Time Will Run Back

Antony — December 13, 2012

Book Review: Time Will Run Back, by Henry Hazlitt

Henry Hazlitt’s novel Time Will Run Back explores the subjects of capitalism and free society from first principles, by looking at them from the naive perspective of a world in which they are unknown concepts.

The novel is set about 100 years in the future, in a world in which the Soviets won the cold war. The entire world is run as a communist dictatorship with a centrally planned economy. Through a series of chance events, a young man named Peter comes to lead the nation. Peter, unlike everyone else in the society, has been raised without being indoctrinated into the communist ideology, and thus is able to approach the problems he faces as leader without any preconceptions.

The novel describes how Peter tries various methods of organizing the production and distribution of goods in society. In trying to solve his immediate problems, he keeps running into new problems as unintended consequences of his different economic interventions. These problems include both calculation problems, where the central planners are unable to obtain the information necessary to properly allocate resources, and motivation problems where the workers have no incentive to be productive. Through a series of trial and error steps, Peter comes to discover that a system of private property ownership with free exchange is the only way to properly organize an economy.

Although the book does an excellent job in its treatment of economic principles, it overreaches a bit when Peter goes on to sort out the political setup of the country. He basically ends up re-creating a democratic republic similar to the United States, but the reasoning for for this setup is not convincing. It seems contrived, and influenced by the author’s preconceptions, in contrast to the parts dealing with economic reform, in which the reasoning was logical, and various pitfalls with non-free market arrangements were well explained.

Overall, this book is well worth reading. The premise of a person naively trying to solve economic problems is an excellent thought experiment to explain the pitfalls of various forms of central economic planning. The novel was apparently inspired by Hazlitt’s reading of Socialism by Ludwig von Mises, and it does a good job of outlining the socialist calculation problem in a fun and accessible manner.

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