Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sure the Central Planning Elite has Failed. But People Still Want Free Stuff

In these bleak Obama times it's bracing to read a good solid piece by Kevin Williamson, "Unmanageable Man," that prophesies the end of the central-planning era.

Take violence, he writes.  It's down and nobody knows why. Some people think it's due to "broken-windows" policing, but crime is down in cities that didn't do the Bill Bratton thing. Some people think it's abortion. Or no-fault divorce. Or some other government program of the central-planning state.

But the truth is that nobody knows.

It all comes down to the fact that you can't manage man. Cue Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek on the complexity of all human action and the "pretense of knowledge" which in our public-policy debates "is practically an article of faith."

Reality is remorselessly wearing away the planners' pretense, according to Williamson.
In 2008... their ambitions were done in by the houses in which we live... Washington's response was to apply to health care the same effective management it had brought to housing policy, executing its program with approximately the ineptitude that might have been expected.
Thus with the failure of the central-planning paradigm the Left is reduced to "performing public-relations work on behalf of a collection of parochial economic interests and sundry tribal enthusiasms."

Of course, this failure will inspire the Left to redouble their efforts, "with denunciations of enemies of the people, and demands for ever-more-extraordinary powers to deal with the [permanent] emergency."

But the "world is moving on from command and control" with Google a world away from the Rayburn Office Building.
Power is shifting decisively in the direction of technology, capital, and innovation, and the planners are on the verge of losing, and spectacularly.
"Rare words, brave world," as Falstaff said. This is wonderful, stirring stuff, red meat for a libertarian conservative like me.

But I want to throw some cold water on things before we get too excited.

I think that the point of central planning is not that it is effective, but that it provides a rationale for our modern ruling class, to give it permission to do what any ruling class does naturally, which is to reward its supporters with loot and plunder.

In other words I believe that the central-planning philosophy is a specific instance of behavior that you will find in any ruling class. Any government, from a robber band to a global empire, stays in power by rewarding its supporters with loot and plunder. The chief of a robber band is merely frank about it: he simply promises his recruits the prospect of loot and plunder from the band's successful raids upon innocent travelers and isolated farm-houses. A guerrilla band chief offers his fighters various government positions after the present unjust regime has been defeated and run out of the presidential palace. Kings of feudal kingdoms offer their barons rich lands and estates in return for their loyalty. Our modern educated elite offers "rights" to workers, to women, to minorities, to gays. It promises tax credits for electric cars to its environmental followers. It promises labor-friendly laws to its labor union supporters. It promises wind-farm subsidies to its green billionaire pals. The central-planning both a claim to competence and a cunning effort to bring the entire economy under the supervision of administrative ukase; anything can be ordered from the central planning bureaucracy, with supporters rewarded and opponents punished. And everything is justified in the national interest: greedy bankers and ruthless speculators beware.

How convenient. How ordinary.

So what if the centrally planned housing policy nearly wrecked the economy? For decades politicians could promise "affordable housing" to voters and get elected. So what if centrally planned "universal health care" wrecks the health care system? It offers free stuff to millions of moderate income voters who will vote appropriately at the next election.

The central planning conceit quiets the conscience of the educated ruling class. It also has clear advantages for many of the supporters. If you are a serf-like person, one whose philosophy of life is to find a powerful patron and shelter under his umbrella of power, the rigid administrative state and availability of free stuff solves a big problem. It frees you from making decisions about your life.

In the modern individualist society the individual bears the burden of making all kinds of key life decisions: what job to get, how much house, car, entertainment he can afford. How to educate the kids. How much to save. How much is enough for health insurance.  It is a heavy burden. It is responsible individualism.

But the big government welfare state run by the educated ruling class offers a way out. Its free education system makes it only too easy to dump the kids at the government school. Its Social Security/Medicare programs make it easy to put off saving for old age. Its health insurance subsidies mean that moderate income people can get by spending less money on health care. If you want to opt out of the mandatory centrally-planned system you have to pay twice.

But when you accept the government's mess of pottage you slide from proud independence into quasi serfdom. It doesn't really matter that much to you if the centrally-planned programs don't work too well. You can tell your best friend that at least you have health care, at least the kids are getting an education; you can tell your buddies that you don't have to worry about retirement, what with Social Security and the government pension. You can shuck off the burden of responsible individualism and ease off the work effort a little.

It is perfectly obvious that the centrally planned welfare state is perfectly acceptable to millions of people. Oh sure, they grumble and kvetch about the "system" but they don't actually do anything about it.

So I'm afraid that the failure of central planning doesn't mean the end of liberalism as we know it. Our liberal friends will still be offering free stuff way into the future. They will just have to look for a new rationale, a new apology for their rule, that will satisfy their own quest for legitimacy and quieten any nagging questions in the minds of their bribed apologists and their electoral supporters.

I have enough respect for our liberal friends to know that they will come up with something.

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