Socialist thought post-dates the emergence of the first proto-modern businesses, the larger enterprises of the mid to late 18th century, and its aspiration to administer society is, I think, modelled on those new companies, though the aim is justified both in terms of efficiency and morality. Indeed, it is curious that while mature socialist theory, particularly in the twentieth century, has declared capitalism to be unable to make full or proper use of the resources available, it has nevertheless remained dreamily in love with the idea of running society as a capitalist would run their company.

For, as Coase and other analysts of the firm tell us, companies are planned micro-economies, created and stable at certain sizes because the transaction costs can be minimised when conducted within the structure, rather than being left to deals struck between separate firms. Indeed, it seems possible that the degree of planning evident in the early Victorian firm was historically unprecedented even at state and military levels, and that this is why Engels and Marx were so interested in capitalist factories. They longed to run a society on the same lines. But such a project would only be sustainable in perpetuity if the society-as-firm had internalised all potential competitors and customers, otherwise it would be vulnerable as ordinary firms are, and would eventually go out of business. Thus, contrary to popular opinion, socialist states are inherently expansionist and intolerant (as one would guess from the historical record).

But even if that totalising ambition is realised, theory of the firm suggests that the resulting organism is unlikely to be stable, since sub-economies will form wherever the goods required can be delivered more cheaply than through the production and exchange planned by the society-as-firm. Evolving demand and planning error are both inevitable, and result in such opportunities, hence the vigorous efforts of the state to prevent one and deny the other. But the attempt is hopeless, particularly when there are free economies around its periphery generating new goods and services. The vast scale of the black market in the former Soviety Union is an extreme example illustrating a subtler and pervasive trend.

Perhaps Lenin foresaw this, and countered with the New Economic Policy. Perhaps Attlee understood the problem, and created the mixed economy, in which the state is forever though slowly pulsating in response to changing conditions, never quite too large to precipitate a crisis.