Free Markets, Free People

Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism

I regularly receive review copies of new books from Regnery Publishing. Occasionally, one stands out above the rest, such as Kevin D. Williamson’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism.

I am not a huge fan of many of the Politically Incorrect Guides.  While they are all relatively enjoyable reading, all to often they suffer from a shotgun approach to their subject, in that they try to bring too many threads together in a relatively brief book, rather than telling a single, compelling story.  Williamson’s Guide does not suffer from this problem, but rather sticks to a simple, powerful theme. From the democratic socialism of Sweden and India, to the authoritarian socialism of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, to the hard communism of the Soviet Union, Williamson exposes and explains the central problem of socialism: The futility of central planning.

The trouble with socialism is not that it redistributes income to create perverse incentives–although it does do that–but rather that it attempts to do something that is literally impossible, which is to centrally plan the economy.  Indeed, even planning relatively small parts of the economy are impossible. To illustrate this problem, Williamson uses the relatively simple problem of trying to plan for milk production:

There are 115 million households in the United States. If we imagine a weekly milk consumption budget for each of them, that’s 5.9 billion household weeks to plan for. Adding in a fairly restrictive list of variables–call it zero to twenty quarts a week, four levels of fat content, organic/non-organic, soy/dairy, and three flavor options, you end up with around 6 trillion options to choose from…

If they took just one second to consider each of these options, it would take them 190,128 years just to tun through the possibilities of one year’s milk consumption in the United States.

Ah, but if it were only that simple. Milk consumption is, alas, variable over time.  Some families may use more milk making ice cream in the summer months. Some families may decide to reduce consumption for health reasons.  The actual demand for milk–or any other good, for that matter–is essentially unknowable in any rational sense.

In country after country, covering a variety of issues, Williamson points out how, time after time, the record of socialism is one of utter failure. Whether it’s the provision of food, housing, education or medical care, Williamson demonstrates how central planning invariably produces worse outcomes than free markets.

Except, of course, for those who are planners or their associates.  Things always work well for them.

In addition to his central thesis, Williamson demonstrates, along the way, how the inability to use price signals further hampers the ability of socialism to rationally match supply with demand, because economic calculation is impossible in the absence of real price data. And, perhaps even more importantly, he inquires into why the central planning impusle is ultimately antithetical to liberty and democratic governance.

This is definitely a book for the layman. Williamson explains in clear, simple language, the fundamental economic and political principles that make socialism so damaging. He doesn’t delve deeply into abstruse theoretical arguments, but rather looks at the controversial policies of the last few years to detail their shortcomings with with clarity and simplicity that should strike a chord with even those who have a minimal understanding of economics or politics.

I highly recommend this book.

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6 Responses to Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism

  • I sometimes get the sense that the left doesn’t realize that 1890-2010 has already happened. A rule of life is that you can only do things for the first time once. We’ve tried the Progressive, administrative state, and have been trying it for years: its deficiencies are not going to be fixed by pretending in an “Ah ha!” moment that what we need is more administration. We’ve been trying Keynesianism almost continuously since the 1940s and even before the recession were at levels of government spending that Keynes experienced only during World War II: the idea that Keynes offers some sort of untried miracle cure is, to be nice about it, a fantasy. Since 1970, as Andrew Coulson points out, federal spending adjusted for inflation has increased by 190 percent, with no gains in reading, math, or science scores to show for it. None of these ideas are new. On the contrary: they are very, very old.
    I liked that a lot.  It was quoted by Ed Driscoll over at PJM.

  • That’s a very generous review, and I’m sure that Williamson will appreciate it.

    On my next round of compulsive Amazon purchases, I’ll get a copy.