Arthur Shenfield on the Mentality of the Economic Planner

The difficulty with the definition of economic planning is not merely that it may range from, say, antitrust legislation at the one extreme to the work of a Gosplan at the other, but also that its practice always differs from its theory or intention. We may, if we wish, exclude antitrust legislation and any other state action designed to preserve the decentralization of economic initiative from our definition of planning, reserving it, according to general practice, solely for those forms of state action that are intended to centralize initiative; and still we are left with a range of policy and theory that analysis must find excessively slippery. No field of action is more affected by sham, double-talk, and unconscious inconsistency than that of economic planning; and the vagueness of the concept of planning is a source of great strength to the planner. For no sooner is the impracticability, or perhaps simply the muddle, of one notion of planning exposed, than the planner slides away to the embrace of another notion.

The characteristic of this kind of planner – and he is easily in the majority – is not that he has a plan, but that he feels in his bones that only the state can produce economic order, balance, or stability. Hence, the failure of any particular plan does not abash him; for he is not really committed to any particular plan or type of plan. If he were, he might be forced at some stage to review his belief in economic planning; as he is not, his belief survives all mishaps. At the same time, the belief in the power of the state to deal with economic ills is so strong and widespread that even those who are normally skeptical of economic planning may be ready to turn to it when economic setbacks occur.

A. A. Shenfield, from the essay “Economic Planning in Great Britain: Pretense and Reality”, included in “Central Planning and Neomercantilism” (1964) Edited by Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins

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