The Road To Socialism And Back is a fascinating real-life case study from the Fraser Institute about the differential impact of market capitalism and socialism on both production and consumption. It focuses on Poland, which had been a free market economy until the Second World War, then transitioned to a Soviet-style centrally planned socialist economy under USSR hegemony, and then transitioned back again after 1989 to a market economy.
There are lots of eye-opening statistics to highlight the impact of a socialist economy on the lives of consumers. For example, there were only seven telephone lines per 100 inhabitants in Poland in 1986 compared to 33 per hundred inhabitants in nearby Greece, and approximately 50 per household in the USA. The wait for housing was up to 30 years, twice as long even as the Soviet Union. The number of cars per 1000 people in 1980 in Poland was 64, compared to 350 per 1000 people in Switzerland at that time. GDP per capita in 1986 was roughly $2000, compared to $19,282 in the USA.
One of the observations in the Fraser Institute report is the socialist Polish economy was dominated by big businesses, which were heavily subsidized, and small and medium-sized businesses were discriminated against.
The investments in a specific year were determined by the long-term plan and current projections of growth. These investments were generally directed at the capital goods industry and heavy industries, especially steel, chemistry, and coal, at the expense of the consumers’ desires (Piatkowski, 2013). The few, predominantly agricultural, private firms that did exist were deprived of financial resources available to state firms, thereby constraining private firms’ abilities to compete with state companies.
The favored large state companies were given increased subsidies and favored access to more resources whenever they missed their production quotas. The logic was that the production target was everything in the central plan, so more resources must be granted to the large firms theoretically capable of delivering it, especially when they fall short.
This adversely affected both the quantity and quality of output. The problem got worse over time as the least profitable industries in Poland received the most financial support and attracted the most workers, siphoning resources away from more profitable enterprises. And if the experience of Hungary is any guide, firms with the most political clout (as measured by the size of fixed assets and employee involvement in the party) received the most aid. Large firms dominated socialist economies. While construction firms with 500 or more employees were only about 16 percent of the industry in capitalist economies, they represented over 70 percent of the industry in Poland and other socialist countries.
When Poland transitioned back to a market economy, most notably after political changes in 1989, many of these large firms with negative value-added production went bankrupt when they faced competition in the absence of state-supplied loans and subsidies. That is, the value of the inputs that these firms used was higher than the value of their outputs, indicating inefficient production.
Economist Ludwig von Mises had a simple insight which the socialist central planners ignored or misunderstood: close their eyes to the economic problem: the capitalist system is not a managerial system; it is an entrepreneurial system. Capital can only be efficiently allocated when consumers and customers are free to signal what goods and services they deem most valuable, and when producers are free to allocate and reallocate capital to those most valued uses and thereby, through market-sensitive capital allocation, compete for the customer’s dollars.
Socialist central planning cannot respond to these signals, and in fact, represses them. But the favoring of the biggest corporations, and their failure to respond to market signals, is not entirely limited to socialism. Western capitalism has been favored by the rise of entrepreneurially-owned and led firms who brought new capital combinations to market, harnessing new technology to bring new benefits for which customers clamored. From John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, which brought affordable illumination to homes across America, extending their days and their family time and expanding their productivity; to Henry Crowell’s Quaker Oats company who brought those families safe, wholesome and nutritious food; all the ways to today’s Elon Musk, saving the planet with electric cars and solar power – entrepreneurially-led companies have shown the way to prosperity by starting small and growing because they served customers and thereby attracted capital.
But there is a danger that when corporations get to be large, they start to face the same inefficiencies that dogged the Polish socialists. Big companies start to develop their own central planning units (it’s called strategic planning or budgeting, but it’s the same in principle), they grow large bureaucracies that are not producing but constraining production, they resist innovation to protect their existing businesses (it’s called defending market share), they lobby government for subsidies and regulatory or legislative protection, and they misassign capital to activities such as dividends or share buybacks instead of investing in future innovation.
Happily, Mises’s insight always applies. There will always be innovative entrepreneurial firms to ensure that the capitalist system is driven by market preferences and not central planning. There will always be a Tesla to beat General Motors, and a Walmart to beat KMart, a Netflix to beat Blockbuster and a Microsoft to beat IBM. And in time, as those entrepreneurial firms mature, they’ll start to show symptoms of misallocation of capital (Apple, for example, is notorious for its excessive use of share buybacks to allocate capital to share traders rather than innovation) and new entrepreneurial insurgents will take their place.
It’s not only socialist economies that suffer from the inefficiencies of big firms. But in the capitalist economies – so far – there’s always entrepreneurship to provide competitive balance and refreshment of the capital stock.