The Opportunity Costs of Socialism

The American Government (ahem, The Council of Economic Advisers) has just released a new paper – 72 pages in length – titled: The Opportunity Costs of Socialism. Here are the first paras from the Executive Summary to give you a sense of where it is going, but just download a copy yourself. Haven’t read it all but looks both comprehensive but also easy to understand, if you are of a mind to understand.

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.”

What went wrong in Venezuela is still my acid test. It’s a technical issue as much as moral, but this seems to cover both.

AND A BIT MORE ON THE SAME REPORT: Someone has looked further into the document and this is the analysis: White House Report Says Socialist Policies Could Cut GDP Nearly in Half.

“The definition of democratic socialism to me,” Ocasio-Cortez said, “is the fact that in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no American should be too poor to live.”

To capture this variation, the CEA economists looked at how socialist policies from different countries and times would affect America’s productive output. The results were uniformly less than stellar.

“An extensive economic growth literature … documents a relationship between real GDP and the degree of socialism, measured in a large sample of countries as the opposite of economic freedom,” the report notes. “The studies suggest that moving U.S. policies to highly socialist policies would reduce real GDP at least 40 percent in the long run.”

That highly socialist benchmark is based on analyzing what the United States would look like if it implemented policies similar to Venezuela, a highly industrialized country whose major industries—most notably petroleum production—are state-owned. Such policies have led to food rationinghyperinflation, and a mass exodus of the population. Similar policies implemented in the United States would cut GDP per capita by some $24,000 per person, the CEA estimated.

And do note the words, “at least”. They don’t want to exaggerate so provide a best case scenario, as in GDP per head might fall by only $24,000, but could be more.

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