The free-market economist, journalist, and editor Henry Hazlitt wrote his novel The Great Idea in 1951; the book was re-released under the title Time Will Run Back in 1966 in order to emphasize the rediscovery of the lost ideas of free-market capitalism by the novel’s protagonists. In addition to being the most rigorous work of fiction available for the teaching of economic ideas, Time Will Run Back highlights the role of business in taking a society from a condition of destitution, misery, and brutality to one of widespread prosperity, progress, and personal fulfillment.
The novel’s hero, Peter Uldanov, is the son of Stalenin, the dictator of Wonworld – a socialist dystopia that, in the year 2100 (282 A.M. – After Marx) spans the entire globe. Peter, raised away from politics by his mother, has not been indoctrinated into Wonworld’s ideology of totalitarian central planning of all aspects of its citizens’ lives. While completely new to politics, Peter is highly intelligent and an accomplished pianist and mathematician. Stalenin is dying and, out of paternal affection, seeks to engineer Peter’s succession. Peter is intellectually honest and is perplexed at the widespread poverty, famines, and shortages of Wonworld, as well as the constant climate of terror in which its subjects live – even though the regime claims to have “liberated” them from oppression by the capitalists of old. Peter attempts to introduce a series of reforms to allow criticism of the government and free elections, but his goal of achieving human liberation fails to take hold so long as the economy remains completely centrally planned. Peter’s nemesis is Stalenin’s second-in-command Bolshekov, who zealously defends the system of command and control while he is the main agent of torture, execution, and mismanagement within it. Peter enlists the assistance of Thomas Jefferson Adams – the third-highest official in Wonworld. Adams is disillusioned with the socialist system and gropes for alternatives but, like Peter, does not have the benefit of the lessons of history – since any works of literature, economics, philosophy, and political theory that disagreed with Marxism-Leninism were purged after Wonworld’s establishment a century earlier. Adams has become cynical by observing decades of attempted “reforms” within Wonworld, which tinkered with specific policies and plans but never challenged the overarching fact of total central planning. Peter, as an outsider with a fresh perspective, is more willing to overhaul the system’s most fundamental features. In the genuine search for greater prosperity and more humane treatment for Wonworld’s population, he begins to dismantle the socialist system piece by piece, at first without even recognizing that this is the effect of his actions.
Much of the novel depicts Peter and Adams groping toward a system of incrementally freer markets and greater individual liberty as they discuss possible reforms and attempt to understand both their direct and secondary, unintended consequences. As a result of their stepwise sequence of liberalizations, Peter and Adams inadvertently rediscover the old system of capitalism that Wonworld sought to stamp out. Adams often acts as a foil to Peter, proposing modified central plans or mixed-economy systems and attempting to posit the arguments made by inflationists and protectionists that emerge as milder obstacles to liberalization once private property, money, and decentralized economic planning by individuals are restored. Peter, however, is sufficiently wise to be able to perceive the secondary consequences of these proposals and to consistently espouse and act in favor of unhampered individual economic liberty.
Peter’s first successful reform is to permit people to exchange ration coupons which they were allocated for various specific commodities. Previously, each citizen of Wonworld received ration coupons that were limited to his personal use, and there was no way to realize any value from coupons for goods that the individual did not wish to personally consume. Initially, the citizens of Wonworld – terrorized for generations – are reluctant to exchange coupons for fear of being tricked into showing disloyalty, but after a few months of encouragement by Peter’s government, exchanges begin to occur:
At first individuals or families merely exchanged ration tickets with other persons or families living in the same room with them. Then in the same house. Then in the same neighborhood or factory. The rates at which the ration tickets exchanged was a matter of special bargaining in each case. They at first revealed no describable pattern whatever. In one tenement or barracks someone would be exchanging, say, one shirt coupon for five bread coupons; next door one shirt coupon might exchange for fifteen bread coupons.
