For over 30 years when members of the U.S. Congress needed information about the Soviet, and later, Russian economy, it turned to John Hardt. Now the 82-year-old Mr. Hardt, is retiring as the Congressional Research Service's senior specialist on post-Soviet economics.
John Hardt says few people know that the reason Lenin collectivized agriculture was because it was deemed the most efficient way to deliver food from farms to cities. Now, as Russia seeks to undo 80 years of communism, it is still struggling with the damage cause by collective farming and with establishing a reliable system of land ownership. "When the peasant [today], the farmer, says 'I have my doubts about private ownership,' their doubts about private ownership would disappear if they had some assurances that their right to land was defendable," he says.
Mr. Hardt is convinced that post-communist Russia is moving towards private agriculture despite 10 years of resistance from the public and politicians. He says a public that still distrusts the government must be persuaded that the rule of law and its enforcement is based on a solid ground. "It's not only the ownership, it is access to the market. It is the legal system that has to go with the question of ownership. Is that an easy question? I don't think so. But is the goal of private ownership a worthwhile one for the efficiency of the country and so forth, I think so," he says.
Speaking at his office from behind a pile of scholarly papers and thick studies, Mr. Hardt says consolidation of land into large fields is desirable because it makes growing and harvesting crops far more efficient. The problem, he says, is with the collective, rather than private, ownership of the farms.
He is generally supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and says he believes the Russian leader is determined to steer Russia towards the Western model and make its economy more competitive. "He's trying to break up the monopolies, provide competition, provide lower costs, etc, in the United Energy System [the power company], in the railroads, the pipe lines, in effect to join the world competitively. Has he succeeded? Certainly, not yet. But the fact that that is an issue that is on the agenda is a very important accomplishment," he says.
The Russian leadership, says Mr. Hardt, is making some progress in building an efficient government and professional judiciary and in establishing a rule of law. Controls on government spending, he says, are almost up to western standards of accountability. And that, Mr. Hardt says, is important. "In a functioning market economy, in a democratic system, if you want to make an assessment like a medical doctor does of a person's health, look at the budget," he says. "The budget will tell you how healthy the homo-economicus is."
John Hardt is not giving up his cluttered office in the Library of Congress. He will continue to work as a consultant to his old employer even in retirement.