The first and second world wars were characterized by entire societies being mobilized for war. In order to out-fight one another, countries had to out-produce one another. During both wars, England attempted to blockade Germany using surface ships, and Germany attempted a counter-blockade using submarines. During World War II, the location of oil, rubber, and tin helped determine strategy. In the decades following World War II, the Defense Department budgets remained high in order to deal with the Korean War and the Cold War, leading President Eisenhower to issue his famous warning about a military-industrial complex.
Wartime economies involved central planning, as governments sought to control production and allocation to serve military needs. I argue that trade is the central economic activity. But in a wartime economy trade takes a back seat to planning, production and allocation.
I believe that the wartime economy had influence long after wars ended.
1. In the 1930s, intellectuals looked back fondly to the economic mobilization of the first World War. Many of the first New Deal planning bureaus, most notably the NRA, were modeled on wartime agencies. Roosevelt’s team used the metaphor or war, and the phrase “moral equivalent of war” came into use. (Decades later, President Carter famously declared that higher oil prices required a response that was the moral equivalent of war.) In contrast to the free market’s aimless satisfaction of base consumer desires, the wartime economy was considered more rational and purposeful.
2. The story told in MIT and the Transformation of American Economics shows the influence of the wartime economy. The MIT economics department was funded lavishly by the Defense Department, as MIT’s research agenda was useful in planning, production, and allocation.
One of the mathematical tools that became popular in postwar economics, linear programming, is designed to help the central planner solve a resource allocation problem. The classic textbook on linear programming, written in the late 1950s by Dorfman, Samuelson, and Solow, was only just beginning to fade from use in the late 1970s when I was in graduate school.
I believe that the research methods and textbooks that came out of this MIT-centered transformation were too heavily influenced by the wartime economy. Economists worked very hard to develop tools for “seeing like a state.” They lost track of the way that an economy does not have to resemble a wartime economy.
1. The patterns of specialization and trade can emerge, without being centrally planned.
2. The economy does not maximize an objective function. If anything, it maximizes subjective functions. Value depends on what is in the consumer’s head, and this information is not accessible to the central planner.
3. Costs cannot be measured objectively by adding up the prices of inputs. All costs are opportunity costs, and opportunity costs are subjective.
4. Trade is a technology If you think in terms of a production function, new patterns of trade shift the production function.