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Economist Brian Easton says Alan Bollard, formerly Treasury Secretary, Reserve Bank Governor and Chairman of APEC, has written an insightful book exploring command vs demand approaches to the economy

Public Policy / opinion
Economist Brian Easton says Alan Bollard, formerly Treasury Secretary, Reserve Bank Governor and Chairman of APEC, has written an insightful book exploring command vs demand approaches to the economy

This is a re-post of an article originally published on It is here with permission.

The Cold War included a conflict about ideas; many were economic. Alan Bollard’s latest book Economists in the Cold War focuses on the contribution of seven economists with each one paired with another, the contrast heightening the underlying theoretical tensions, I am not going to deal with two of the chapters, important as the topics are: the struggle by the US to dominate the international economic architecture (Harry Dexter White) and the development of the strategy for nuclear conflict (John von Neumann).  The focus here on the five which are about how to organise an economy.

The Cold War started almost eighty years ago. It began in the shadow of two economic events. The first was the Great Depression, when the capitalist economies miserably failed. It occurred closer to the publication of Marx’s Das Kapital than to today. That book seemed to predict the sort of economic catastrophe which happened and promised – albeit vaguely – an alternative economy. Many economists, including Keynes, whose General Theory had yet to be fully adopted, expected another great depression after the war.

Moreover, the Soviet Union, which was based upon Marx’s vision, seemed to have ridden through the Great Depression without the same agony. (The belief was not entirely true; things had been pretty rugged there too, including the Holodomor, the great Ukrainian famine of 1932-3 in which up to 7m died in a population of about 30m. Knowledge about what was going on in other countries was not as extensive as it is today.)

The second influential event was the Second World War, in which the economic power of the West – most notably the US – was harnessed by direction from the centre rather than by market demand, as is common in a capitalist economy. The detail of the direction during the war was extraordinary; in New Zealand it extended to the length of women’s dresses.

Again admiration for the Soviet Union loomed large. During the war, a quarter of its people were wounded or killed, including around 27m dead. It was no wonder that many in the West, uninformed about the brutal internal oppression, admired the country. As Bollard records, some economists went so far as to become Soviet spies. Others were fellow travellers. And of course others were vigorously anti-communist.

It was a reasonable question straight after the war to ask how best to organise economy. The contrast was ‘command or demand’; was it better to have an economy directed and owned by the government from the centre or would a market-driven economy of individual decisions and private ownership work better?

Bollard covers the question by describing the life histories of five economists who answered the question in various ways. In each case he contrasts his choice with another economist who took a different view.

Oskar Lange (1904-1965) was a Pole who spent a lot of time in the US following persecution in his homeland. The contrasting economist is Austrian neoliberal Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) who was a vigorous proponent of the market economy. Lange put much thought into how to make central planning work, especially by using price signals. He had an interesting life – sad because he when he returned to Poland after the war, this subtle economics thinker found himself having to mouth Stalin’s economic nonsense.

(It had not occurred to me how many of the era’s economists whom I respect lived politically turbulent lives. Unless you were American or British, you probably had to flee on at least once. Bollard also covers their personal lives. Some of those were turbulent too.)

The German chancellor Ludwig Erhard (1897-1977) was an economist who as Minister of Economic Affairs and later as Chancellor presided over the German postwar miracle. His strategy was a social market economy which aimed to provide a liberal market environment with public/social welfare support for individuals. He is contrasted with Jean Monnet (1888-1979), was a key founder of what became the European Union. French-German tensions aside, I am not sure they were too different.

Joan Robinson (1903-1983) was based in the stability of Cambridge, England. An ‘establishment rebel’ she was the closest to a Marxist of Bollard’s seven (but recall Karl said he was not a Marxist either). I greatly admire her economics but, sadly, she often ended up endorsing some very unsavoury regimes.

She is contrasted with American Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), with whom she had a long off-and-on correspondence. (Bollard does not discuss how Samuelson is probably the twentieth-century economist, second only to Keynes, provided a theoretical answer to big question of how to organise economies. It is called the ‘neoclassical synthesis’, combining Keynesian macroeconomics with an advanced version of neoclassical microeconomics.)

I am going to leave Japanese economist Saburn Okita (1914-1993), contrasted with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), for another column because they moved on to an even bigger question of the purpose of an economy. Suffice to say here, that Okita played a key role in the Japanese postwar recovery and in the wider development of the East Asian economies.

Raúl Prebisch (1901-1986) is the last in the book. Although originally Argentinian, he fled to Chile, in between a number of internationally important jobs, to experience the turmoil which followed the Pinochet coup. His challenge was whether the models for the development of rich countries were as relevant to poor countries. His thinking was influential on New Zealand’s thinking about development policy in the early 1960s. In particular he argued that primary exports faced falling prices (terms of trade) relative to manufactures, which justified measures to diversify an economy. (There is an enormous literature about this ‘unequal exchange’.)

Prebisch was right for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century but the trend reversed towards its end as manufacturing-successful East Asia became hungry for food and raw materials.

Bollard contrasts Prebisch with American Walt Rostow (1916-2003), famous for his The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto with its notion of an economy ‘taking off’ into sustained growth. (He was also national security advisor to Lyndon Johnson.) He too was also influential in New Zealand’s thinking in the 1960s.

So who won? Unquestionably, economic organisation via the demand side of the economy is dominant in today’s affluent economies. I am not sure that we should attribute its success to economists, even if they gave us a better understanding of how market economies work. Rather, the complexities arising from the increasing diversity of choice in affluent economies can only be met by a high degree of decentralisation. I watched how east-central European economies under the Soviet yoke became increasingly – but slowly – more wealthy. Eventually, central controls became over-burdened and failed. That was a major factor in the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall and hence the end of the Cold War.

The prize to one of Bollard’s seven – if any is particularly worthy of the prize – is surely to Erhard, whose vision of the social market economy (Samuelson’s neoclassical synthesis with an integrated welfare state) dominates much of our thinking, even in those economies seduced by neoliberalism.

*Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on It is here with permission.

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The largest issue comes from the reality that a market system is going to be subject to development, maturation, and technological development. As it matures, that will usually coincide with consolidation, because a) a larger entity tends towards greater efficiency and economies of scale compared to a greater amount of smaller firms, and b) wealth tends to consolidate, out competing smaller players and new entrants. 

Then flowing on from there, there is a theory we are now in a state of techno-fuedalism, whereby these large technology corporations basically have a disproportionate level of control and capital than even traditional manufacturers and producers.

So we are faced with economies that have a large amount of wealth and influence exerted by a small group of players, with the great unwashed being their customer base. I'm unsure how there's a way to reconcile that and provide distribution of the increased wealth generated by these large entities to the masses.