It was a classic example of the failure of central planning.
There was an abundance of hubris by the planners, who believed they could do better than markets (sound familiar?).
There was an abundance of predictable bureaucratic behaviour in response to incentives as subordinates padded the numbers to satisfy their superiors (and out of fear for their lives if they didn't meet optimistic production quotas).
There was an abundance of force used to make peasants go along with the massive centralization that occurred (sound familiar?)
There was an abundance of stupidity (sound familiar?) as, for example, bureaucrats confiscated peasants' cooking implements to melt them down to make steel.
And there was an abundance of death: executions, murders, starvation, and cannibalism. Somewhere between 20 million and 36 million people died because of Mao's "Great Leap Forward".
I have been saving this piece from the NYTimes for over a year. It is a painful summary of the death and devastation that occurred from 1958 - 62. Some of the Amazon reviewers claim the author of Tombstone, which is summarize in the NYTimes piece, is lying, but for the most part it seems well-regarded and factual.
THIRTY-SIX million people in China, including my uncle, who raised me like a father, starved to death between 1958 and 1962, during the man-made calamity known as the Great Famine. In thousands of cases, desperately hungry people resorted to cannibalism.
The toll was more than twice the number of fallen in World War I, and about six times the number of Ukrainians starved by Stalin in 1932-33 or the number of Jews murdered by Hitler during World War II.
The horrors of life after central planners' decisions went awry are well-documented in many countries. Bureaucrats falsify numbers, higher-ups believe someone is hiding something, and those at the top set impossible goals, wanting to believe the padded numbers and biased information provided to them and dismissing anything contrary (sound familiar?).
At the same time, the higher-ups suffer little. The granaries are well-guarded, and the centralized crop is used to generate foreign exchange to fund larger projects.
How can people write about the evils of capitalism when there are so many horror stories about the evils of centralization in the 20th century? How can people write about the evils of capitalism when we see the failures of central planning in Venezuela, North Korea, or even in otherwise well-functioning markets?
Here's how: As one of my friends says, “Every advocate of central planning always — always — envisions himself as the central planner.” This statement, known as Kip's Law, was first enunciated by Kip Esquire. Too bad he stopped blogging.
Sure, markets are not perfect. But we can look around and see how much better they are than centralization.
To read more about the tragedy in China, begin with the Wikipaedia entry "Great Leap Forward". It sets the death toll at between 18.5 and 42 million.