Playing God, 1973-style

In today’s New York Times, a feature story profiles a project to create a national economic planning supercomputer by the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in the early 1970s. “Cybersyn,” as the project was known, consisted largely of “a clunky mainframe computer and a network of telex machines.”

A new exhibit in Chile’s presidential palace features a replica of a control chair (pictured right) that was part of the abortive project. The device may seem quaint today, but its being technologically dated makes it no less creepy. Its look is fittingly reminiscent of the furnishings in petty-tyrant Number 2’s control room in “The Prisoner.” And it would look equally at home in Woody Allen’s totalitarian dystopian film Sleeper (its pornographic-sounding name is even reminiscent of the “Orgasmatron” device featured in the film), which was released in 1973, the year Allende was deposed in a military coup.

Now 1973 may seem like ancient history today, but by then, Ludwig von Mises had already clearly shown why economic calculation is impossible without prices operating in a market system, and Friedrich Hayek had made the compelling case of why no single entity could ever gather sufficient knowledge to plan a national economy. Yet the self-appointed planners keep on trying, no matter how many times they fail — and they will always fail. Would that all such schemes end up as museum pieces! (Thanks to John LaBeaume for the Times link.)