The Downsides and Dangers of Mission Making

We are all familiar with the phrase, “He is on a mission.” When said, the connotation may be positive or negative, but either way it is presumed that the person in question is pursuing a greater purpose from a higher source or authority than in normal, everyday life. There are some who are now calling for us to be on higher “Missions” for humankind, instead of following our own everyday personal affairs in peaceful marketplace interactions with others.

It used to be said that society needs planning. Now, of course, all of us as individuals make and pursue plans. We plan our day, we plan our careers, we plan our family affairs, and we plan our retirements or our vacations. We make plans with others, like arranging to meet someone for lunch, or collaboratively starting and running a business with partners, or buying a house or a car from a willing supplier at an agreed-upon price.

Government Planning Replaces Personal Planning

But this is not what was meant when it was said that society needs planning. The claim was that all of these individual, voluntary, and market-based interactive plans failed to focus on the Big Picture — that is, that there were things that required society-wide planning to attain goals that went beyond and above the goals of all the individual plans of all the people in society.

For these greater purposes, which it was said were far more important than our little and self-interested personal plans, the Plan had to be imposed on everyone. Or, in other words, everyone’s individual desires and dreams reflected in their personal plans had to become subordinate to and confined within the Plan that was said to be good for all of us together as members of society.

Now, it was, of course, the government that implemented and imposed the Plan in place of all those individual plans and actions. After all, government has the means of coercively making everyone fit within and follow their assigned part in the Plan. Government can tax away or simply confiscate the resources and raw materials, the land, and the capital equipment needed to undertake the Plan. And it can prohibit or regulate options for employment outside of the Plan, thus directly or indirectly compelling the labor services wanted from members of society, without which those individuals could not earn a living.

But the older, totalitarian planning still has a bad name after the events of the 20th century, as experienced in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and other countries where the Plan was part of one-party dictatorships. Planning in these instances was accompanied by too much tyranny, too much brutality, too much violence and mass murder, too much societal destruction.

Looking for a New Name for “Good” Planning

So the proponents of planning are always looking for terms and phrases that do not as easily conjure up the negative imageries that Soviet and Nazi government planning still create in too many people’s minds. Not that they are themselves communists or Nazis just looking to sell the same bill of goods as these older versions under a changed brand. Most of them would sincerely be insulted by suggesting such a purpose or ulterior motive on their part.

It can be reasonably presumed that their intentions are entirely benevolent. But it needs to be remembered that government planning, as a technique, is a means to an end. And as a means, it has the formal capacity to serve any number of different ends, any one of which may be considered benevolent or malevolent, depending upon the set of values and the perspective from which it is judged.

A government can apply some form of planning to try to design a master race and eliminate a claimed inferior one. Or it can utilize the methods and tools of planning to shift all production from fossil fuels to solar or wind-based energy sources. A government bureaucracy can create the Plan and be responsible only to a one-party central committee. Or the designing of the Plan and its components may be the result of a political process through the actions of democratically elected representatives.

The political processes by which the goals and targets of a plan are decided upon, therefore, can be institutionally very different. And the particular ends for which the Plan is actually carried out can be very different from any number of other goals. This is basically the reason why those who today call for forms of government planning object to and resent being in any way associated with communists or Nazis.

As long as the Plan is decided upon through some legitimate democratic procedure and as long as the purposes for which the Plan is designed and implemented are good and socially just,  the Plan cannot be criticized or challenged, it is said, on the same grounds as those point made against the Soviet or Nazi uses and types of central planning in the past.

Needing to Politically Pursue Bigger Purposes

For instance, a recent article, “Let’s Get Real About Purpose,” referred to centrally designed and implemented purposes with democratic and participatory government in the lead. The author, Mariana Mazzucato, is a professor of economics and the director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London. She is also on the British Labor party’s Economic Advisory Committee.

She supports moving from a “predatory” to a “more inclusive” capitalism. Businesses should focus less on profit maximization to benefit shareholders and more on benefiting “stakeholders” in their enterprises, meaning placing a greater emphasis on companies’ “employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”

Furthermore, thinking about value in society as a matter of individual choice and purpose is too narrow, she insists. There are society-wide values: a clean environment, better education for all, and health care for everyone in the community. So, instead, it needs to be “recognized that value is created collectively,” and we need to “build more symbiotic partnerships between public and private institutions and civil society.”

