Books & Primers

Back in the USSR: What life was like in the Soviet Union

A hundred years ago, the October Revolution brought about the biggest social experiment ever: The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Since its demise two decades ago, much has been written about its origin, and its politics, economics, and history more broadly. The field of Sovietology, once highly relevant to interpreting the USSR from the West, is now slowly dying, as its great scholars retire.

Almost everything that can be said about the USSR has already been said. Since the opening of the Soviet archives and the enactment of Glasnost, it has been known that the statistics now available to the world were the same statistics used by the Soviet leadership themselves to plan their economy. Long gone are the days of statistical trickery, common in Stalin’s times.

But there remain some historical questions that are of great interest to a curious reader. This book attempts to highlight some key aspects of the USSR to answer those questions. Some of those questions are probably familiar: How good was life there? Were there queues to buy food? How good were Soviet appliances? How advanced and powerful was their military? How did the USSR industrialise so fast? Was there poverty, unemployment, or inequality?

As mentioned, this book is explicitly not a general survey of the state of the art of Soviet history. While the content itself is state of the art, it is deliberately not general in scope. Each chapter addresses one question and one question only, drawing on every source available to answer it.

This book is accessible without prior knowledge, but it will be better enjoyed if the reader has previously read some introductory material. I recommend Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. While not academic, it does a good job in conveying the bigger picture. Broader in its scope, and extremely detailed, I recommend The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism, by János Kornai to understand how a socialist regime, in generic terms, has worked historically.

For textbooks about the history of the Soviet Union in general, I suggest The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy (Hanson), and Economic History of the USSR (Nove).

This book is divided into two sections. Section One is dedicated to the (in Marxist parlance) “base” of the USSR: its productive apparatus. Section Two explores some topics about its “superstructure”, such as food consumption or healthcare.

Due to the breadth of the topics covered, it is only possible to provide a relatively brief overview of them, and so some chapters may feel too dense for some readers. At the end of the book is a bibliography, so the interested reader can expand upon the themes explored in the book, and find some claims in their proper context.

The paper also reveals that...

  • In 1976 only two thirds of Soviet families had a refrigerator—the USA hit two thirds in the early 1930s. Soviet families had to wait years to get one, and when they finally got a postcard giving notice they could buy one, they had a fixed one hour slot during which they could pick it up. They lost their chance if they did not arrive in time.
  • In the same period, the USA had nearly 100m passenger cars. The USSR? Five million. People typically had to wait four to six years, and often as long as ten, to get one.
  • There was 30x as much typhoid, 20x as much measles, and cancer detection rates were half as good as in the United States.
  • Life expectancy actually fell in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s.
  • The USSR had the highest physician-patient ratio in the world, triple the UK rate, but many medical school graduates could not perform basic tasks like reading an electrocardiogram.
  • 15% of the population lived in areas with pollution 10x normal levels.
  • By the US poverty measure, well over half of the Soviet population were poor.
  • Around a quarter could not afford a winter hat or coat, which cost an entire month’s wages on average (the equivalent of £1700 in UK terms).

Read the book here.

The neoliberal mind

In The Neoliberal Mind, Dr Madsen Pirie makes the first serious, monograph-length attempt to describe what a 'neoliberal' really is – as a description of temperament and political beliefs, not as a political slur. Optimistic, forward-looking, and globalist in outlook, Dr Pirie's neoliberals are people who are excited about the prospect for deeper trade links around the world to lift people out of poverty and for technological advances to solve the problems that face societies around the world. They prefer to draw their ideas from the real world instead of theorising abstractly, and believe that markets above all alternatives have proven themselves to be the best way of promoting innovation and economic efficiency, to drive humanity's prospects forward.

Read the whole paper here.

Magna Carta: A primer

It is one of those stories that bring English kings alive to schoolchildren – like Cnut ordering the sea to retreat, Alfred burning the cakes or Harold getting an arrow in the eye – and probably just as fanciful or misleading. It is a romantic story of Bad King John on an island in the River Thames, canopy above him and quill pen in hand, being forced by the assembled barons to sign Magna Carta – the ‘Great Charter’ of rights and liberties, on which Western constitutions, the rule of law, justice, democracy and freedom still rest. The reality is different. There certainly was such a grand meeting between the despised King John (1166-1216) and his barons on the island of Runnymede in June 1215. But there was no quill pen (kings at that time would affix their seal, not their signature, to documents).