But gradually a distinct pattern began to take form. The man who had exchanged his shirt coupon for five bread coupons would learn that he could have got fifteen bread coupons from someone else; the man who had given up fifteen bread coupons for one shirt coupon would learn that he might have got a shirt coupon for only five bread coupons. So people began to “shop around,” as they called it, each trying to get the highest bid for what he had to offer, each trying to get the greatest number of the coupons he desired for the coupons with which he was willing to part. The result, after a surprisingly short time, was that a uniform rate of exchange prevailed at any given moment between one type of coupon and another. (Hazlitt 1966, 103)
This reform inaugurates a price system, which facilitates rational planning by individuals and the effective allocation of goods to their most highly valued uses. It also leads to the emergence of markets where large volumes of exchanges can take place:
Then another striking thing happened. People had at first shopped around from house to house and street to street, trying to get the best rate in the kind of coupons they valued most for the kind of coupons they valued least. But soon people anxious to trade their coupons took to meeting regularly at certain places where they had previously discovered that they found the most other traders and bidders and could get the best rates in the quickest time. These meeting points, which people took to calling coupon “markets,” tended to become fewer and larger.
Two principal “markets” gradually established themselves in Moscow, one in Engels Square and the other at the foot of Death-to-Trotsky Street. Here large crowds, composed in turn of smaller groups, gathered on the sidewalk and spread into the street. They were made up of shouting and gesticulating persons, each holding up a coupon or sheet of coupons, each asking how much he was bid, say, in beer coupons for his shirt coupon, or offering his shirt coupon for, say, twelve beer coupons, and asking whether he had any takers. (Hazlitt 1966, 103-104)
As markets take hold, professional brokers emerge to handle large numbers of transactions for ordinary people in exchange for a percentage of ration coupons. The brokers quickly become adept at spotting and eliminating discrepancies among exchange rates between any two types of coupons:
Their competitive bids and offers continued until the relationships were ironed out, so that no further profit was possible for anybody as a result of a discrepancy. For the same reason, Peter found, the ratios of exchange in the market at Engels Square were never far out of line for more than a very short period with the ratios of exchange on Death-to-Trotsky Street; for a set of brokers were always running back and forth between the two markets, or sending messengers, and trying to profit from the least discrepancy that arose between the markets in the exchanges or quotations.
A special name—”arbitrage business”—sprang up for this sort of transaction. Its effect was to unify, or to universalize, price relationships among markets between which this freedom of arbitrage existed. (Hazlitt 1966, 105)
By allowing free exchange and permitting private entrepreneurs to take advantage of arbitrage opportunities, Peter enables a solution to emerge for Wonworld’s previously intractable problem of how to make the best use of scarce resources to fulfill as many human needs as possible. Peter recognizes that, even though the adjustments to prices that guide this process of rational resource allocation may appear automatic, they are in fact the effect of the actions of businesspeople seeking to earn a profit:
They took place solely because there was an alert group of people ready to seize upon the slightest discrepancy to make a transaction profitable to themselves. It was precisely the constant alertness and the constant initiative of these specialists that prevented any but the most minute and short-lived discrepancies from occurring. (Hazlitt 1966, 105)
Allowing free exchange of ration tickets leads to the spontaneous emergence of a monetary system as exchange rates begin to be quoted in terms of only a few leading types of coupons and eventually only in terms of cigarette coupons. These are superseded by packages of cigarettes themselves, which are in turn eventually replaced by gold.
The power struggle between Peter and Bolshekov escalates until Bolshekov engineers Stalenin’s assassination and seizes power in Wonworld. Peter and Adams flee to North America, assisted by their loyal Air Force, and establish their own country – Freeworld – where Peter’s economic reforms continue. Private ownership of land and capital goods is introduced, and large factories are privatized through the issuance of transferable shares to their workers, entitling them to receive a percentage of the profits from the enterprise. This greatly raises the incentives for production, responsibility, and prudent management of resources, as the newly empowered citizens inform Peter:
When he asked one of these new peasant-proprietors about his changed attitude, his explanation was simple: “The more work I and my family put into the farm, the better off we are. Our work is no longer offset by the laziness and carelessness of others. On the other hand, we can no longer sit back and hope that others will make up for what we fail to do. Everything depends on ourselves.”
