The Opportunity Costs of Socialism

Click here for a definition of opportunity cost — the above-titled report is from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers:

Coincident with the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, socialism is making a comeback in American political discourse. Detailed policy proposals from self-declared socialists are gaining support in Congress and among much of the electorate.

It is unclear, of course, exactly what a typical voter has in mind when he or she thinks of “socialism.” But economists generally agree about how to define socialism, and they have devoted enormous time and resources to studying its costs and benefits. With an eye on this broad body of literature, this report discusses socialism’s historic visions and intents, its economic features, its impact on economic performance, and its relationship with recent policy proposals in the United States.

We find that historical proponents of socialist policies and those in the contemporary United States share some of their visions and intents. They both characterize the distribution of income in market economies as the unjust result of “exploitation,” which should be rectified by extensive state control. The proposed solutions include single-payer systems, high tax rates (“from each according to his ability”), and public policies that hand out much of the Nation’s goods and services “free” of charge (“to each according to his needs”). Where they differ is that contemporary democratic socialists denounce state brutality and would allow individuals to privately own the means of production in many industries.

In assessing the effects of socialist policies, it is important to recognize that they provide little material incentive for production and innovation and, by distributing goods and services for “free,” prevent prices from revealing economically important information about costs and consumer needs and wants. To this end, as the then–prime minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher (1976), once argued, “Socialist governments . . . always run out of other people’s money,” and thus the way to prosperity is for the state to give “the people more choice to spend their own money in their own way.”

Whether socialism delivers on its appealing promises is an empirical question. We begin our investigation by looking closely at the most highly socialist cases, which are typically agricultural economies, such as Maoist China, Cuba, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Their nondemocratic governments seized control of farming, promising to make food more abundant. The result was substantially less food production and tens of millions of deaths by starvation. Even if highly socialist policies are peacefully implemented under the auspices of democracy, the fundamental incentive distortions and information problems created by large state organizations and the centralized control of resources are also present CEA • The Opportunity Costs of Socialism in industrialized countries, as is currently the case in Venezuela. Lessons from poorly performing agricultural economies under socialist regimes carry over to government takeovers of other modern industries: They produce less rather than more.

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