Why was Kornai wrong about the sustainability of China’s market socialism?

I put János Kornai’s The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism on my best books list for last year, but I’ve been slow in writing something longer about it. It’s taken some time for me to think through how to understand China in the context of his arguments.

Kornai’s book is brilliant in its diagnoses of the internal conflicts and problems of “market socialism” or “reform socialism”, in which market mechanisms are permitted but the Communist Party maintains political primacy and a large public sector. This is a still a pretty accurate definition of China’s system. There were so many moments while reading when I wanted to shout out loud in recognition: “Yes! That’s exactly how it is!”

Yet the book finally concludes that market socialism is an inherently unstable and unsustainable system that cannot last. Essentially Kornai argues that the combination of a weakened version of state intervention and the half-hearted embrace of market competition enjoys the vices of both systems and the virtues of neither. A government that no longer truly believes in socialism cannot enforce its plans, while market forces are allowed to operate only inconsistently, so that they amplify rather than alleviate distortions. The inevitable accumulation of economic problems means that the public and officials get fed up with the system and eventually decide to jettison it entirely.

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It seems fair to say that this argument has been disproved by how China has developed since Kornai’s book came out (it was written over 1986-91, and published in English in 1992). China’s market socialism has already lasted longer (40 years) than the “real” socialism of the Mao era did (~30 years). And while we don’t know what will happen in the future, it is pretty clear that Kornai thought market socialism should be less stable and enduring than classical socialism, not more:

To sum up, so long as the classical system can be sustained at all, it has a degree of stability and robustness, where the system undergoing the contortions of reform is inherently unstable. There are places where it can only subsist for a short time, and others where special circumstances allow it to continue to for longer, but nowhere has it been able to survive lastingly (and the prediction from the line of thought put forward in this book is that it will be unable to do so in the future).

In fact Kornai’s book contains a pretty accurate depiction of China in the 1980s, which of course he had personally experienced: there was lots of economic volatility and back-and-forth on policy, as well as high inflation and rising popular discontent that culminated in the 1989 protests. But while similar strains eventually led other reforming socialist countries to abandon socialism altogether, this did not happen in China. Instead China in the 1990s mounted a renewed effort to strengthen state institutions and maintain economic growth, which has obviously been very successful.

So what did Kornai miss?

I think one key issue is that China’s growth potential turned out to be much higher than the Eastern European countries with which he was more familiar. Because China under socialism was still a largely undeveloped and agricultural economy, it had enormous potential for high growth driven by structural change. In this respect China in the 1980s was more similar to Korean and Taiwan in the 1960s than it was to the reforming socialist countries of the 1980s, most of which were over-industrialized and internationally uncompetitive. For instance Kornai in the book was dismissive of the potential for market socialist countries to have much success with exports–and of course a successful export sector has made all the difference for China.

This difference in growth potential was probably at least as important as the much-discussed difference between the “shock therapy” style of post-Soviet reform and the “gradualist” style of Chinese reform. Some of China’s most important reforms, such as the household responsibility system of the early 1980s and the downsizing of state enterprises in the late 1990s, were not gradual at all, but were massive changes implemented quite rapidly.

China’s reforms also went further than Kornai allowed for in his book. His generalization was that market socialist countries were willing to allow some space for the private sector, but were never willing to allow the private sector to actually dominate the economy. As a result the economy could never actually become truly subject to the key disciplines of market competition: hard budget constraints and the risk of corporate failure.

It is useless for domestic and foreign advisers to call on the governments of market-socialist economies to be more forceful and impose financial discipline; the requirement cannot be met while public ownership remains dominant.

The menaces of the center are not effective enough; firms are not even afraid they will be implemented. The separation of functions does not apply here. Is the bureaucracy, which is the state, the owner, and the manager all at once, supposed to discipline itself? The budget constraint on firms can only become hard if the firm is really separate from the bureaucracy, that is, if it self-evidently left to itself in time of trouble. The only way of ensuring this separation automatically and spontaneously is by private ownership. …

Is it possible to make the budget constraint on publicly owned firms hard under the prevalent market-socialist system? The four points above provide an unequivocal answer: No, it is not.

Footnote 35: Exceptionally, the hardness of the budget constraint on publicly owned firms can be ensured artificially if there are not too many of them and they are surrounded by privately owned firms in a capitalist system. The behavioral norms of the narrow public sector then resemble the behavior of the dominant private sector of the economy.

In this footnote I believe is contained one of the secrets of China’s success. Over time, the Chinese government has allowed the private sector to become the majority of the economy. (Kornai himself likely played a role in this by helping convince Chinese leaders that the Eastern European reforms were inadequate and not a good model for China to follow.) A larger private sector did not end the problems of state-owned enterprises, and the conflicts and unfairness inherent in the competition between state and private companies. But it did mean that state firms faced at least some market discipline, and thus that their problems did not become overwhelming.

Kornai’s book also placed a lot of emphasis on the fact that in market socialist systems, officials were typically inexperienced and incompetent at managing the economy. Their inevitable mistakes discredited both the government and the concept of market socialism. By sustaining growth over a longer period of time, China was able to establish both the credibility of its system and build up the experience of its economic managers, which in turn made growth more sustainable. In this sense its economic growth created some positive feedback loops.

So I don’t think Kornai’s analysis of how a market socialist economy functions was fundamentally wrong. He was right about the kind of economic costs that state-owned enterprises and other socialist institutions create, and in that respect his book is still a useful guide to understanding China today. But to answer the question of sustainability requires also understanding just how large those costs are, and how much they are offset by positive developments elsewhere in the economy. If underlying growth potential is high and the progress of economic liberalization is consistent, then those costs are more likely to be manageable.

These days, most people seem to agree that China’s growth potential is declining and economic reform is slowing down, or even reversing in some ways. So even if Kornai’s diagnosis was wrong for China in 1992, could it perhaps be right in 2018?

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