Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Another new book to read 

The Wall Street Journal reviews the memoirs of Janos Kornai, who is argued to be the first eastern European economist to study socialism as it actually operated in the East. I first read The Socialist System as I prepared to visit the newly-created Slovak Republic in 1993, and have long held that we had much more to learn from the people in that area than the western observers I had been reading up to that time. (Perhaps that's why I travel so often to the area now.) Yet I know very little about Kornai himself.

The review makes clear that Kornai is no conservative -- he is said to have respected Marx as an economist -- but there is little doubt he understood the perils of transition from socialism.
At one point in 1974, under the more relaxed rule of J�nos K�d�r, when Hungary was the "most cheerful barrack in the camp," Mr. Kornai and his wife decided to build their own home. Over the course of several months, they personally confronted the corruption, endemic shortages and shoddy construction materials that were so common in Eastern Europe. A year later, on a trip to India, Mr. Kornai was faced by idealistic young Maoists whose concern for the desperately poor reinforced their support for socialism. Mr. Kornai responded to them by arguing, as he puts it here, that "rationing systems that spread misery equally may assuage feelings of injustice for a while, but they will not solve anything."