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In the early 1920s, the Russian economy was flagging, having been ravaged by years of war and political turmoil. In an attempt at revival, Vladimir Lenin initiated a series of controversial reforms, including permitting a bit of profit-making enterprise in some areas of the economy. This move naturally shocked many Bolsheviks, who had risked their lives in the Russian Revolution in order to advance communist principles. Eager to alleviate their concerns, Lenin addressed the communist-party faithful at a convention in 1922. He told them not to worry: The reforms were relatively modest, and the new Soviet state would always retain its control over what he called the “commanding heights” of the economy.
By “commanding heights,” Lenin meant the critical sectors that dominated economic activity — primarily electricity generation, heavy manufacturing, mining, and transportation. Because these industries were the foremost drivers of employment, production, and consumption in Russia — and because they were the essential growth sectors in any economy of that era that sought to be called “modern” — government control of these particular sectors meant government dominance over the economic life of the nation. A communist government could afford to permit relatively free markets in less significant sectors, Lenin thought, because as long as it controlled those industries that formed the heart of the economy, it effectively controlled the whole.
Throughout much of the 20th century, communist and socialist parties around the world continued to see government dominance of these industries as a key goal. The commanding heights of the economy became crucial battlegrounds in the struggle between advocates of central planning and defenders of market economics.
In America today, few people champion government control of the industries Lenin saw as the commanding heights. On the contrary, these sectors have been largely deregulated, and market forces have, for the most part, been permitted to govern their development for decades. Defenders of the market might therefore imagine that they have won, and that the struggles that remain are peripheral debates.
But such a declaration of victory would be dangerously premature. Over the past few decades, our economy has undergone some fundamental changes — with the result that the fight for control over the commanding heights of American economic life is still very much with us. And it is a fight that, at least for now, the free-market camp appears to be losing.
The commanding heights of our economy today are not heavy manufacturing, energy, and transportation. They are, rather, education and health care. These are our foremost growth sectors — the ones most central to employment and consumption; the ones that, increasingly, drive our economy. And it is in precisely these two sectors that the case for extensive government intervention and planning, if not outright control, is dominant — and becoming ever more so.
If there is to be any hope of reversing this trend, champions of market economics must come to see these two sectors as the front lines in the battle for capitalism. At stake is not only an ideological or theoretical point, but also American prosperity. The historical record makes this clear: In the nations where it was practiced, government control of the old commanding heights of the economy made those industries less efficient and less innovative — bringing overall economic performance down with them.
Today, America risks following the same course. Looking to the coming decades, it will simply not be possible to maintain a genuine free market — or a thriving, innovative, growing economy — if our education and health sectors are controlled by the government. Champions of the market thus have their work cut out for them. First and foremost, however, they must come to understand the central place that education and health care occupy in America’s economic life
Arnold Kling is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and a member of the Financial Markets Working Group at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Nick Schulz is a the DeWitt Wallace fellow at AEI and the Editor-in-Chief of American.com
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