All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1991

Book Review: Market Socialism: A Scrutiny by Anthony de Jasay

London: Institute of Economic Affairs; North American Distributor: Atlas Foundation, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, VA 22032 • 1990 • 35 pages • $8.00 paper

In this brilliant essay, Anthony de Jasay critically examines the proposals for “market” socialism offered by a leading group of British socialist academics. With the failure of “real existing” socialism evident throughout the world, socialist theorists have been working overtime to salvage their ideal, As the East European countries move to market-based social systems of production, many men of action as well as of ideas will try to maintain the socialist system of distribution. The welfare state is basically what is left of socialism after the lessons of its 70-odd years of experience are absorbed.

De Jasay concentrates his critique on the fundamental ambiguity of many of the proposals offered by market socialists. For example, market socialists argue for “social ownership,” where the capital stock is owned collectively by society, but administered by a group of workers. But as de Jasay points out, social ownership if it means anything is state ownership of the means of production. So what we have at the heart of the proposal, then, is a state-owned market: an oxymoron of near-perfect dimensions. This market is then to be controlled by society to limit the size of firms, protect against unemployment, and insure an equitable distribution of income. This produces the fundamental promises of market socialism: “social ownership,” “equality of opportunity,” and “equal positive freedom.” Such promises, however, are inconsistent with the existence of functioning markets. As de Jasay demonstrates, though, the advocates of market socialism that he is extensively confronting have no clue to how wrong-headed and empty theft phrases are.

“Plainly,” he states, “advocates of a new kind of socialism have an implausible case to plead, and their chief fault is to imagine that it is a natural winner.” De Jasay concludes: “Never did a political theory, in its eagerness to escape the liabilities of its predecessor, put forward so superficial an analysis and so many serf-contradictions, as market socialism. Nor does any single market socialist promise, let alone two, never mind all three—an efficient market economy without capitalist ownership, equality through equal opportunity without imposing equal outcomes, and free choice without freedom of contract—look capable of being fulfilled, each being an open contradiction in terms, much like hot snow, wanton virgin, fat skeleton, round square.”

This slim volume is highly recommended foranyone interested in finding out what socialist thinkers are advocating these days and how empty their proposals are when confronted by logic and economic argument []

Peter J. Boettke is a professor of economics at New York University and author of The Political Economy of Soviet Socialism: The Formative Years, 1918-1928 (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990).

  • Peter Boettke is a Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University and director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.