Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Best Laid Plans…

Tibor R. Machan

Wimbledon is my favorite sporting event. I enjoy tennis very much and this particular tournament is the most exciting one for me. One reason tennis suits me so well is that it seems to me the most individualistic while least violent of sports. But never mind about that now.

This year Wimbledon has been plagued by relentless rain—several matches have run for days on end because of this, more so than ever before, we are told by those who keep track of such matters. And this is no small thing for many of the players and their entourage. After all, they will have to have spent a good deal of money on just staying around, whether they are winners or losers. The rain will have inconvenienced—no, burdened—nearly everyone involved.

But think: this is an event that is planned with the full cooperation of all the participants. Yet, a bad spell of weather can wreak havoc with the plans.

There may be another lesson here for all those who fantasize about planning a country’s economic and other affairs. Not only are the unforeseeable factors like weather an obstacle to such planning. But in the case of a country’s economy a great many who are part of the plan have little interest in cooperating with the planners, quite the contrary.

Government planning is coercive—it interferes with a great many of the people’s own plans, desires, wishes, wants, intentions. And it does so quite illegitimately—in the ethical, not legal sense of that idea. After all, government regulations, apart from some purely judicial matters, amounts to a form of prior restraint. People’s conduct is being commandeered without their having done anything wrong. (Only in journalism is this explicitly forbidden in America, at least, yet it ought to be in the case of the conduct of all professionals. Just think about professional licensing—which imposes heavy burdens on people who have not been proven to have done anything to deserve such burdens!)

As a result, the bulk of government planning is likely to be resisted by a great many in a country’s population. Such resistance will manifest itself by way of extensive efforts by people in all walks of life to dodge the will of the planners—in big business usually by way of extensive legal departments. (Note to Ralph Nader & Co.: Imposing government regulation helps support big business, since small business is ill equipped to cope with the expenses needed to cope with the regulators.)

So, not only does the world itself undermine the efforts of government planners and regulators, via all the unforeseeable obstacles that will stand in the way of the plans; there is also the fact that, unlike at Wimbledon and many other private sector events, most of those for whom the plans are concocted have no devotion to making it work out right.

But of course, fantasists aren’t bothered by such elementary realities. They, following the lead of an arguably crude interpretation of Plato’s Republic, imagine a perfect system, removed from time and space—those annoying obstacles to utopia—and proceed to seek the power to impose their vision on the rest. Too many intellectuals have tended to follow this lead in understanding politics until, at least, the classical liberals realized that a spontaneous order is the only one that’s rational to hope for. Any other “order” simply ushers in what the brilliant Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises dubbed “planned chaos.”

I am not a pessimist by nature, so I think there may in the long run be progress toward accepting the impossibility of regimenting human affairs from above. After all, history does bear out the observation that efforts to promote a more or less free society has been reasonably successful and fruitful—in a kind of two steps ahead, one step behind way. Still, the lessons indicating the merits of not trying to force plans on us all from centers of political power are not being learned rapidly enough and many will be victimized before they are widely and fully grasped!

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