Economic Organisation of a POW Camp

This is half a review of the article “Economic Organisation of a POW Camp” and half a commentary on what I learned from it. I was told of this paper by R.A. Radford by my father when he found out that I had a course on economics in my second semester. The author Richard Radford was English by birth and left university to join the army at the start of World War II. He was captured by enemy forces in Libya in 1942, and he got his degree in Economics after returning to Cambridge after the war. He later moved to America to join the IMF, where he served till his retirement. He also taught economics at John Hopkins University in his early days at the IMF.1

The article is the author’s reflection of the economics in a POW Camp during World War II. He describes how a market developed in a prison camp environment. While the author accepts that the POW camp cannot form a perfect analogy to the real world, after correcting for the sometimes harsh circumstances most ideas and principles of the real world are seen to be reflected in the POW camp’s market. Although the article is short, the author manages to analyze many economic concepts, albeit each in brief. The article is also a testament to the human tendency to trade and exchange with the aim of achieving maximum satisfaction.

Although stuck in a prison camp, the prisoners got organized and a market developed. The author examines how this happened and in the process explains many concepts that played towards making the market function in the way it did. The author has divided his paper into different sections each one dealing with independent ideas that were tried or implemented in the market. He studies the initial development and organisation of the market looking at concepts ranging from credit to arbitrage. He also inspects how cigarettes becomes a form of currency hence explaining commodity currency. This particular section is one of my favorites as it beautifully explains currency, its requirement and its properties. There is also a section on price movements where the author explores concepts of demand and supply using real examples. There is a section about the introduction of a restaurant in the prison camp, which led to the introduction to a currency completely backed by food. Another section on price fixing looks at an attempt at regulation by the prison officials and its effects on the working of the market. He also digresses from his analysis of  the economic principles at  play to look at the public opinion about prices, middlemen and even the trade itself. He also looks at how changing situations and news about the war cause business cycles, especially inflation.

Overall the paper goes over many ideas central to economics. The reason why I liked this paper a lot is due to the way the author explains things which makes it very easy to understand why those principles exist in the first place. The author goes through the reasons behind decisions of different players in the market, giving an insight into why people make certain decisions. The evolution of the market also demonstrates the fact that today’s markets are what they are because they have existed for a long time and that people have learnt and still keep learning. The examples of the changes in the mentality of certain sections towards trading a particular commodity also teach lessons about utility and price. Although there are some terms that the author uses which are outdated, they don’t pose a problem to the understanding and most of the times even help in showing that the ideas and principles are more important than the terms themselves.

 All in all this is a short and enjoyable article that piqued my curiosity about economics and probably will help me in this course. I would suggest it to anyone who likes economics or wants to understand some of the basics of economics, but doesn’t want to go through big boring books.

[NOTE: This was written sometime in April but I liked the essay so I am putting this up here.]


1. This was the only information I could find about the author.

2.The whole article is available online:


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