether justice required a reorganization of society on socialist lines and what principles of the distribution of income were to be regarded as just. On the other hand there was the question whether men in general could be trusted to have the moral and psychological qualities which were dimly seen to be essential if a socialist system was to work. But although this latter question does raise some of the real difficulties, it does not really touch the heart of the problem. What was questioned was only whether the authorities in the new state would be in a position to make people carry out their plans properly. Only the practical possibility of the execution of the plans was called in question, not whether planning, even in the ideal case where these difficulties were absent, would achieve the desired end. The problem seemed therefore to be “only” one of psychology or education, the “only” meaning that after initial difficulties these obstacles would certainly be overcome.
If this were true, then the economist would have nothing to say on the feasibility of such proposals, and indeed it is improbable that any scientific discussion of their merits would be possible. It would be a problem of ethics, or rather of individual judgments of value, on which different people might agree or disagree, but on which no reasoned arguments would be possible. Some of the questions might be left to the psychologist to decide, if he has really any means of saying what men would be like under entirely different circumstances. Apart from this no scientist, and least of all the economist, would have anything to say about the problems of Socialism. And many people believing that the knowledge of the economist is only applicable to the problems of a capitalist society (i.e. to problems arising out of peculiar human institutions which would be absent in a world organized on different lines), still think this to be the case.
Collectivist Economic Planning

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