The Lessons of World War Z

Not to pick too much on a post that’s obviously not trying to be too terribly serious, but Matthew Yglesias gets a few things wrong about World War Z.

He writes,

For example, socialism beats capitalism in terms of organizing efficient production. The problem with planned economies isn’t so much that they “don’t work” as that they require a high level of political consensus about what you want to achieve. In the event of a zombie apocalypse or an attempted Nazi conquest of Europe, this is pretty easy. And indeed, the Soviet Union was very good at things like building subways and launching things into outer space. The problem is that absent an imminent disaster, this kind of consensus is not going to be forthcoming and it’s much better to let markets aggregate the diverse preferences of a broad population than to try to have everyone reach a collective decision about what color pants people should be wearing or about whether a Doritos taco or a Fritos burrito is more delicious.

Okay, so first of all, let’s be clear, this is about authoritarian command-and-control versus capitalism, not “socialism” per se. An all-out attempt to fend off the zombie apocalypse is not, you know, a social safety net and free healthcare.

Secondly, the problem with planned economies is absolutely that they “don’t work.”  It’s just that they take some time to “not work.”  The Soviet Union was only good at launching things into outer space for so long before their crumbling infrastructure increasingly undermined their ability to produce huge vanity products, and they basically managed their space program by cannibalizing an evolved economy (a terrible, inhumane evolved economy that worked via serfdom, to be sure).

Now, in the context of total wars, whether against zombies or more plausible opponents, certainly we are and should be willing to put up with a certain level of cannibalization of our infrastructure!  Really efficient distributions of the goods necessary to make iPads isn’t going to be much use if we’ve all been turned into zombies.  And command-and-control economies are probably much better at ramping up the short-term production of military goods than are capitalist free markets.  But it does not follow that they’d be equally good at maintaining their current prosperity level over the course of decades, even in the absence of the issues of preferences about jean colors or ridiculous quasi-Mexican food.

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