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When Economists Took Socialism Seriously

If there’s one thing worth taking away from the new White House report on socialism, it’s that economics is a political argument.
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The report has drawn comparisons to “a middle school book report assigned by the Heritage Foundation” and “a Red Bull–addled college freshman’s attempt to parse their introductory economics course through a first-response paper.” The resemblances are certainly there, right down to an appeal to “the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines socialism as…” and the caveat that certain socialists are “different in these important ways.” But reading the document and following the citations, you find a range of references that goes beyond casual Google searches and chain-email folk memory, to include serious socialist thinkers like John Roemer and Alec Nove. There are also references to the work of two CEA staffers, Tyler Goodspeed and Casey Mulligan, perhaps a clue to the authorship of the collectively attributed document.

One thing in particular jumped out at me: the authors of the report are still worked up about fights that happened in the economics profession decades ago. This, as much as the popularity of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, accounts for the report’s animus (and for the otherwise inexplicable focus on revolutionary land reform). The authors lament that, in 1976, “Paul Samuelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics, expressed surprise that the Soviet collective farms were not more productive than private land allotments.” Worse, Samuelson and William Nordhaus could still write in 1989 that the “Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” John Gurley, a radical economist who was apparently at one time “one of the 11 managing editors of the American Economic Review,” is taken to task for a positive evaluation he made of the Chinese economy in 1969. Going back even further, the radical British economists Joan Robinson and Sol Adler are rebuked for their 1958 claim that in China “the agricultural producers’ cooperatives have finally put an end to the minute fragmentation of the land.”

In other words, the report’s authors remember, in a way that perhaps few outside the profession do, that mainstream economists throughout the twentieth century treated socialism and communism extremely seriously, and occasionally even sympathetically. If there’s something worth taking away from the report, then, it’s the recognition that economics is a political argument, not just a technical exercise. This is a point that some of the report’s liberal critics seemed reluctant to accept. 


The Surprisingly Socialist History of America

While socialist economic theory is largely maligned or forgetten in the policies of the American Government, this hasn't always been the case.