Understanding a Command System in Economics

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  • 0:00 What is a Command System?
  • 1:04 Examples of Command Systems
  • 2:34 Moral Hazard
  • 4:01 The Coordination Problem
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.

In this lesson, we'll discuss a command system: one of the often tried, but mostly failed, economic systems of the last century. Because it requires an individual or group to make decisions based on who makes what, there are important challenges of a command system.

What is a Command System in Economics?

Every day, you see goods and services and money changing hands, buyers and sellers negotiating and settling on a price. All of this activity is a small part of a much larger economic system. Remember, an economic system is a process. Specifically, it's the process of how scarce resources are allocated. Scarce resources can be anything - food, computers, cars, homes, electricity, or any other good or service produced. The economic system dictates who gets what.

Much of the research about economics focuses on the free market system, the economic system we experience in the United States. In a free market system, supply and demand interact to determine a price, and scarce resources are usually given to those willing to pay that price. But there's another type of economic system. It's called a command system, and it's an economic system where the government plays an active role in providing or allocating scarce resources.

Examples of Command Systems

The most common type of command system is socialism. Socialism is not a government structure, but rather an economic system where the government plays the primary role of allocating scarce resources to producers and consumers. Typically, when people hear of socialism, they think of the former Soviet Union or China and indeed, these are good examples. In both of those countries, the government controlled production of nearly everything. Taxes were very high and resources (goods and services) were allocated as the government felt best.

In theory, socialism makes sense to many people. In fact, to some extent they are right. Think of public services that are controlled by the government in the United States - your local fire fighters, police, most roads, and water. These are just a few examples. While most Americans think of socialism as a horrible thing, would we really want police protection only for those who could afford it? Or would you want the response to your call to the police or fire fighter prioritized by the amount of money you were willing to pay?

The economic systems of China, Cuba, the former Soviet Union, and other countries that try socialism are based on these good examples of government involvement. But in each case, the government inappropriately extrapolates socialism from controlling the roads and other public services to controlling everything.

There are two inherent problems with a centrally-controlled economy like socialism: moral hazard and the coordination problem.

Moral Hazard

Moral hazard exists when an individual or group of individuals has a personal incentive to act in a way to that which is best for the group of individuals they represent. This is a little tricky to understand because you might think it exists in a free market economy as well, and it can. But the difference is accountability.

Imagine in China, the government official responsible for agriculture makes a decision that results in more land for growing rice but less land for raising chickens. As the government official in charge, he can act on that decision to his own benefit and at the cost to others. Perhaps he decides to allocate more land for raising chickens to his neighborhood or region. That's a good thing for him, but bad for the people not in his area.

You may think we see this in free markets as well. Perhaps, but it is an individual making decisions that discriminate against consumers or is it the laws of supply and demand? In a free market, it would be supply and demand. If the same thing with the rice and chicken happened in a free market, the price of rice would drop (increased supply) and the price of chicken would rise (decreased supply). That would make it too expensive for some people, so yes, it isn't fair. But the important difference is that in a free market, it is supply and demand at work; not the personal incentive and wishes of a single person or small group of people.

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