Friday, January 15, 2010

Planners and Earthquakes

Tibor R. Machan

It is no fun to use the Haiti earthquake as an object lesson--it may take away from the first business of the day, namely, to extend one's generosity to those who have been devastated by it. Still, once one has done one's part to help, to send off ones support, there are some lessons, also, to be learned.

One of these is that the effort by governments to plan our lives, to pursue collective economic and related goals, faces yet another obstacle. It is only a reminder, of course, since the fact of which it reminds us surrounds us day in and out, never mind the magnitude of the disruption. Even the daily weather should call to mind the impossibility of massive government planning. Yet the most powerful obstacles to government planning aren't the phenomena of impersonal but certain basic facts of human nature.

Human beings are the same in only very limited respects. Yes, we all need nourishment and air and shelter and the like but even these we need in a great variety of different ways. Even that prominently promoted idea of universal health care cannot be delivered in a one-size-fits-all fashion since people differ in what can cure their maladies, what ails them, and even in how much value excellent health is to them--a mountain climber, for instance, needs to be far more fit than a columnist!

Even at the elementary levels people are very different from one another. When we factor in their enormously diverse goals and purposes and tastes and preferences, the problem of devising plans for them from afar--a national or state capitol, let alone some international center of political power--multiplies beyond imagination. Even such a widely embraced public policy as is pursued by, say, the Food and Drug Administration of the US Federal Government turns out to be absurd, given how different people are with respect to what kind of medicines will help them, what they are allergic to, what the proper dosage is that will serve them well. Not even their proper weight can be calculated without serious qualification--we have just learned, from the UK, that having a sizable rear end can be a health benefit for some!

The brilliant father of the Austrian School of economics, Ludwig von Mises, and his Nobel Laureate pupil, F. A. Hayek, along with several of their very bright students have shown in the early parts of the 20th century that government planners face literally insurmountable hurdles. If one remembers that their plans are supposed to suit millions and millions of different human individuals, not ants or bees that tend to be pretty much indistinguishable from each other, the notion that their lives can be planned by bureaucrats in far off places becomes evident nonsense. What the economist demonstrated with their sophisticated theories (and what recent history bore out so clearly) is that no one, no group of policy wonks, can figure out how to make us all prosper, how to anticipate what will be best for us economically. Only the spontaneous workings of the free market can do this, wherein the great variety of prices manage to reflect better than anything else can what it is that people need and want and how to fulfill it all by way of a enormously complex system of supply and demand.

A massive earthquake is only a reminder of what the Austrian economists taught with their research and theoretical work--the most reasonable economic system is one that lets decisions be made on the ground, among the free men and women who make the market do its work. Of course, hardly any politicians can readily admit this since they must always pretend that without their meddling in our lives we would all remain inept and helpless. But as Adam Smith and many other economists have made clear, the best plans are laid by those who must live with them, not by people in high places. Even when a disaster like that in Haiti hits, and when worldwide efforts are extended to try to lessen its blow, it must be those at ground zero who ultimately decide what sort of help, and where, is most fruitful.

Government planning is not only an enemy of human freedom but also a major obstacle to economic efficiency.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Alarm versus Panic

Tibor R. Machan

Raising star of mainstream media, Fareed Zakaria, on his Sunday CNN program GPS (Global Public Square), chided American officials and commentators for responding to the failed, near-miss terrorist attack in Detroit with panic. He based his assessment on the fact that there have been numerous calls for greater vigilance in defense of the realm and that the errors that helped the perpetrator to almost succeed were roundly lamented and finger pointing was in evidence everywhere. Falling in line with the atmosphere of tolerance and understanding, as opposed to one of condemnation and punishment, Zakaria is concerned that by showing panic, the very objective of terrorists will be enhanced. What they want, he argued, is to scare us all out of our whits. By panicking we will have actually encouraged them to do more similar deeds, even if they do not succeed in out and out murder.

There is, of course, something to Zakaria's concern but he is also overstating his point. It sounds more like he is trying to show off his low key, civilized, worldly attitude than to aim for in depth understanding. I believe it would be far more accurate to characterize much of the reaction to the near-miss terrorist attack as alarm instead of panic. The mistakes that helped the terrorist get as far as he did were terrible and while no one ought to respond to them with panic--whoever benefits from that--it is quite appropriate to be alarmed.

The various agents who should have exercised greater professional vigilance did rightly create alarm in us all and we are right, indeed, to be alarmed and to make a special effort to thwart such attacks. This imperative is especially vital given that in a relatively free country the means available for thwarting terrorists need to be confined to what will not overstep the limits of people's human and civil rights. Panic is that would ignore the limits those rights pose to public and private efforts to cope with terrorism and the failed attempts to deal with it properly. But alarm can increase appropriate vigilance and thus guide the responsible parties toward greater success in the future.

Despite his civilized, urbane demeanor, Mr. Zakaria, who not only hosts this program but is also the editor of Newsweek International, appears himself to react to this terrorist act with more sophistry than wisdom. He seems to be eager to put down all those around the world who are really concerned about terrorism and who, moreover, believe that the attitude of tolerance and understanding toward the perpetrators may very well encourage them to try more of the same. By calling those who are concerned peddlers of panic instead of people who are alarmed and wish to learn from this experience and improve the prospect for discouraging terrorist, maybe even scaring them to desist rather than try more, Mr. Zakaria appears to be more concerned with promoting a kind of multicultural, relativist view of terrorists than is justified. When one keeps stressing that such maniacs need to be better understood instead of dealt with effectively and even harshly, one lessens the loyalty to the values of peaceful coexistence among people. Instead one is saying, in effect, "Well we realize you folks have problems and laments and while we dislike what you are doing about them, don't worry, we will not assert ourselves in ways that will stand in the way of your thinking and acting."

Of course, the approach that Mr. Zakaria seems to favor is well in line with the widespread amoralism of our age--no one is responsible for malpractice, it is all the fault of circumstances and only those are guilty of anything at all who fail to fall in line with this kind of thinking.

When we keep looking for explanations of terrorism rather than for effective ways to combat it, we suggest that terrorism is a kind of inevitable disease instead of a controllable human failing. Nothing good can come from this.