Another farmer-owner put it this way: “The greater the crop we raise this year, the better off my family will be. But we also have to think of next year and the year after that, so we can’t take any risk of exhausting the soil. Every improvement I put into the farm, whether into the soil or into the buildings, is mine; I reap the fruits of it. But there is something that to me is more important still. I am building this for my family; I am increasing the security of my family; I will have something fine to turn over to my children after I am gone. I don’t know how I can explain it to you, Your Highness, but since my family has owned this land for itself, and feels secure in its right and title to stay here undisturbed, we feel not only that the farm belongs to us but that we belong to the farm. It is a part of us, and we are a part of it. It works for us, and we work for it. It produces for us, and we produce for it. You may think it is just a thing, but it seems as alive as any of us, and we love it and care for it as if it were a part of ourselves.” (Hazlitt 1966, 131)
The ability of individuals to own and run their business and earn a profit turns Freeworld into an economic powerhouse. Whereas Wonworld had, for a century, remained at the level of technological advancement approximately resembling that of 1918-1938, Freeworld becomes a haven for invention, the benefits of which disseminate rapidly to the population. Freeworld’s development appears to rapidly catch up to the condition of Hazlitt’s 1950s and 1960s America:
Constant and bewildering improvements were being made in household conveniences, in fluorescent lighting, in radiant heating, in air-conditioning, in vacuum cleaners, in clothes-washing machines, in dishwashing machines, in a thousand new structural and decorative materials. Great forward leaps were now taken in radio. There was talk of the development, in the laboratories, of the wireless transmission, not merely of music and voices, but of the living and moving image of objects and people.
Hundreds of new improvements, individually sometimes slight but cumulatively enormous, were being made in all sorts of transportation—in automobiles and railroads, in ships and airplanes. Inventors even talked of a new device to be called “jet-propulsion,” which would not only eliminate propellers but bring speeds rivaling that of sound itself.
In medicine, marvelous new anesthetics and new lifesaving drugs were constantly being discovered …
“In our new economic system, Adams,” said Peter, “we seem to have developed hundreds of thousands of individual centers of initiative which spontaneously co-operate with each other. We have made more material progress in the last four years, more industrial and scientific progress, than Wonworld made in a century.” (Hazlitt 1966, 153)
Instead of dreading work and needing to be terrorized into toil, the people begin to welcome and yearn for productive innovation:
Peter was struck by the startling change that had come over the whole spirit of the people. They worked with an energy and zeal infinitely greater than anything they had shown before. Peter now found people everywhere who regarded their work as a pleasure, a hobby, an exciting adventure. They were constantly thinking of improvements, devising new gadgets, dreaming of new processes that would cut costs of production, or new inventions and new products that consumers might want. (Hazlitt 1966, 139)
Peter explains to Adams that this “is precisely what economic liberty does. It releases human energy” (Hazlitt 1966, 139). Whereas, previously, only the Central Planning Board could decide how to direct resources,
Now everybody can plan. Now everybody is a center of planning. The worker can plan to shift to another employer or another line of production where the rewards are higher. He can plan to train himself in a new skill that pays better. And anybody who can save or borrow capital, or who can get the co-operation of other workers or offer them more attractive terms of employment than before, can start a new enterprise, make a new product, fill a new need. And this puts a quality of adventure and excitement into most people’s lives that was never there before. In Wonworld, in effect, only the Dictator himself could originate or initiate: everybody else simply carried out his orders. But in Freeworld anybody can originate or initiate. And because he can, he does. (Hazlitt 1966, 139)
Hazlitt frequently emphasizes the connection between the economic empowerment that freedom in business offers and the resulting surge in the quality of life and daily experience – a sense of responsibility, opportunity, self-direction, and the ability to chart one’s own future that permeates an economy where individuals are their own economic masters. While under central planning, no progress occurs unless initiated by the exceptionally rare enlightened rulers at the top, in a free market every businessman and worker can be an agent of human progress. Peter observes that a free-market system is meritocratic and tends to reward contributions to human well-being: “Everyone tends to be rewarded by the consumers to the extent that he has contributed to the needs of the consumers. In other words, free competition tends to give to labor what labor creates, to the owners of money and capital goods what their capital creates, and to enterprisers what their co-ordinating function creates” (Hazlitt 1966, 139). Adams responds that, to the extent a free-market system is able to achieve this, “no group would have the right to complain. You would have achieved an economic paradise” (Hazlitt 1966, 139). In a later discussion, Peter notes that the profits realized by businesspeople in a free-market system cannot be maintained on the whole except in a growing economy where consumers are increasingly better off; a free-market system cannot be called a profit system “in a declining or even in a stationary economy. It is, of course, a profit-seeking system” (Hazlitt 1966, 150), but the search for profit in a free economy will only succeed if human needs are fulfilled by the entrepreneur in the process.
