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The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp
July 6, 2008 7:37 AM   Subscribe

In the latter years of the second world war, the economist RA Radford was a prisoner of war. After the war ended, he wrote this now well known (if you're an economist) article on the economic structures that emerged in the POW camps. (JSTOR link)

I originally came across this article via Crooked Timber & although it was mentioned in a recent AskMefi I thought it deserved its time in the MeFi limelight.
posted by pharm (20 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 


Argh! tylermoody has the link.

Here's a pdf of the original article.
posted by pharm at 7:57 AM on July 6, 2008


Fascinating.
posted by grouse at 8:21 AM on July 6, 2008


Really fascinating even to this economic illiterate, thanks!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:27 AM on July 6, 2008


Wow, a fascinating read from beginning to end.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:13 AM on July 6, 2008


Fascinating stuff, thanks for posting it. Thanks for fixing the link also.
posted by marxchivist at 9:56 AM on July 6, 2008


This is good stuff.
posted by popechunk at 10:23 AM on July 6, 2008


I'll never live down my ill-advised investment in diced carrot futures.
posted by Abiezer at 10:45 AM on July 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Very interesting and raises questions about fundamental social needs and wants. I wonder about the existence of that other oldest profession... How many cigs for a blowjob? Not a topic he could mention in those days but if POW camps are like other prisons I doubt all the inmates were celibate. Also notable is the value of drugs (nicotine, caffeine) even above food for some people.
posted by binturong at 11:24 AM on July 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great post. As my mental image of WWII POW camps comes entirely from movies like "The Great Escape", I was wondering how supporting escape efforts fit into the camp economy. I suppose it was treated as charity for the most part although I'm sure people could be ordered to give up the required goods. There is always a lot of barter, scavenging and "scrounging" in those films, as they come up with the supplies they need to escape.
posted by w0mbat at 1:11 PM on July 6, 2008


This article has often been cited by conservatives to "prove" that free markets are natural, organic and basically inevitable (hence can't be unfair or improved upon.)

That bugs me because prison camp is almost the ultimate socialist society -- everyone is given a set ration by the government, regardless of effort; no one has "capital" in the form of inheritance or social advantages; and one couldn't use capital to either start new enterprise or cut off competition even if they did. All very different.

It IS interesting that the fact that the market is underground seems to keep it pretty efficient. I imagine that this is because no one can use official sanctions to create an artificial monopoly, the way regulatory agencies are often used in the West.
posted by msalt at 1:56 PM on July 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


free markets are natural...inside of a prison.
posted by eustatic at 4:01 PM on July 6, 2008


msalt: You might be interested in the article "We thought we were British, until we lived among them" by an Australian PhD sociology student. (Apologies for the necessity of linking to a multipage, ad-laden site, but I can't find another source for that paper.)

It is somehat incongruous that the original Radford paper is oft quoted in support of the inevitability of the neo-classical free market economy, when the environment in question was about far from such a thing as you can imagine. I think that it's a fascinating paper though, even if only for the perspective it evokes of a particular historical environment.
posted by pharm at 3:18 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


What a coincidence. I just finished reading Victor Frankel's Man's search for meaning which should be the companion piece to Radford's paper.
posted by ruelle at 5:10 AM on July 7, 2008


pharm, thanks for that link.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:28 AM on July 7, 2008


no one has "capital" in the form of inheritance or social advantages; and one couldn't use capital to either start new enterprise or cut off competition even if they did
Seems like someone didn't read the article, msalt.

Some POWs received private cigarette parcels in the mail. Others were of higher rank and therefore carried some influence.

The paper discusses numerous small businesses: laundry, dining, accounting services, and so on.

Political influence with those of higher rank was used to attempt to cut out the black market on several occasions.
posted by vsync at 9:47 PM on July 7, 2008


Seems like someone didn't read the article, msalt.

Oh, tou-fucking-ché. You demonstrate my point even better; what is "natural" is not the organic operation of free markets, but efforts to manipulate them and use them to justify preexisting privilege.

In fact I did read the article, though in 1979 so I will admit a little fuzziness. Don't have the scratch to pay for a download.
posted by msalt at 10:15 PM on July 7, 2008


Your point appeared to be a socialist polemic supported by a short list of patently false claims.

The existence of a free market does not preclude efforts to manipulate them. Further, the article tends to put forth the idea that the organic operation of free markets was both inevitable and somewhat equitable:
One argument ran as follows: – not everyone has private cigarette parcels: thus, when prices were high and trade good in the summer of 1944, only the lucky rich could buy. This was unfair to the man with few cigarettes. When prices fell in the following winter, prices should be pegged high so that the rich, who had enjoyed life in the summer, should put many cigarettes into circulation. The fact that those who sold to the rich in the summer had also enjoyed life then, and the fact that in the winter there was always someone willing to sell at low prices were ignored.
You alluded to this somewhat in your first comment — It IS interesting that the fact that the market is underground seems to keep it pretty efficient. I imagine that this is because no one can use official sanctions to create an artificial monopoly, the way regulatory agencies are often used in the West. — and this is where we find some common ground. But you ignore the inevitable conclusion: that creating such artificial monopolies is pointless and almost theft, as those in power steal resources from the system at large.

I didn't pay for a download either. The first link in the FPP goes straight to a nice HTML version of the article.
posted by vsync at 11:54 PM on July 7, 2008


Your point appeared to be a socialist polemic supported by a short list of patently false claims.

Wow, not sure how you got that. Unless you think anything left of the Heritage Foundation is socialist.

My point is that free markets are not natural, they require a very particular organization of society that doesn't come out of the blue. In Europe, peasants were living on land under long running rights and responsibilities that had to be essentially destroyed to make the industrial revolution possible. In the US, Native Americans, but similarly.

Not to mention new legal systems, new laws, antitrust regulation. Russia and China are plenty capitalist, but their systems have developed in ways we don't like because the structure hasn't been constructed well (IMHO.) POW camps are a bullshit example of organic anything because they are very tightly constructed and much of the normal noise of human society is filtered out.
posted by msalt at 10:38 PM on July 8, 2008


ignore the inevitable conclusion: that creating such artificial monopolies is pointless and almost theft, as those in power steal resources from the system at large.

Inevitable conclusion? It's certainly theft, but I doubt that OPEC or the American Medical Association consider their monopolies pointless. Rather it's natural and extremely lucrative to create these, and democracy with political contributions is a pretty efficient way of bending government to your purpose.

Do you really disagree?
posted by msalt at 10:41 PM on July 8, 2008


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