G. Warren Nutter’s “Traveler’s tale of the Soviet economy”: A witness to the actual world


The text of G. Warren Nutter’s 1956 “Traveler’s tale of the Soviet economy” challenges the belief that only credentialed experts offer useful economic analysis. Nutter’s introduction is a remarkable statement of an approach in which an expert attempts to see the world through eyes unfiltered by theoretical propositions. His distrust of theory is such that his “Tale” was hurriedly written so that these presuppositions did not creep in to “correct” the naïve impressions of a tourist. Two decades after Nutter’s trip, Alain Besançon (Survey: A Journal of East and West Studies 25(4): 143–159, 1980) pointed out the inconsistency between the Soviet world described by witnesses and that described by orthodox Western economic models. More recently an inconsistency in the sequences of models in American economic textbooks—faster Soviet growth without catching up to American levels—has been detailed (Levy and Peart Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 78: 110–125, 2011). A difference between the witnessed world and the modeled world in the sequence of textbooks is that the modeled world was not possible.

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  1. 1.

    One of the foundation principles in 20th century modal logic is Kurt Gödel’s insight that from a tautology A we infer a necessary truth A. From a contradiction A—A is thus tautologically false—we infer A to be necessarily false, i.e., impossible. Gödel’s proposed rule is central to the reformulation of the classic Lewis systems and the discovery of new systems (Lemmon [1966] 1977, pp. 6–7). One of these new systems is Saul Kripke’s minimal modal logic (Burgess 2009, p. 48).

  2. 2.

    The principle that the actual entails the possible goes back to Aristotle (Lemmon [1966] 1977, p. 1)

  3. 3.

    “But a comparison is possible as the two models, different in their methods, have the same aim in view—industrialization, or, more generally, development. The point of departure is the same—underdevelopment—and the end result is the same—a developed industrial economy. The Soviet model and the Western model are like two production processes which are technically different but which produce the same finished product, just as artificial rubber can be produced from petrol or carbon and electricity from uranium or plutonium” Besançon (1980, p. 148; 1981, pp. 22–23).

  4. 4.

    Indeed, once Western economists took queues seriously enough to ask what purpose they might serve, the public choice view of planning followed immediately (Levy and Peart 2008). Alain Besançon (1980, p. 146; 1981, p. 18) saw the importance of queues much earlier. In the places Nutter visited, queues seemed not systematically important.

  5. 5.

    The importance of the Fortune article that reported Nutter’s dissertation results is stressed in Schliesser (2011).

  6. 6.

    Schliesser (2011) makes the persuasive case that there is something to be learned by considering Nutter’s distinctive approach to theory and data in his 1951 Growth of Enterprise Monopoly.

  7. 7.

    The note in Life describes the dresses and the custom of ice cream cones at the circus (Cartier-Bresson 1955b, p. 21).


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David Ortiz-Escobar and Jane Perry did the collation with the US News and World Report. We are deeply grateful to Mrs. Jane Nutter for permission to reprint. We are grateful to the late Richard Ware whose advice was very helpful and to John Moore for his encouragement. We discovered the manuscript as we were working on a project supported by grants from the Earhart Foundation and the Pierre F. and Enid Goodrich Foundation. Pete Boettke directed us to the work of Alain Besançon.

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Correspondence to David M. Levy.

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Levy, D.M., Peart, S.J. G. Warren Nutter’s “Traveler’s tale of the Soviet economy”: A witness to the actual world. Rev Austrian Econ 28, 397–404 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11138-014-0297-1

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  • G. Warren Nutter
  • Soviet economy
  • Traveler’s tale
  • Witness
  • Impossible world

JEL classification

  • B3
  • P20
  • P51