Review: Time Will Run Back

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Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Capitalism

[epistemic status: I haven’t actually stopped worrying, but I am ever so slightly more receptive to the idea of capitalism]

I’ve been reading some stuff from the 50s lately, and I think it’s the first time that I’ve seriously engaged with works from the era. And the first thing that I want to say about them is that I’m frankly flummoxed by the lack of hypervisible left- or right-coded ideology in these texts. Take Barthes as an example: Barthes uses Marxist language very liberally in his text (terms like bourgeois, proletarian, etc), but does not write like how you would expect a Marxist to write. He doesn’t bash capitalism every second sentence, and how much he buys into Marxist ideology is actually left very ambiguous in the text. He simply saw some terms from Marxist theory that were useful, and used them.

To be honest, I’m kind of jealous that he can get away with that. There’s a subtle but profound difference between “rich” and “bourgeoisie” (for example, famous actors and athletes are rich, but they are not members of the bourgeoisie), and similarly between “working class” and “proletariat”, and sometimes I feel like I have to basically write around these Marxist terms lest people disregard my writing as Marxist propaganda.

But I guess this lack of political ideology makes sense, because postmodern theory (bringing with it things like intersectional feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonial theory, respect for indigenous knowledge, and all the rest of the foundations of Good Discourse) was still in gestation and everyone still thought that you can find “the universal truth” using these things called “facts” and “logic”. Speaking from the post-truth (ugh) world of 2018, this is adorably/horrifically naive, but I have to admit that the resulting straightforwardness of the arguments render them much more digestible. It’s so digestible, I finally understand capitalism. And I know that that’s a pretty bold claim, so let me explain where I’m coming from. 

Some Ramblings to Establish Context

All the modern-ish books that I’ve read about economic systems can be sorted roughly into one of two categories.

Category 1: “It’s bad that society focuses so much on productivity, when we produce more than enough already and unfair distribution (e.g. along ethnic, class, gendered, or border lines) is the actual problem. Everyone who says anything different is an evil selfish capitalist who is exploiting other people, or an unenlightened drone who needs to awaken from false consciousness.”

Category 2: “Under communism we all share one toothbrush, and no one is incentivized to become a doctor because you can get the same amount of rich by being a janitor. These are bad things. Capitalism is the opposite of communism. QED capitalism is a good thing. Something about reducing market inefficiencies by getting rid of minimum wage and going back on the gold standard. Something about why it’s good when there’s no environmental regulation and we plunder the global south.”

Okay, so admittedly I’ve not engaged with too many things in that second category. But what I want to point out is this: these categories confront each other on an abstract, ideological playing field, with absolutely nothing said on the topic of implementation. And I didn’t realize that anything was wrong with that, until I read Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back. In it, Hazlitt posits a theory that is very applied: If capitalism did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. 

So let’s talk about Time Will Run Back: a fictional account of how capitalism was invented piecemeal in a nation called Wonworld (think Oceania in 1984). Hazlitt does a really good job of making the mechanism of capitalism sound intrinsically good, and convincing you that the usage of it is inevitable if the state wants to know anything about its economy. 

(If you’re intrigued but don’t have the time/energy/interest needed to read the whole thing, I highly suggest that you read Chapter 25, which is when things really start ramping up. It starts on page 203 in this PDF version online. It’s relatively self-contained, and very, very delightful.)

A selective summary

So consider even a rudimentary thing, like “how many chairs is this chair factory producing per month?” States in general don’t have enough manpower to actually check every factory every month forever, and especially when you’re a corrupt totalitarian state, factories have incentives to overstate their productivity.

 As a state, if you want to actually have your finger on the pulse of your economy, you must use a system that incentivizes truth-telling and punishes lying – and preferably in a way that doesn’t require too much of your own manpower.

Now consider, “how many chairs does a family need per year, taking into account things like wear and tear?” This turns out to be very hard to figure out when there’s no market in place to indicate demand for any given product, making the state blind to if they’re producing too little or too much of any commodity.

Or, “how can we get this factory to make their chairs better quality, so they’re not breaking every 6 months?” All factories will of course pay lip service to quality, but how can a state actually make their factories turn out good quality chairs, given the lack of unlimited manpower and the corruption of basically all your civil servants?

The answer to all these questions, according to Hazlitt, is a system with markets. And once you have a market, other things will inevitably follow: the need for competition, brokers who take care of arbitrage and bring prices down to parity, currency inflation, speculation, and so on and so forth. But it’s distinct from modern-day capitalism in a very important way: the system described optimizes for human quality of life, not profit. Under Wonworld’s new economic policy, people work the same amount, it’s just that things are allocated much better. I was tempted at first to say that this is a lobotomized form of capitalism, but upon further consideration, I don’t think that’s true.

Also included in the book, but honestly just distracting from the fun: some murder plots, a sexy spy, treason, and some angst about Disappointing Your Father. Honestly when those things start to happen I recommend skipping forward to when people start talking about markets again. [author’s note: please read that last sentence in a wry enough tone that I come off sounding cool and self aware instead of like the utter dweeb I am, thanks]

Past, Present, Future

Time Will Run Back is a product of its time – a time when capitalism was kinder, and profit optimization had not yet overtaken things like family wages (to clarify, this is not the same thing as a living wage – living wages support solely the earner, family wages enables earners to support a family), rewarding employee loyalty, and strong unions enforcing 8-hour days for their members. (Obligatory all of these were really only in place for privileged white/male folk etc etc.)

But the capitalism of the 50s wasn’t lobotomized, it was just in its infancy. As it matured over the decades, it stripped away worker’s rights, environmental protections, and trade barriers, until we got to where we are now. And there’s nothing guaranteeing that the capitalism of Wonworld wouldn’t eventually do the same.

Another thing of note is that the book only really deals with the “demand” side of the marketplace, and not the “supply”, and all the ugly things that happens on the supply side. Work hours were not extended and wages were not cut in Wonworld, and Wonworld’s poorer neighbours remain unplundered. Instead, Hazlitt assumes that the increased effectiveness in gauging demand and the increased efficiency of distribution just makes everything substantially better, full stop no further questions.

Still, I think this book is a great read, and asks a question that is sorely neglected on the modern political left: how exactly would central planning work efficiently without markets?

My joking answer has always been “benevolent AI overlord,” but Hazlitt has got me thinking that that might not actually be enough, or that there might be an even better, more efficient way that would not require every citizen to hand over oodles of personal information to the state (or the megacorp running it). And that’s a pretty important thing to think about, especially considering that I’m, uh, studying to be a central planner.

Final score: 9/10, the content is mostly just okay, but it’s content that you can engage with without getting your hackles up no matter what your ideological background is, and that’s worth quite a lot in my books. Also, it’s less hamfisted than 1984, which isn’t saying much in my opinion, but everyone seems to think that Orwell was a brilliant novelist, so.

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