Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Econlog on Orwell

Econlog posts on an Orwell quote
What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalism, that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit, does not work...War, for all its evil, is at any rate an unanswerable test of strength, like a try-your-grip machine. Great strength returns the penny, and there is no way of faking the result.
and asks "The real problem with Orwell's quote is that he seems to be judging economic systems purely by their military strength. Don't wretched living standards, loss of lives, and the end of individual freedom count for anything? Strange indeed from the author of 1984!"

Many moons ago, I read the complete works of George Orwell, in order, up until the start of the Second World War. This included essays, book reviews, and of course the books that we are all familiar with.

It was a very illuminating experience, and I am familiar with the quote that's referred to above. Orwell began his life as a socialist. After the first Great War, there was natural antipathy towards the elites, particularly in England, and the socialist solidarity that communism offered seemed like a really good idea. Orwell went to fight for the socialist cause in Spain, which he cataloged in Homage to Catalonia. While he was out there, he saw the face of socialism up close -- the totalitarianism, the corruption -- and changed his position on the ideology (which is quite remarkable).

He was horrified by World War II. It was clear to him that centrally planned economies could build a war machine faster than free markets, and therefore would always be able to defeat free markets. Note that Orwell was not a Friedman-esque capitalist, he hated central planning because of the tyranny that comes along with it, but in the mid 40s it was hard for anyone to deny the power and speed of Hitler's war machine.

It's also worth noting that to a British writer in 1941, things did not look good for the Allies.

I never read anything Orwell wrote about the conclusion of the War. He died in 1950, and wrote 1984 in 48, but I have not seen any writings that talk about the atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan. The atomic bomb changed the economic calculus that put planned economies ahead of market economies -- countries could not protect themselves from invasion without having to be on a permanent, centrally planned war footing. He may have come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons, for all their horror, made the world safe for capitalism.


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