- Hardcover: 286 pages
- Publisher: Open Court Pub Co; 1St Edition edition (December 1, 1985)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0812690052
- ISBN-13: 978-0091535704
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,346,462 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Myth of the Plan: Lessons of Soviet Planning Experience Hardcover – December 1, 1985
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I was curious about the specific successes and failures of central planning in the Soviet Union. To what extent were there insuperable problems, to what extent was planning executed poorly (either due to incompetence, ideological blindness or political interference) and to what extent did it do what at least some people wanted it to do? I have met several mid-level quants who worked in this system, and they have strongly diverging answers to these questions and especially to the question, why weren't the obvious shortcomings fixed? Another question I asked is could the system have worked with, say, Jeff Bezos in charge instead of Stalin, with 21st century technology and with more focus on consumer satisfaction? My interest is in practical economics in the future, not history or politics.
This book provided data and analysis exactly on point to address my questions. Hayak argued from both history and theory that planning leads to brutal and amoral totalitarian regimes. Rutland looks at the empirical evidence on that point, specifically focusing on the Soviet Union. He does not express a conclusion in the book, but he presents a body of information that bears on the question. It is clear and accessible to non-specialists.
Rutland attempts too much, I think. He seems not quite to have grasped the major theoretical contributions of Hayek or Kornai (although he does quote especially Hayek often). He explores questions that they proposed answers to without citing them in that context and he spends a lot of time on many lesser known theorists along the way - some of whom seem only tangentially interesting. He cites Nove but doesn't seem to grasp the full implications of the detail Nove provides on organizational structure in the Soviet Union and its problems (with regard to incentives, prices and cost, targets, etc). So he misses out that major contribution to theory from an empirical angle.
I worry that perhaps Rutland spent too long reading broadly on the subject rather than studying the major problems and major thinkers, absorbing them and then framing his idea of the "plan as myth" and "myth of planning" with that framework in mind. Yet he did introduce other thinkers, just not the ones I would expect. He ignores many other major theoretical figures. He barely touches on Lange, skips other socialist calculation debate figures on both sides and misses public choice and complex system theorists and contributors like Don Lavoie.
It is also possible that he felt obliged to cover those thinkers and angles and also to try to take a moderate position (not too pro-market or too pro-planning) rather than taking a strong position or focusing on the major contributions.
As an example, take the question of whether planning necessitates totalitarianism. This is a critical question and as far as theory goes, could be a major point in the book. I have no problem with it if his answer was that it doesn't. However, the way that he dismisses the theory proposed in Hayek's Road to Serfdom as obviously wrong concerned me.
As in other points in the book he offered one counterexample and dismissed a major theory in one sentence (while spending nearly an entire chapter each on practically unknown theorists). And his counterexample was Yugoslavia, despite the fact that after Tito - when Yugoslavia became much less totalitarian - it was also much less planned. Arguably the example supports Hayek's thesis rather than refuting it.
OK. I have spent this entire review criticizing the book- so why 4 stars? Well, it is worth taking the time to criticize because it was also worth reading to the end. There are copious footnotes and it does cover a broad spectrum of thought and many various angles on its subject- central planning. It focuses on the Soviet Union, but other than that is not very narrowly focused. As pointed out this is a problem in many ways, but it is also a strength. It is hard to point out how except that it does give one a lot to think about and a lot that will stay, brew and percolate.
Despite all its faults, I do recommend this book.