The Economist's Apprentice

In which a little girl confronts the world and battles the anti-humans.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Great Leap Forward

The current JPE has a great article studying how the Chinese communist government was responsible for possibly the worst famine in human history. During 1958-61, an estimated 16 to 30 million people died due to food shortages. The Chinese government's official explanation emphasizes bad weather. Western social scientists have ascribed the bulk of the damage to government planning.

In 1958, China proclaimed that its Great Leap Forward policies would allow it to surpass the industrial capacity of countries like Great Britain and the United States within 15 to 20 years. The cornerstone of this fantasy, er project, would rely on transferring millions of workers out of the agricultural sector into the industrial sector. The problem is that China was barely self-sufficient in food. Thus the great leap in industrialization would require a leap in agricultural productivity. This was to be supplied by the marvels of collective farming.

Not surprisingly, the diversion of agricultural resources into industries like steel production reduced agricultural output. The central planners made matters worse by increasing the amount of grain farmers had to hand over to the government. (The government even increased food exports.) The farm workers now consumed so few calories that they couldn't effectively perform the physically demanding labor of farm work.

The paper statistically allocates the reduction in grain output to various factors. Weather gets assigned 12.9% of the fall in grain output. 33% of the fall in output was due to reduced inputs into agricultural production. 28.3% stemmed from workers being exhausted due to lack of food from increased procurement.

While quantifying the different causes of the famine is a worthy goal, the paper makes the mistake of portraying the tragedy as a purely economic one. "As decisions became centralized, any policy failure would have economywide repercussions, thereby exposing the economy to new systemic risks. In addition, the centrally planned system... lacked checks and balances." While these points are true, they are not sufficient to explain the tragedy. In a land of subsistence farming, reducing the agricultural labor supply in one year from 193 million to 155 million isn't just a poor policy, it shows a complete contempt for life. The paper mentions briefly that the local officials had incentives to conceal the downturn in food production, which led to the central government to overprocure grain and starve the agricultural workforce. These incentives aren't spelled out, but it is fairly obvious that they must have been morally bankrupt and not just economically flawed. Bryan Caplan makes an argument for the GLF deaths being considered murder.


Post a Comment

<< Home