Palin Derangement Syndrome continues to amuse, especially when she elides a lot of steps, preferring getting to her point over trying to educate people who (as we have seen recently) don’t even know the gulags ever existed. It is then inevitable that the leftoids will call her out as stupid — and get egg on their faces when the material left out comes to light.

To be clear: Sputnik was at best a Pyrrhic victory for the Soviet Union, and Sarah Palin sees us as the USSR in this scenario. Ridiculous? No, as a matter of fact it isn’t, unfortunate as that might be.

Those familiar with only recent history, and a distorted subset thereof at that, will no doubt be surprised to learn that, during the Fifties and Sixties, the USSR was regarded, at least provisionally, as a success story. It seemed clear that a society organized along rational lines, and thus able to place its attention where needed rather than taking a scattershot approach in which everybody was trying something different, would end up stronger and more successful. The Soviets had, after all, defeated the Nazis, come up with their own atomic bombs, managed to suppress revolts in the hinterlands, and in general acted like full players on the international scene; Sputnik was a wake-up call, but in reality no more than that. The science fiction writer Mack Reynolds wrote a long series of stories in which the USSR caught up to and surpassed the Western nations in living standards, including one in which a religious evangelist who sought to undermine the USSR by teaching them to hate consumerism, is co-opted by the Politburo because they, too, are concerned that Soviet society is becoming too luxe and decadent. When Khruschev made the famous “We will bury you!” speech, he wasn’t talking about grave-diggers, he was referring to the coming tidal wave of consumer goods from Soviet industry.

From the other side, the reality was quite different. The Politburo had only the weakest notion of the wants and needs of the people of Moscow, let alone Novosibirsk, and were blinded by their ideology to boot; the result was failure to support needed development, waste on an incredible scale, and redirection of resources in unproductive directions at the behest of bureaucrats, who quickly perceived Ric’s Rule #2 (see sidebar) and found themselves in a seller’s market for bureaucratic favor. Behind the façade, the Soviet Union was Tsarism reincarnated, with a few dvoryanstve nomenklaturin enjoying first-world lifestyles on the back of the narod, and allocating resources according to whim guided by ideology instead of utility or need.

In general, a farmer will know which crops are suitable for his land and what type and quantity of fertilizer is appropriate, and even nearby farms may have quite different capabilities and requirements. When crops, fertilizer amounts, and harvest time and method are specified by a faraway bureaucracy, the bureaucrats have no way of knowing, and still less any way of acknowledging, the varying capabilities and requirements of the different fields; they are compelled by circumstance to make broad assumptions and lump cases together, resulting in prodigious wastage. That principle is also at work in industry and science. Tight central planning of a large, variegated enterprise is a loser, not a winner, and the USSR stands as the exemplary or canonical example of how it can and does go wrong.

The nomenklatura were concerned that the weakness of the Soviet economy not become apparent, so they concentrated on visible achievements — rocket technology as exemplified by ICBMs and, yes, Sputnik, providing aid to their Fraternal Socialist Brethren such as Castro, and building a formidable military presence. Resources devoted to those ends had to be diverted from the weak economy, which weakened it further. The important fact about the American space program was not that it caught up to and exceeded Soviet capability; it was that the Americans did it out of pocket change — expenditures on Mercury, Apollo, etc., were huge in absolute numbers, but never required diversion of significant scarce resources from the consumer economy to support them. The same was true across the board. The United States could build aircraft carriers and ICBMs, deploy hundreds of thousands of troops and their equipment to Viet Nam, and send high-flying planes to take pictures of the Rodina, and suffer at worst some inflation and market distortion. The USSR could achieve much less than that, and that only by prying the last handful of grain from the most miserable peasant.

Sputnik was the opening shot in a campaign to convince the World that the USSR was strong and confident. It actually succeeded in inspiring Americans to meet the challenge — which they did without seeming to sweat. That set the pattern for the next three decades, in which every time the Soviet Union achieved something the United States matched it effortlessly, and the continual attempts to get on top eventually exhausted the Soviet economy to the point where the regime itself was no longer able to continue.

What Sarah Palin, and many of us on the Right, see is the United States moving in the direction of the Soviet model. Forget “socialism”; the issue is strong central planning and control — a bureaucrat in Washington will decide what farmers will plant, what goods will be made in factories, whether and when people may travel and how much fuel they may use, what medical care will be provided, and how much salt may be used on a hamburger. This cannot help but weaken the economy, as it has in every case where it was tried throughout the history of the World. A “Sputnik moment” would consist of our issuing a challenge to competitors who are able to meet it, thus forcing us to continually reinforce the challenge when we must scrape the barrel of our resources ’til the staves gleam as if sanded to support that reinforcement, leading to our eventual inability to support ourselves, let alone defiance of the World. And no, we don’t need one of those.