A metaphor for the Socialist Calculation Debate

This week’s episode of EconTalk was fantastic, and in particular drew an important parallel between the complexity of the human brain and the complexity of market economies. The guest was discussing radical nanotechnology (basically the idea that engineers could out do bacteria by applying good design principles in place of random mutation and natural selection), and Russ pointed out that the logic is basically the same as in Socialism. Radical nanotechnology runs into a fundamental problem as long as it ignores the emergent processes occurring at the molecular/cellular level.

Later, the guest discusses the issue of artificial intelligence and points out that the fundamental unit of biological computing is not the neuron (which we simulate on computers using neural networks), but the molecule. In other words, natural intelligence is the outcome of a complex process that isn’t simple enough for us to easily replicate on a computer.

All that in mind, the idea of socialism* is like the idea that we could replace a brain with a pocket calculator. Yes, the idea is to get a very powerful calculator, but the problem is that it’s replacing a computer that’s far more complex and sophisticated.


* i.e. Centralized control of the means of production… socialism has nothing to do with sharing (you’re thinking “Egalitarianism”) and everything to do with control, and particularly the attempt to rationalize complex systems.

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3 thoughts on “A metaphor for the Socialist Calculation Debate

  1. I’ve been wondering if the difference between computer “intelligence” and human intelligence isn’t just that human brains are “more complex,” but that human brains “think” in a way that is qualitatively different from computers.
    Similarly, it’s not just that capitalism allows us to handle a “more complex” economic order, but that it lets us coordinate ourselves in a qualitatively different way from state socialism.

    • I’ll do you one better… that qualitative difference is because of the complexity.

      Computation is the act of taking some information and generating output as a result. We do it every day. The market does it as an emergent process (the market computes prices in a decentralized process). The nature of the computation emerges from the process itself (http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/LtrLbrty/bryRF1.html).

      In the case of markets and society, we’ve got a big complex computer that is made of little complex computers. The big problem with socialism is that it wants to a replace a massive, parallel processing computer with a simpler but faster computer. It’s like replacing your legs with a jet pack (except that the jet pack isn’t even going to work in practice). Sure, a jet pack is nice, but it’s not going to work in most of the places we want to locomote.

Please keep it civil

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