In fact, there was probably not even a physical charter to be sealed – just hurried drafts, produced by scribes, on what was being negotiated and agreed. Nor did the charter that eventually emerged, with clauses on subjects such as fish weirs, widows’ inheritances and forests, look much like a conscious design for a constitution. Applying only to the elite, it was certainly no blueprint for democracy. And within weeks, John had got the Pope, his feudal superior, to annul the whole thing anyway.

Yet despite all that, Magna Carta and what it stands for still runs deep in the Western consciousness. It has almost totemic status as the guarantee of our rights and freedoms, and of just government, restrained by the rule of law.

Read this report.

Trial & Error & The Idea of Progress

This book is an analysis of progress – its meaning, its constituent elements, the conditions that favour it, and the methods people use to achieve it. Its central theme is that progress implies a closer approach to nominated goals; there must be a target to make progress towards. Alternative attempts to achieve progress are tested against each other, and new attempts are tested against old ones. The ones which prove better than their rivals at achieving progress towards chosen goals are retained, and inferior alternatives are discarded.

Read the book.

You can buy your copy of Trial and Error here

Free Thoughts: Collected Columns of Jamie Whyte

Jamie Whyte is a management consultant and former lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge. This collection of his best columns for newspapers including The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times captures his entertaining, thought-provoking style. Whyte is primarily concerned with the relationship between the state and individuals: invariably arguing that politicians should back off and leave us to make decisions for ourselves.

Read this report.

The Condensed Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is one of the most important books ever written. Smith recognised that economic specialization and cooperation was the key to improving living standards. He shattered old ways of thinking about trade, commerce and public policy, and led to the foundation of a new field of study: economics. And yet, his book is rarely read today. It is written in a dense and archaic style that is inaccessible to many modern readers. The Condensed Wealth of Nations condenses Smith’s work and explains the key concepts in The Wealth of Nations clearly. It is accessible and readable to any intelligent layman. This book also contains a primer on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith’s other great work that explores the nature of ethics. You can buy your copy here!

Read this report.

Austrian Economics - A Primer

Austrian School economists gave us the ideas of marginal utility, opportunity cost, and the importance of time and ignorance in shaping human choices and the markets, prices and production systems that stem from them. 'Austrian' economics has revolutionised our understanding of what money is, why economic booms invariably turn to damaging busts, why government intervention in the economy is a mistake, the importance of time and information in economic decision-making, the crucial role of entrepreneurship, and how much economic policy is just plain wrong. Eamonn Butler explains these ideas in straightforward, non-technical language, making this Primer the ideal introduction for anyone who wants to understand the key insights of the Austrian School and their relevance and importance to our economic situation today. Now updated with an additional chapter on Contemporary Austrian thinking.

Read this report.

A Beginner’s Guide to Liberty

  • Introduction by Richard Wellings
  • The importance of liberty by JC Lester
  • How markets work by Eamonn Butler
  • Free trade by Daniel Griswold
  • Taxation and government spending by Daniel J. Mitchell
  • Property rights by Karol Boudreaux
  • Why government fails by Peter J. Boettke & Douglas B. Rogers
  • Sex, drugs and liberty by John Meadowcroft
  • Welfare without the state by Kristian Niemietz
  • Banking, inflation and recessions by Anthony J. Evans
  • The role of government by Stephen Davies

This short book is an accessible introduction to liberty – one of the key concepts of political and economic thought. It explains why liberty is so important and sets out in clear language the benefits of freeing individuals from big government. The guide consists of ten concise chapters, each focusing on a particular aspect of liberty and written by an expert in the field. The authors show why liberty is essential if people are to lead prosperous and fulfilling lives, and also point to the terrible consequences when politicians and officials get too much power. At a time when our freedom is threatened by a rising tide of government controls, A Beginner’s Guide to Liberty is essential reading.

You can read it by simply clicking here