One of the classes I’m taking this semester is History of Economic Thought, and in this narrative one of the major sections is the low ebb that belief in individual ability and creativity in economic situations went through in the 1930s. It of course had antecedents from much earlier than that, but the mid-to-late 1930s are perhaps the darkest days for this way of thinking worldwide. At some point right around then all the smart people were for centrally-directed markets of one flavor or another, including such otherwise perceptive critics of collectivism as George Orwell.
A selection from a 1940 essay by Orwell about H.G. Wells is illustrative:
If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. Now, he is probably right in assuming that a ‘reasonable,’ planned form of society, with scientists rather than witch-doctors in control, will prevail sooner or later, but that is a different matter from assuming that it is just round the corner. There survives somewhere or other an interesting controversy which took place between Wells and Churchill at the time of the Russian Revolution. Wells accuses Churchill of not really believing his own propaganda about the Bolsheviks being monsters dripping with blood, etc., but of merely fearing that they were going to introduce an era of common sense and scientific control, in which flag-wavers like Churchill himself would have no place. Churchill’s estimate of the Bolsheviks, however, was nearer the mark than Wells’s. The early Bolsheviks may have been angels or demons, according as one chooses to regard them, but at any rate they were not sensible men. They were not introducing a Wellsian Utopia but a Rule of the Saints, which like the English Rule of the Saints, was a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials. The same misconception reappears in an inverted form in Wells’s attitude to the Nazis. Hitler is all the war-lords and witch-doctors in history rolled into one. Therefore, argues Wells, he is an absurdity, a ghost from the past, a creature doomed to disappear almost immediately. But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good. The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous. Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based. The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger. That he should finally win would be an impossible reversal of history, like a Jacobite restoration.
This is essentially the state of the debate at the time: how the central direction of the economy will come into being. There will be ugly spasms of conflict with the old order—which itself tends toward economic centralization—over the kinds of measures and when they will be taken, but for all the debate there is not so much room between Orwell and Wells as between the two of them and a laissez-faire thinker. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was widely mocked by the intellectual class in Britain when it was published in 1944, although viewed from a historical distance his vision was demonstrably wiser and truer to life than his opponents’.
George Orwell’s various writings are some of my favorites, but in the realm of economics he could have used a lot more guidance.