Cultural and esthetic progress, too, are facilitated by the actions of Freeworld’s entrepreneurs. Hazlitt points out that “it was not merely in material progress that Freeworld achieved such amazing triumphs. No less striking were the new dignity and breadth that individual freedom brought about in the whole cultural and spiritual life of the Western Hemisphere” (Hazlitt 1966, 155). By contrast with Wonworld’s regime-monopolized “art” designed to praise the ruling ideology, the outpouring of creativity and variety in Freeworld “showed itself in novels and plays, in criticism and poetry, in painting, sculpture and architecture, in political and economic thinking, in most sciences, in philosophy and religion” (Hazlitt 1966, 155). Even though freedom in artistic production results in catering “to the presumed tastes of a mass public; and the bulk of what was produced was vulgar and cheap” (Hazlitt 1966, 155), there also emerges the opportunity for some artists to pursue lasting greatness:
What counted, as Peter quickly saw, was that each writer and each artist was now liberated from abject subservience to the state, to the political ruling clique. He was now free to select his own public. He did not need to cater to a nebulous “mass demand.” He could, if he wished, write, build, think, compose or paint for a definite cultivated group, or for his fellow specialists, or for a few kindred spirits wherever they could be found. And plays did have a way of finding their own special audience, and periodicals and books of finding their own special readers.
In contrast with the drabness, monotony and dreariness of Wonworld, the cultural and spiritual life of Freeworld was full of infinite variety, flavor, and adventure. (Hazlitt 1966, 155)
The intellectual honesty of Peter Uldanov enables him to transform the role of inadvertent world dictator to that of guardian of individual freedom. Freeworld overcomes Bolshekov’s Wonworld in a largely bloodless military campaign, due to Freeworld’s overwhelming superiority in production and the eagerness of Wonworld’s citizens to throw off Bolshekov’s totalitarian rule. At the novel’s end, Peter decides to hold free elections and subject his own position to the people’s approval. Running against the mixed-economy “Third Way” advocate Wang Ching-li, Peter narrowly wins the election and becomes the first President of Freeworld, even though his preference would be to devote his time to playing Mozart. Peter has the wisdom to unleash the productive forces of free enterprise and then to step aside, except in maintaining a system that punishes aggression, protects private property, and provides a reliable rule of law. The ending of Time Will Run Back is a happy one, but it is made possible by one key tremendously fortunate and unlikely circumstance – the ability of a fundamentally decent person to find himself in a position of vast political power, whose use he deliberately restrains and channels toward liberalization instead of perpetuating the abuses of the old system. Peter is, in effect, a “philosopher-king” who reasons his way toward free-market capitalism, unleashing private business to bring about massive human progress. Without such an individual, Wonworld could have lingered in misery, stagnation, and even decline for centuries. In our world, however, where the vestiges of free enterprise and the history of economic thought are much stronger, we do not need to rediscover sound economic principles from whole cloth, so perhaps existing societies could eventually muddle through toward freer economies, even though no philosopher-kings are to be found. Hazlitt gave us Peter Uldanov’s story to enable us to understand which reforms and institutions can improve the human condition, and which can only degrade it.
Hazlitt, Henry. [1966.] 2007. Time Will Run Back. New York: Arlington House. Ludwig von Mises Institute. Available at http://library.freecapitalists.org/books/Henry%20Hazlitt/Time%20Will%20Run%20Back.pdf. Accessed December 13, 2014.