To do this, governments should use the United Nations’ 17 “Sustainable Development Goals” to “create incentives that require investment and innovation from many public, private, and civil society organizations.” As part of this, since private companies benefit from government infrastructure and public-goods expenditures as well as various research and investment subsidies, any profits that may be earned by those private enterprises should be shared with the government so government can spend more on such things.

Mission Making in Place of Personal Plans

Professor Mazzucato teased out all that she means by this in a report that she prepared in 2018: “Mission-Oriented Research and Innovation in the European Union.” Instead of using the old-fashioned word “planning” to explain an agenda for government-directed and government-overseen economic development and innovation, the new catchword is “Mission.”

Mission-oriented policies can be defined as systematic public policies that draw on frontier knowledge to attain specific goals or “big science” deployed to meet big problems. Missions provide a solution, an opportunity, and an approach to address the numerous challenges that people face in their daily lives.

What are these big problems? Professor Mazzucato suggests the goals are clean air, decongested cities, and healthy and independent lives for those of all ages; further, there should be improved digital public services and discovered cures for cancer and obesity, among other goals. In other words, Missions, with a capital “M,” can help us create a better, happier, and more perfect world.

The problem, however, is that not everyone thinks the “problems” to which these goals are responses are problems, or they don’t assign the same degree of urgency to them or agree with certain particular ways of solving them. So the Missions that are chosen must have “societal relevance” for large segments of society. And informational (propaganda) campaigns must be constantly at work to keep the broad mass of the population interested in and enthusiastic about the Plan — oh, sorry, the Mission.

Mission Support, Rules, and Social Meaning

Popular support can be kept at high pitch by government-supported groups, for instance, getting the people out to pick plastic out of the water so their support for clean oceans will not lag, Professor Mazzucato suggests. An intricate network of categorized groups in industry and technology, labor organizations, consumer-advocacy and community groups, and elite government and bureaucratic experts will have to be brought together to design and implement the Mission, and to set longer-term and intermediate measured targets and goals, as well as keeping the mass of the citizenry excited and supportive.

The particular Mission has to be sufficiently structured that it has a clear and definable purpose, but not so rigid that it does not allow for modification along the path from the short run to the long run, including the end goal itself. It must have rules and standards for success and further funding, but they must not be so fixed that even failures or shortcomings might invalidate continued or even more financial support.

Besides the particular societal goals that such Missions are to be constructed to achieve, they should be considered as something good in themselves, Professor Mazzucato argues, to give everyone in the society a sense of collective meaning and group belonging — that is, a sense of “We’re all in it together” that makes all of us one. Everyone is to be a cheerful member of the collective.

If the Space Mission Got Us to the Moon…?

One of the inspirations for her conception of collective value and the need for such society-wide and all-incorporating Missions is the American mission to the moon. Here was something for which the best scientific minds and many of the country’s resources could be brought together to achieve a great national purpose bigger and better than our own personal affairs.

And it still challenges us, Professor Mazzucato says: “If we could pull together to get to the moon, why can’t we ‘solve’ illiteracy, or disease, or poverty, or racism, or…” Rightly structured, Missions can create that sense of society-wide purpose, she says, and bring together the dispersed resources, skills, and know-how to innovate, solve, improve, and grow all the good and desirable things in our communities.

It seems all so beautiful, so good, so great, and so much bigger than our own narrow, personal, and petty purposes. Plus, for people like Professor Mazzucato, there is the sense of being part of the design, implementation, and achievement of the Mission. There is nothing as rewarding, clearly, as being one of the social engineers, one of the central planners finally able to set all those wrong things right. After all, they only want that power to do good. What could be more virtuous? Being a social justice warrior out to save the planet is a wonderful thing.

The Myth That Social Values Exist Separate From Individuals

The essential dichotomy deployed for justifying society-wide imposed central plans or Missions by government is a claimed crucial difference between the interests of the individual and those of the community as a whole. And that is what Professor Mazzucato does when she distinguishes between the focus that microeconomics gives to individual value judgments as they come to be compositely expressed publicly in the form of the prices formed on markets, and the more fundamental and collective values of the society as a whole.

The problem has always been, Who decides what those greater societal values really are, and how? Is it through a collective ownership of the means of production so the “proletariat” can overcome capitalist exploitation and ensure production for the needs of all rather than for private profit? Is it through a “racial purifying” to establish a superior ethnic group threatened by lower racial types? Or is it through “identity politics” to pursue some defined gender or racial equality? Or is it through planet-wide central weather control to end fossil fuel-based methods of production and clean the air? Or is it through national health care to cure cancer and reduce obesity?

