- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books (November 20, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465051960
- ISBN-13: 978-0465051960
- Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 24 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #762,705 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Power And Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist And Capitalist Dictatorships
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Olson firmly rejects the idea that economics can be understood without the political context of power relationships that surround commercial activity.
He makes the interesting observation that lively markets exist throughout the Third World and he refers to these as "self-regulating" markets with a notable characteristic being their short time horizon. Essentially there is the simultaneous payment for and delivery of goods.
He contrasts this with advanced democracies that have "NON self-regulating" markets i.e. what he calls "socially contrived markets" that allow much greater predictability and longer time horizons based on contract law and state protected property rights, allowing such things as long-term capital investment, stock markets, complex manufacturing and banking.
An established democracy with widely spread power and solid property rights is clearly desirable but he makes the point that democracy is a historically recent invention that has only partly displaced traditional autocracies. Autocracies (dictatorships) concentrate power in one person or a small group at the expense of the majority and are maintained by the threat of force and often use an "ideology", for example Communism of Fascism, to justify their exclusive and permanent right to power.
The book shows that democratic free markets with an impartial rule of law will in the long rule out distance unstable dictatorships, but he proceeds to suggest that long-established democracies are prone to a few problems of their own, that in some cases can prove fatal. Most notably special interest groups can gain (undemocratic) special access to political power for their own gain at the expense of the national majority. A fine example would be the enormously costly bailout of the speculative bad debts of Wall Street banks passed onto American taxpayers, or alternatively (again in the U.S.), the medical/ insurance lobby that manages to deliver a less health population at twice the cost of similar European systems.
An interesting observation is that the remarkable success of German and Japan after WW2 was in large part the result of the complete destruction intricate systems of special relationships allowing a fresh start along clean free market lines, but of course, at the great social cost of war.
This is also a highly insightful book. Much of his analysis derives from his earlier work on "the logic of collective action'. He also uses some transaction costs and basic supply and demand/substitution effect reasoning to explain historical events. Students in my comparative classes had more trouble with this book than any other, but it is still manageable. Reading it might be difficult for those who lack an education in economics. But I am not sure if there is an easier way to say what it says, and what it says is most interesting. The concepts the author employs makes a greater understanding of different economic systems and historical periods possible. This is penetrating analysis.
It is also highly relevant. Much of this book focuses on the Soviet Union. One could say that the USSR is a done deal- it failed so forget about it. It is, however, important to understand why it failed so as to avoid repeating such errors in the future. This is what the Author is driving at with in his use of the Soviet example. There were reasons for the failure of the Soviet system that also apply to problems in other nations- not to mention Russia today. The misuse of power has the potential to prevent prosperity as much now as it did under Stalin and Khrushchev.
Does this book have faults? Certainly. Olson takes too positive a view of Stalin's industrialization program (not that he praises Stalin). Olson dismisses complete privatization, or anarchy, too easily. There is nothing wrong with arguing against anarchy. But, his arguments against privatizing the state (i.e private police and courts) are little more than an unsupported dismissal of such arrangements. If he did not want to debate that issue, he should not have taken such a strong stand. He also might have mentioned a few things about FA Hayek- especially on p136 where he wrote "a bureaucracy cannot process all the information needed to calculate an optimal allocation or put it into practice".
While there are a few faults to this book, it is still excellent. It is a must read for anyone interested in either comparative economics and politics, Globalization, or the economic history of the Soviet Union.