Let's get the disclaimers out of the way. I am not in favor of communism. Throughout history, communism has directly resulted in the death of millions. The two nations of focus in this article, Soviet Russia and modern-day China, are guilty of heinous human rights violations.
This article is going to be looking at potential positive elements of the concept of 5-year planning and the impact it can have on a national level. In order to do the topic justice, we must analyze its implementations. I believe in analyzing ideas regardless of affiliation.
This article does not address the tragedies that can, and have, resulted in such systems such as in China's ironically named "Great Leap Forward". Which resulted in the death of tens of millions under Mao Zedong. As terrible as these events were, they have been thoroughly documented by many so I wish to turn our attention to a concept buried underneath the tragedy, that perhaps can be salvaged and repurposed into a tool that could potentially improve the lives of many. Oftentimes, I fear good ideas are marred by poor implementation that scares people away from possibly positive attributes. I believe 5-Year Plans to be one such case.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. What is a 5-Year Plan? In the case that the name itself isn't self-explanatory, a 5-Year Plan is a detailed plan to reach certain metrics or goals over the course of half a decade. Historically, this has primarily been a tool of communist regimes.
It's not that other governments don't utilize similar methods, but the vast majority of them are not formalized actions that an entire nation works to accomplish. The closest we see is perhaps some of the goals and summits held by the European Union on topics such as climate. The EU is similar in principle in its creation of processes and goals. However, the EU is to China what the steam engine is to a bullet train.
What would a free-market, democracy-flavored version of a 5-Year plan look like? One recent example does come to mind to help visualize the potential in the form of President Trump's Operation Warp Speed. Operation Warp Speed was essentially the positioning of money, regulations (or in his case, the removal thereof), and a clearly defined goal. The goal? A vaccine for COVID-19. A goal that, at the time, felt a year away if not longer. The aligned resources provided by the CARES act paired with the removal of normal procedures served to fast-track a vaccine.
Was it perfect? No. But as the adage goes, "desperate times call for desperate measures." COVID-19 aside, Operation Warp Speed intrigued me. It's rare to see such an alignment of the government and the private sectors. Up to this point, it never occurred to me that a capitalist economy could utilize a form of top-down planning.
What if we had the equivalent to an Operation Warp Speed yearly? What if an incoming President had to outline their 5-Year plan when running for election? That would allow people to vote and have a say in what plans were implemented, something tragically missing from the communist implementation. Once in office, the President would get to work implementing the plan by working on a budget to provide funding, streamlining laws and regulations, etc? This starts looking similar to other 5-Year Plans while still preserving its capitalist and democratic elements.
This is but one form such a plan could take. The above is based on the Democratic Republic nature of the United States where citizens elect others to implement plans for them. However, it's not unimaginable to see how this could be tweaked to fit other systems as well. I am in no way saying that having the Executive branch be the seat of the plan is the best implementation. You could even opt for a more democratic approach where citizens vote directly on the causes they wish to see addressed and then the governing party works to implement policy based on the vote.
At the risk of over-simplifying; imagine a ranked-choice, online system when people can propose issues such as "Cure Breast Cancer" or "High-Speed Rail" and then others could upvote the proposal. The top proposals become the focus of the plan. I also imagine that the general population would be far more willing to pay taxes, even an increase thereof, if they had a say in how their money was being spent.
You could even implement a system based on Hans Rosling's "Factfullness" to use math to decide what the biggest issues are based on a metric and bypass the political element altogether. This is actually similar to what China has done. China has a planning commission that carries out research with the help of subject matter experts and then compiles the plan. This does not always end well as seen in the "Great Leap Forward" where too many resources were moved away from agriculture resulting in the death of millions by starvation. As absolutely terrible as this was, China course-corrected resulting in a rapid rise on the world stage. They strongly pursue the principle "adjust, reform, rectify and improve". Despite their flawed implementation, I think there is wisdom in that concept.
Despite feeling that a science-based system would be a superior method, I think that the United States would be far better with the aforementioned option tailored to the Democratic Republic system. I personally would prefer to see the United States move to a parliamentary system where the majority would work to implement such a plan, thus preserving both the democratic nature and the consistency needed to "adjust, reform, rectify and improve". But alas, that is unlikely and a topic for another article.
From my analysis, it seems that the issue comes down to centralization. Centralization is both a pro and a con. Centralization allows for a much more solidly implemented plan as there are fewer parts involved. The Soviet Union's centralized plans transformed the nation into a world power that rivaled the United States. But such centralization is not all roses. If your plan fails, you have all the eggs in one basket so to speak. As mentioned before, a centralized plan gone awry can be catastrophic. It's arguable that the same centralization that is allowing China to dramatically climb to the top of the world stage was also the Achilles heel of Soviet Russia.
Additionally, the populous would be more likely to be skeptical if the government did both the science and the plan. One of the keys to Operation Warp Speed's success was the coordination between the public and private sectors. Even then, you see vaccine hesitancy because of the government's involvement. This leads me to believe that the people must have a say in the plan itself to truly believe and support the measures and funding required.
Perhaps, I like Boromir in Lord of the Rings, foolishly think that I can use the Ring of Power in the form of 5-Year Plans as a tool for good. Even if that is the case, we often find our flaws via our exploration of ideas. I'd rather discover flaws in my thinking than the alternative; to never explore the topic at all.