The Institutional Causes of China’s Great Famine, 1959-61

Written by Xin Meng, Nancy Qian, and Pirerre Yared, this paper is a very good applied study of Mises and Hayek:

This paper investigates the institutional causes of China’s Great Famine. It presents two empirical findings: 1) in 1959, when the famine began, food production was almost three times more than population subsistence needs; and 2) regions with higher per capita food production that year suffered higher famine mortality rates, a surprising reversal of a typically negative correlation. A simple model based on historical institutional details shows that these patterns are consistent with the policy outcomes in a centrally planned economy in which the government is unable to easily collect and respond to new information in the presence of an aggregate shock to production.

You can find ungated copies here.


A really interesting paper, but one conceptual thing really got me here. Isn't the theoretical problem a "constrained maximization" one where one of the planner's constraints is that the planner doesn't maximize subject to constraints? I.e., the gov't has an irrational ideological commitment to bad policies, but is very meta-rational and understands the downsides to its own ideology and so attempts to mitigate these.

Of course, I guess you could characterize this as a "that may be true in fact but how is it in theory?" sort of comment.

Then there would be no unintentional starvation.
Getting rid of dissidents would become much less wasteful.

Seems to me Mao was pursuing his economic reforms with the same dogmatism as conservatives pursue tax cuts, determined to fix the failure of tax cuts and deregulation to boost economic growth with more tax cuts and more deregulation, determined to prove their policy will work once the implementation is pure enough.

Imagine an economist writing a paper trying to explain the failure of the US economy even after 8 tax cuts and no tax hikes.

You mean it was just like Irish Potato Famine, and all famines in British India? Free market has a long track record of keeping exports going while the local poor are priced out of the market and die of starvation.

2) regions with higher per capita food production that year suffered higher famine mortality rates, a surprising reversal of a typically negative correlation.

This is not a surprising result. The policy was to seize food from the countryside to feed the cities. The relevant quote by Mao: "When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill."

This paper is like trying to blame the Holocaust on centralized planning. Kinda disgusting, actually.

I'm not sure how to respond to this. 1959-1961 was the Great Leap Forward. Centralized planning was the be-all, end-all. It was the direct cause of the famine. Blaming the famine on centralized planning is like blaming the Holocaust on Nazis.

There's a very good book out on the subject, incidentally: Mao's Great Famine, by Frank Dikotter.

The paper estimates that between 17 and 30 million people perished during the Great Leap famine. But Mao's Great Famine, a new book by the Chinese historian Frank Dik├Âtter and the only one written thus far that is based upon serious archival research, puts the figure at 43 million, 45 million if you count those who died at the direct hands of the regime.

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