Power & Market

"Big Data" Isn't Enough to Make Socialism Work

Power & Market Tho Bishop

When sharing Bob Murphy's excellent article today on the Knowledge-Calculation Debate, one of the most common responses has been "Murphy makes a good case, but why does this really matter?" 

Beyond the value of grasping intellectual nuance, I think this debate has actually increased in real world importance over time with the rise of "Big Data."

Increasingly we see entrepreneurs, economists, and other thought leaders discuss the possibility of using improved data collection and algorithms to solve the "knowledge problem" Hayek famously outlined.

Now, of course, these big data central planners still suffer from their own fatal conceit, as brilliantly discussed in this article by Per Bylund. Still though, laissez-faire skeptics are able to use Hayek's knowledge critique of socialism as a way of justifying their new tech-backed schemes.

The same can't be said for the Misesian critique of socialism grounded in economic calculation, as Xiong Yue noted last year:

[T]hose who consider the problem of socialism as merely a problem of information failed to understand that the core problem of socialism lies in the absence of prices in a centrally-planned economy. The role of prices in the market economy is unique because money prices offer an indispensable tool in economic calculation. As Mises writes in Human Action,

One cannot add up values or valuations. One can add up prices expressed in terms of money, but not scales of preference.

With prices as a guide, entrepreneurs can potentially pursue profits by examining differences in the market prices of production factors and the expected prices of the final products. He or she can then organize production accordingly.

Therefore, even if we have some excellent data already, without this market-price mechanism, neither the economic calculation nor the efficient allocation of resources is possible; the planned economy is therefore not feasible. Because rationally planning or resource allocation requires the ability to calculate economically, such calculations need the prices which can be determined only in the market by the real-world exchange of owners of private property in the first place. Since the planned economy requires state and collective control of resources — and thus does not allow for these necessary voluntary exchanges between owners — it cannot rationally plan the operation of the modern economic system.

As a result, it's theoretically impossible for a planned economy to determine the prices needed for economic calculation. The cutting-edge technologies may help Jack Ma to optimize his strategies in his private enterprises in a relatively capitalist society. However, for a modern economy, as long as there are no prices available on which to base economic calculation, the failure of a planned economy is inevitable. As Joseph Salerno writes in his postscript to “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth”:

[I]n the absence of competitively determined money prices for the factors of production, possession of literally all the knowledge in the world would not enable an individual to allocate productive resources economically within the social division of labor.

As someone who has witnessed first hand Barney Frank quote F.A. Hayek in order to justify the creation of new government bureaucracies, I have seen how dangerous people can twist his ideas to justify all sorts of elaborate government schemes. It is much harder to do so with Ludwig von Mises

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