Who decides the right values and goals and the relative importance of multiples of them competing for the scarce means with which to pursue them? And who decides (and how) which of them are complementary and which are in contradiction with each other? And when is pursuing one of them any further no longer worth the marginal cost of having less of some other goal?

People’s Views Can Differ From Those of the Mission Makers

For instance, a recent public-opinion poll found that almost 70 percent of those asked said that they considered global warming as real and a potentially serious problem in the future. But it is a problem that in their minds is generally ranked lower at present than health care, the economy, terrorism, and immigration.

Furthermore, while 57 percent said that they would be willing to pay $1 per month to fight global warming, only 28 percent of them would be agreeable to paying $10 per month to do so. This also means that 43 percent of those surveyed wouldn’t be willing to pay even $1 a month to “save the planet.” Oh, how selfish and shortsighted can such people be?

So who is right about the value to be placed on a Mission to slow down or reverse global warming — the people in a survey such as this one, or the “experts” inside and outside of government who insist that the scientific debate is closed and the end is near if we don’t mend our global ways? Or is it the other respected scientific voices that question the seriousness of global warming or the significance of the human factor in any such long-term trend if it is occurring?

Who therefore decides what Missions the government will design and implement? If it is the will of the people, as reflected in this opinion poll, spending money to fund the Mission to save the planet is a non-starter. Even if that 57 percent majority’s wishes were to be imposed on all, $1 taxed every month from everyone in America — about $330 million a month, or less than $4 billion a year — is not likely to do the trick. Why, that’s not even enough to pay for President Trump’s wall.

Society Is Free Individuals and Voluntary Associations

The inescapable fact is that there is no objective social-welfare function that can be defined, delineated, measured, and calculated to determine what “society” should do in its “own” interest. “Society” is only a covering term or shorthand for all the complex and interconnected relationships and associations among various distinct individual human beings.

For instance, we might refer to the National Geographic Society or the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics, two actual associations of individuals that share, respectively, particular common interests, for the pursuit of which they pay annual dues, and sometimes attend conferences or read literature relating to the specific goals these organizations were created to advance. There are also many individuals who belong to neither one, but may participate in others.

In a fully free society, which Professor Mazzucato rejects in the pursuit of her government-managed Missions, the diverse and differing values and goals of the individuals making up the wider society are reflected in the competitive marketplace and the voluntary associations of civil society.

An inherent quality of the free market is that it takes for granted the autonomy of the individual — not in the sense that he lives isolated or alone, but in the sense that he is viewed and respected as a distinct thinking, valuing, and acting human being. He may act wisely or foolishly, he may be more or less informed in his judgments and the decisions that he makes, and he may try to learn from his mistakes or may keep making some of the same “bad” choices.

But, in a free society, he is not considered to be a perpetual child needing compulsory guidance or imposed assistance by a political authority, whether that political authority claims legitimacy based on the asserted will of the few or the many. If someone thinks that this individual does not understand where his “true” interests lay, or if that someone thinks this individual does not possess all the information on the basis of which a better choice might be made so the same mistakes are not repeated, she is at liberty in a free society to explain, reason, and persuade that individual how to better choose and act.

What that someone may not do is to assert a right and an authority to impose goals and values on that individual without his voluntary consent. From the perspective of those who believe in the ethics and utility of respecting all individuals in their right to guide and manage their own lives, the role of government is to see that every individual is unmolested in his peaceful and honest choices and actions and interactions with others.

Human Cooperation in Markets and Civil Society

In the marketplace, people collaborate and reconcile their differences through competitive cooperation. The prices generated in the marketplace, for which Professor Mazzucato has a fairly low appreciation as a reflection of value in society, are in fact the composite results of multitudes of free individuals expressing what they consider important and the relative weight they assign to each desired end or object as represented in what they, as individuals, are willing to pay to buy it or receive to sell it.

Diversity and inclusiveness are offered and captured in the outcomes of the competitive marketplace precisely because it offers the opportunity for many different goals to be pursued and achieved at the same time. The overall outcome can include multitudes of things desired by nearly everyone, in that both majority and minority wishes can be and are fulfilled precisely because of the profit opportunities offered to supply goods and services to anyone who wants them. As long as demanders are willing and able to offer a price that more than covers the particular costs of production, some suppliers will market versions of the desired goods.

