Haunting lessons on political economy in new book about China’s “Great Leap Forward”

This was first posted on June 1, 2013. I find it still relevant.

Economist John Taylor tells us that Yang Jisheng was just awarded the 2012 Hayek Prize for his book Tombstone about the Chinese famine of 1958-1962.  An estimated 36 million Chinese died of mass starvation, the majority during a 6-month period during the winter of 1960-1961.  Those living in the cities were spared. Starvation was confined to the rural areas of China.  Mao’s government did its best to cover it up.  Those who attempted to get the word out were tortured and murdered.  The clear reason for the starvation was that crop yields fell far below projections, and the entire crop was immediately stolen from the farmers by the government to feed the urban population.  Any “leap forward” was solely in the cities at the expense of the rural farmers who literally gave their all, including their lives.

Mao is reported to have said it would be helpful if half the people were to die, as the other half could then eat their fill. The Chinese Communists first tried to cover up the famine, but 36 million dead is difficult to ignore. Then it was claimed to have been a natural disaster. The plentiful food supplies in the cities exposed that lie so the official party line became that it was all due to the activities of counter-revolutionary elements.

The real reason was not complicated. Communist rule is simply rule by a criminal gang that differs from Genghis Kahn only in that Khan and his Mongol Horde were roving bandits while Communist dictators are stationary bandits. The inclination to simply steal whatever may be produced from those who produced it leads inevitably to policies that retard production, much like any parasite eventually destroys its host.

John Taylor explains what all this has to do with Friedrich Hayek:

What does this have to do with Hayek? On every page of Tombstone you see detailed case studies of what Hayek warned about: the pretense of knowledge as political leaders thought they could do away with the family and individual initiative, but ended starving 36 million people to death in the mother of all unintended consequences; the ludicrousness of an economic system which tries to do away with prices to provide information, signals, and incentives, and replaces it command and control; the dangers of repressing freedom and thereby creating a cruel silence which allowed starvation conditions to continue.

It‘s not easy to explain abstract ideas like economic freedom and the rule of law. Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone gives plenty of unforgettable examples.

John Taylor is brilliant economist and it is therefore bold of me to take issue with any of the above, but I will in a small way. I don’t believe that the depredations of Communist dictators like Mao Tse-tung (or Mao Zedong, whatever) can ever be rightly called unintended consequences. Better reasoning holds that one is deemed to have intended all consequences of one’s actions that are reasonably foreseeable. It is foreseeable that if you and your strong armed soldiers take by force of violence all that a rural countryside community has and leave them with nothing and with no means of producing or replacing what has been taken, and if you also torture and murder any of them who complain or try to tell others of their plight, they will starve. It is not an unintended consequence. It is exactly what the criminal gang of Communists expected and wanted to happen.

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