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A Command Economy: Playing the Game

by Elaine Schwartz    •    May 9, 2013    •    2946 Views

Queue is now a game. But not always.

In Poland, during the 1970s, you might have taken an hour or two off from work, rotating with a brother or sister, to stand in line. Everyone could have been waiting for a pair of shoes but if a shampoo were available, you bought it. There were even queue rules like mothers with small children got to go first. So people temporarily borrowed small children.

The creators of the game Queue want to remind us that while the game is “great fun, … Queue reconstructs a reality which, for the people who lived it, was no fun at all.” So players have a shopping list that is virtually impossible to locate. To win they need to outsmart meat shortages, surly salespeople, long lines and dishonest officials. They experience corruption, a black market, and frustration. And unintentionally, there really were shortages because Queue’s developers had not produced enough games.

I downloaded a free English version of the game that includes a fascinating description of the Polish Communist-era command economy. It even includes several pages of Polish political jokes about Communism:

  • A symptom of memory loss: when you find yourself standing with empty shopping bags in front of a store and cannot tell whether you were going in or coming out.
  • What is it: a many-legged creature that is at least 20 meters long and eats meat yet has to make do with potatoes? The queue in front of the meat store.

Or here is their quote from a Polish citizen who describes his trip to London:

  • “…when I first went to London–on an official visit–I photographed sausages, ham, and meat displayed in store windows. Later, I would show these photos to friends, explaining that you really can go into a store and buy these things just like that. These were shocking revelations.”

Our bottom line? Through Queue, we can see the perverse incentives that a command economy creates. The game reminds us that when a small group of people tell all of us how to answer the 3 basic economic questions (below), we respond to counterproductive incentives. The result is multiple inefficiencies and wasteful transaction costs like queues.

3 economic questions that all economies answer:

  • What goods and services should be produced?
  • How should goods and services be produced?
  • Who should receive the income?

Sources and Resources: I first read about Queue in this WSJ article. However, the English translation of the game says it all. Finally, to identify contemporary command economies, the Index of Economic Freedom is always a handy resource.

A Communist Queue

A Communist Queue


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