The market gives us both Haydn and heavy metal, five-star hotels and Motel 6, Cadillacs and Camrys, fancy four-course sit-down dining and fast food burgers with fries, private jets and coach-class flights, high-end boutique shopping and discount-clothing warehouses. Merely because you choose to buy your clothes on the cheap doesn’t mean you cannot spend some of your money on expensive dining, if you so choose. Just because you drive a used Chevy doesn’t mean you can’t save and go on a cruise ship vacation with a first-class cabin if you value it enough to forgo other things and pay the price. (See my articles “Political Planning vs. Personal Planning by Everyone” and “The Market Democracy vs. Democratic Socialism.”)

In the same way, people decide the relative importance of causes to possibly support. Some give to cancer research, while others give donations to homeless shelters or places for abused women and children. Still others may be supporters of concert symphonies, while some put money aside for their own children’s college education or to see that their kids have music or dance lessons or can be in Little League baseball. Plus, doing any one of these things with some of one’s time and money does not preclude supporting and helping to fund other things at the same time. Decision-making, after all, is always on “the margin.” (See my article “Individual Freedom and Civil Society.”)

Mission Democracy Is Still Planning Dictatorship

Whether political planners like Professor Mazzucato like to hear it or not, with their big Missions for society, what they dislike, disagree with, and really have contempt for are all the free and personal choices that others in society make that she does not agree with.

In turning to government, whether dictatorial or democratic, those who think like Professor Mazzucato want to impose their own personal value judgments on everyone else in society. They may talk about more objective or community-wide values, purposes, and goals that matter to  everyone more than their personal interests; but this is merely mystical rhetoric to rationalize imposing their own personal, subjective value judgments on the rest of humankind.

Communists and Nazis were on Missions also with their agendas for a bright, beautiful, better world. Those Missions were just different from the ones Professor Mazzucato wants to see implemented with induced enthusiasm through mass public events and propaganda campaigns to keep the people supporting the Mission plans.

The problem, therefore, is not simply with the goals to which government planning and Missions are to be applied, though of course they matter as well. The more general problem is with government planning and Mission making, as such — that is, with this type of means regardless of the ends for which it is being used. (See my article “Great National Purposes Mean Less Freedom.”)

The Downsides and Dangers of Mission Making

First, government-planned Missions by necessity mean abrogating at least some and possibly many of the free and personal plans of the respective members of the society. They are superseded by plans and Missions politically imposed on many of those who may disagree with the ends they are being forced to serve or with the means chosen to achieve an end they agree with.

Second, this necessarily means that regardless of the rhetoric and rationales used to explain and justify the ends chosen and the means being applied within the Mission plan, even democratic planning is dictatorial in its nature because it makes either a minority or a majority subject to purposes that they do not share, and which they are coercively made to serve, and from which they cannot easily escape.

Third, planning and Mission making undermine or distort the only social mechanism through which it can be rationally discovered what it is that people really value and what they would be willing to pay to obtain what they value, and how to most cost-efficiently achieve them. That is, central planning and Missions undermine or eliminate the competitive market process of price formation that incorporates the judgments and appraisements of all participants in the division of labor in buying and selling, producing and consuming.

Fourth, Mission making turns economic decision-making into a political conflict of interest groups possessing bargaining power in the halls of government to determine what gets done, in what ways, and for whose benefit. This was seen with Professor Mazzucato’s description of Mission designing of evaluation benchmarks for success or failure and increased or decreased funding. Market-based profit and loss are eliminated and replaced by amorphous rigidities and flexibilities that enable political manipulation and logrolling to decide and justify any arbitrary change in what gets funded and for which purpose.

Fifth, therefore, what gets produced, how it gets produced, and where and for whom it is produced are taken out of the hands of the actual individuals making free and voluntary choices in the arenas of market exchange and the associations of civil society. In their place are self-appointed “experts” and elected holders of governmental office who decide what is in the interests of the people in the form of the Plans and Missions, which are coercively imposed on all the actual individual human beings living under the Plans’ jurisdiction.

For those unwilling to give up on government planning, Mission making offers rhetorical cover to bottle old ideological wine under a new political label. It remains, nonetheless, the same: the seeking of political power by those who assert that they know what people should want, value, and do, better than those people themselves. Scratch the democratic surface, and you still find the same dictatorial planning material at work.

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Richard M. Ebeling

 Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. Ebeling lived on AIER's campus from 2008 to 2009.