Society has advanced from a state of general poverty to widespread prosperity through the use of machinery and labor-saving devices, increasing productivity by allowing a higher degree of specialization and division of labor. All that machines really do is harness the laws of nature for the satisfaction of human needs and wants. Politicians and economists use the metaphor of the machine as a model for the economy and society. They presume that, like a machine, the economic engine responds predictably to their manipulations. The machine metaphor breaks down, however, when one realizes that, rather than having levers and buttons on a control panel, an economy has millions of simultaneous, independent, uncontrollable and unpredictable inputs.
A more appropriate metaphor for an economy is a rocky cove on the ocean shore. The behavior of the surf in the cove can be observed and measured, but it cannot be predicted and it cannot be controlled without cutting it off from the world and the forces of nature. The waves in the cove are influenced by a host of different inputs from various sources: the strength and direction of the wind, the direction, frequency and amplitude of the waves, the rising or falling of the tides, and so forth. The vegetation and wildlife inhabiting it, or even kids throwing stones or boulders in it, will create changes which will ripple through the system.
Someone could build a protective wall around the cove to keep out the wind and waves and even the wayward youth. That would serve the purpose of making life predictable, calm and controllable, but that very act would spell the death of the cove. The stagnant water would soon turn putrid, unable to sustain life for anything but lethargic, bottom-feeding scavengers. Life and vitality requires constant renewal and change. The most lively and vibrant sea life occurs in the coral reefs, constantly pounded by the waves, stirred up and forced to compete in the never-ending chaos of life.
An economy is similar to that reef or that cove, subjected to incessant rejuvenation, carrying danger and risk, but always bearing opportunity as its trusty sidekick. A vibrant economy is not a machine or a vehicle which is controllable by pulling levers, pushing buttons, or applying the accelerator or brakes. It is an extraordinarily complex system made up of vital, living, choosing beings, influenced by innumerable inputs, from volcano eruptions and hurricanes to human emotion and disease.
It is absurd to believe that a central engineer could meet the needs and achieve the goals of every individual by simultaneously controlling all machines, vehicles and devices in country. The engineer cannot even know what those goals and needs are. It is just as absurd to believe that a centralized economic or social engineer could control all inputs and outputs of an economy by political manipulation and coercion. It is, in fact, more absurd to try to control an economy because, as opposed to materials with set physical properties, the human material in society adjusts its behavior to thwart the controls of the planner.
Many times throughout history, social engineers have tried to force their plans on the populace. Each time has ended in failure proportional to the arrogance of the planners. The United States has been descending into the depths of social planning for decades. Politicians and unelected bureaucrats have been boxing in the citizens of this country, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting us from ourselves. Our lives are constrained by 72,000 pages of federal regulations, which would fill a book shelf 21feet long, not including the 50 separate bodies of often-contradictory state legislation. The rules constantly change and the burden on productive citizens steadily rises. We have had our good times, but, as the saying goes, eventually the chickens come home to roost. We have sown the same seeds of social control as our European neighbors and are beginning to reap the bitter fruit.
A governing body cannot create jobs. It can only redirect them from their market functions. It cannot stimulate an economy without stealing resources and productivity from other people in other places, or from future generations. A diverse population with millions of people, covering millions of square miles, cannot be treated like machines without stripping them of their freedom and dignity and isolating them from economic opportunity. Sooner or later, people will realize that our politicians have been programming us in pursuit of their utopian vision. We may realize too soon that that it is too late.
Dan McLaughlin is a columnist for The Post-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.