An authoritative Soviet newspaper proposed a degree of private enterprise in service sectors of the nation's economy today and called for a public debate on the issue. It is a move without precedent since the time of Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state.
The daily Sovyetskaya Rossiya raised the issue by proposing that private taxi operators be allowed. It said many car owners already are working illegally as taxi drivers in an effort to supplement their income.
"If one were to look at it from a rational point of view, why should not today's initiative of car owners be used for the common good," the paper said. It said a private entrepreneur could work as a "contract" employe at the time of his choosing or be entirely on his own and pay taxes on his income.
"It would be useful to take a careful look at how the initiative of private car owners is used in other socialist countries," the newspaper said. Hungary, for example, allows private enterprise on a small scale, including taxi services, restaurants and other small businesses.
In a country where even a shoeshine boy is not permitted to operate outside the framework of state controls, the proposal touched on one of the fundamental aspects of the Soviet system, which so far has not tolerated private initiative. According to a recent decree, a car owner discovered to use his vehicle as a private cab faces one year in jail and a fine of $45.
The only area of private activity tolerated by the authorities involves farmers' markets where peasants are allowed to sell produce they raise.
The existence of farmers' markets is a remnant of the 1921 New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin in the aftermath of a debilitating civil war. Lenin, trying to revive a devastated economy, allowed private enterprise at a small scale. His successor, Stalin, outlawed all private enterprise in the 1920s.
The proposal in Sovyetskaya Rossiya, which is a joint organ of the Communist Party Central Committee, the Soviet government and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, appears to provide yet another indication that the new Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, is contemplating substantive reforms of Soviet society and that he is gradually moving in the direction of loosening up the stringent controls that are the hallmark of this command economy.
In making the proposal, the newspaper argued that the existing state taxi system in Moscow, for example, is not capable of meeting the public demand on its services. "Since the demand for such services" is greater than the existing supply, the possibility for illegal taxi services is open.
Naturally, the paper continued, "the use of cars by their owners for gainful purposes is an amoral thought. On the other hand, we should not expect him to provide free services when we take a place in his car. Putting it simply, we are hiring him, with the expectation of paying for his services."
The paper argued that private taxis charge higher fees but added "that so do sellers at a farmers' market." And, it continues, this "is entirely understandable--prices depend on the relationship between demand and supply."
It argued that illegal private enterprise assumed "unnatural forms" because it is not "regulated" by the state.
"Why don't we think about how to use rationally a private entrepreneur behind the steering wheel, of course provided that a corresponding tax be imposed on his income?" the paper wrote. This would make sense, because the people are engaged in illegal private activity anyway, the paper said. "The best way is to use his initiative for the interests of the state."
Although the article was advanced to generate a public discussion, it is clear that the newspaper came down squarely in favor of its proposal.