Thursday, June 09, 2011

War and central planning

Matt Yglesias writes about the virtues of central planning during World War II:
...While running a nationwide price control regime for shoes was a terrible way to run the footwear sector of the economy, the point was to fight and win a war and as it happens, the top-down control experts in DC did a pretty good job of it. The goal wasn’t to maximize consumer welfare, the goal was to direct national resources to a social purpose: Beat Adolf Hitler.
Yglesias isn't alone in this view. It is no coincidence that the British welfare state was established in the wake of World War II, after the war had seemingly vindicated the ability of central planners to accomplish great tasks. After all, if government bureaucrats were able to marshall the resources necessary to defeat the mighty Nazi war machine, providing universal health care should comparatively be a walk in the park.

Such thinking, however, reflects a profound misreading of history. War invariably involves squandered resources on a gargantuan scale, and World War II was no exception. Here are just a few examples of the epic waste experienced during the war both in terms of lives and material:

* The US overproduced pilots and failed to deliver sufficient amounts of gasoline for Patton's tanks, stopping them literally in their tracks.

* US troops fighting in the Battle of Bulge lacked winter clothing:
“We just didn’t have any winter clothes," [said Ed Persons of the 101st Airborne division]. "We’d take our shirts off and wrap newspaper around our upper bodies, then put our shirts back on. Newspaper was a very good insulator.”

“As for proper clothing, we just didn’t have it, or not nearly enough of it,” 90th Infantry Division trooper, Hobert Winebrenner, explained. “The army dropped the ball and GIs paid the price. While on line, I remember shivering uncontrollably, hour after hour, day after day."
* Historian Max Hastings points out the following in his book Retribution:
America's shipbuilding programme almost defies belief. President Roosevelt was always a committed supporter of a strong fleet. Following the 1940 Two Ocean Navy Act, Congress granted the Navy the most generous open cheque in history. Admiral Ernest King, its profane, intemperate, womanizing overlord, seized his opportunity and never let go. He set about creating an armada whose size owed little to rational assessment of the resources needed to defeat Japan, and almost everything to his own grandiose vision. By late 1943, the US was building 7 battleships, 28 carriers, 72 escort carriers, 73 cruisers, 251 destroyers, 541 destroyer escorts and 257 submarines. These new hulls were destined to join 713 ships already in service.

"The inescapable conclusion," an American historian has written, " that navy expansion goals had become completely divorced from strategic planning and were influenced more by political possibilities than any thorough reassessment of the fleet's long-term requirements."
Hastings makes similar points in his book Armageddon, criticizing the US for a failure to deploy more ground troops due to inefficiencies and waste in its personnel allocations. This inability to match needs and resources is a direct indictment of central planning.

* Turning to action on the battlefield, there is a consensus among historians that the Battle of Peleliu was a waste (in another planning failure, the troops on Peleliu were given water contaminated with oil -- the water having been placed in disused oil drums -- while battling in 115 degree temperatures), while many believe the gruesome Battle of Iwo Jima was similarly unncessary. The sinking of the USS Indianapolis is the story of one mistake after another. Virtually the entire campaign in Italy was mismanaged. There is no shortage of further such examples.

More generally, it is worth noting how much more deadly wars were when a draft was in place to assure a steady supply of manpower. The drop-off in deaths from World War II, Korea and Vietnam to the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan is astounding. Part of this, undeniably, is due to the nature of the opponents -- the Taliban are not to be confused with the Chinese military. But is it coincidence that this has also taken place after personnel became a much more precious commodity through the implementation of a volunteer military? When lives are cheap, we shouldn't be surprised when they are expended in a more casual manner.

If wartime central planning strikes us as efficient or effective, it is only because we have little to compare it to other than other the governments of other countries engaged in similar efforts. The fact that US central planning was able to prevail over the Axis powers in World War II is hardly an argument for turning health care or any other sector of the economy over to rule by government bureaucrats.

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