02 February 2008

Society is not chess

Looking to chess for lessons about economics, John Kay writes:
Planned regimes have often succeeded when they have ploughed resources into the achievement of narrowly defined objectives. We smile when we read of the All Union Chess Section, under the Supreme Council for Physical Education. Its director, filled with bile and Marxist rhetoric, proposed shock brigades to spearhead five-year plans for chess. But it worked. Most of the world’s best chess players became so as a result of the endeavours of the Supreme Council. If chess was the battleground between free enterprise and state planning, state planning won. But the real battlefield was not chess but consumer goods and military hardware. Although the Soviet Union produced great chess players by directing resources to the game, the cars and computers it produced were inferior and few. Planned economies were unable to cope with the diversity of consumer needs and the constantly changing requirements of modern technology. 'Financial Times', 29 January
The battlefield, I believe, moved since then, a little distance away from consumer needs and towards the needs of society and the environment. Society's needs might be less diverse than consumer needs, and less rapidly evolving, but our knowledge about the best ways of achieving them are nevertheless rapidly changing. For big social and enivornmental problems, like war or climate change, central planning isn't going to work any more than it did for the Soviet Union's wider economy. Such problems are more like the provision of consumer goods than chess: they need diverse, adaptive and imaginative approaches for their solution.

Unfortunately, so far at least, those charged with solving our major social problems still think in terms of central planning. If they ever do acknowledge the need for pluralist and responsive solutions, they could do worse than consider Social Policy Bonds, which would allow them still to define society's broader goals and raise the revenue for their achievement. Our politicians and bureaucrats would have to relinquish their control over how these revenues are spent; so they would lose some powers, yes. But society and the environment could benefit greatly.

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