– May 28, 2019
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Who knows what might be better or best for you? You or those in the government? We all make mistakes and misjudgments, but who is most likely to have a wider and deeper appreciation of your wants and desires, you or a bureaucrat in an often-faraway government agency? Who is more likely to have an insight into the options and opportunities for achieving your wants and desires, you or a handful of politicians focused on their own goals and political purposes?

Expressed in this general way, most of us would say that each of us knows the answers to these questions better than any politicians or bureaucrats. If I am your next-door neighbor, and I proceed to impose my views on you about the ends you should pursue and the best means to attain them, most likely you would resent and resist this insistent know-it-all busybody interfering in your life. Who am I to tell you what you should live for and how to do it?

When People Want Others’ Opinions They Ask

We do frequently turn to the advice and informed opinions of others. We consult with the medical doctor about an illness we may have and the treatments to overcome it. We hire financial advisors to suggest how best to invest our money for the future. We contract with an inspector to evaluate the structural soundness of a new or existing house we are thinking of buying. We turn to a neighbor to find out his experience about a lawnmower or car or a dishwasher they have bought, when we might be in the market to buy one of these ourselves.

We also consult publications such as Consumer Reports on the quality and reliability of various goods we might be interested in purchasing. And certainly today, we turn to the internet to find out the evaluation of multitudes of others in society who we may never know or meet about their experiences and conclusions concerning goods and services we are thinking of buying. In all of this, we decide what advice and judgments and whose seem most reasonable and relevant to solve our problems and use them as guides in deciding on our own courses of action.

How much information and knowledge is worth getting before making our decisions on these and many other things is decided by each of us as consumers and producers. Some people do meticulous and detailed searches in making such decisions, while others seem to “shoot from the hip” in deciding how, what, and when to do something.

Everybody Is a Better Judge of Their Own Circumstances

Each person weighs for him- and herself the (marginal) costs and (marginal) benefits in how best to make a more or less informed choice, based on the importance that choice has for them and the value they place on the cost of time and resources that would have to be taken away from other things to be more informed before making any particular decision.

Entrepreneurs and private enterprisers also have to make these decisions: how best to apply their business abilities and acumen in deciding in what corner of the market to invest their time and resources, and to apply their talents in organizing and directing the business for which they are taking on responsibility. This includes the technologies and resources to use, the capital equipment to acquire, and the workers and labor skills to hire and employ.

Whether it is the consumer’s choice or the enterpriser’s investment and business decision, the cost of a failed or less-than-hoped-for success falls upon the individual having made those choices and decisions. Surely, then, the person who runs this risk has the nearest and dearest motive and incentive to try to get it more right rather than more wrong.

Errors, mistakes, incorrect judgments, and disappointed outcomes are inescapable in the real world of imperfect human knowledge, and in the ever-changing circumstances in the physical and social world. With all this considered, could anyone or any institution do it all better than each individual in society, for themselves?

The Danger of Each Claiming to Know How Others Should Live

It is certainly true that we often look at others and think to ourselves, how could this person live like that? How can they think that “that” is worth spending and wasting their time in trying to achieve? What is going through that other person’s mind in thinking that “this” means or method is the best one to reach some end or goal?

And you know something? You might be right, and that other person might be wrong. But by what right can you assert the right to interfere with their life and their actions? First of all, if you believe that freedom has any value, it must include at its core the right of each person to have the latitude and liberty to make their own choices and decisions — even if it includes them making their own mistakes and experiencing their own disappointments, which they might have not made if only they had had the “wisdom” to listen to you.

Once you go down the road to imposed paternalism — even though you have the best of intentions and feel very, very confident that you are right about what that other person should do — where do you, or I, or any other person draw the line? It is an inescapable potentially slippery slope. The reason is that there is no reason that others will think that the place you want to draw the line beyond which the individual should not be coerced into the “right” choice or decision will be where they will consider it the right place to draw that line; or there may very well be some who do not draw any line, believing that there is no choice and decision being outside of potential outside intervention and control.

Second of all, once the meddling-busybody premise is accepted and it is considered legitimate for me to paternalistically intervene in your life and reciprocally legitimate for you to paternalistically intervene in my life, we reach the peculiar conclusion that we are all informed and intelligent enough to direct other people’s lives, but we are not competent to oversee and guide our own, respective, lives. We are incompetent to plan and implement our own decisions, but we are wise and informed enough to do so for others. Surely, if we are not competent to plan our own individual lives, it seems not too unreasonable to conclude that the same human shortcomings lead to the conclusion that we are not wise and knowledgeable enough to plan the lives of others, as well.

From Private Busybody to Political Meddler

So who, then, can or could claim that they possess this extraordinary capacity to plan their own lives and those of others? In the past the answer to this has come in one of two ways: an individual or elite who have claimed that “history” or some “higher power” or some “special intuition” has been given to them to see, understand, and know what ordinary human beings have not been privileged to be able to know and understand.

Or, the meddlers have been raised to such power and authority through the democratic electoral process with the “will of the majority” claimed to legitimize them taking on such political responsibility through government enforcement. This raises the question as to how it is that the citizens of a society are informed and knowledgeable enough to democratically appoint those who will then be expected to tell them how to live and interact with others, but they are too uninformed to do that living and those interactions based on their own personal decisions. I am not capable of being self-governing over my own affairs, but I am somehow knowledgeable and informed enough to appoint those who will govern and command me.

Nonetheless, the arrogance and hubris of such presumptions of knowing how to guide and direct other people’s lives never seems to reach an end. No matter how many failures and disappointments from such paternalism in the past, it seems that there is always a new crop of economic- and social-policy busybodies to assert their ability to do the meddling — and this time get it right.

For instance, Harvard University Professor Dani Rodrik and Charles Sabel of Columbia University recently have said that government must institute “An Industrial Policy for Good Jobs.” They insist that America must go beyond the existing network of government interventions and redistributions with a “new set of ‘productivist’ measures that intervene directly in the real economy, targeting the expansion of productive jobs.”

Professional Meddlers’ Plans for a More Productive America

The problem, they say, is that the focus of the current interventionist-welfare state is to regulate the existing structure of industrial and investment activity and redistribute wealth within the existing patterns of employments and wages. The “next level” is to introduce government policies that transform industry, investment, and work and wages into those avenues that represent the more productive and higher-valued employment opportunities of the future.

Risks and uncertainties, you see, hold back and tie down private enterprises on their own. They stay in the more or less current niches of production and employment or only move in new directions too slowly and cautiously to enable the economy to really take off and improve the conditions of the working population. They admit that knowing what is a “good job” is not always easy and not completely unambiguous. But even so, the task of the next generation of meddling busybodies is the following:

First, by legislation or other means, the government commits to address the problem of bad jobs, creates an interagency body to review and prompt improvement of regulatory responses, and provides funds and authority for voluntary programs. Second, regulators currently overseeing areas directly affecting job abundance and quality — vocational training, agricultural and manufacturing extension, standard setting, and the like — introduce governance mechanisms that not only induce innovation, but also anticipate the need for support services to help vulnerable actors comply with increasingly demanding requirements. The requirements could take different forms, including specific employment quantity targets and/or standards.

Third, where current regulatory authority doesn’t reach, the government creates volunteer, public-private programs to advance the frontiers of technology and organization, or — perhaps more important — provides support services and possibly subsidies to help low-productivity/low-skill firms move to the advanced sector. Finally, conditional on the success of voluntary arrangements, the scope of these practices would gradually be made obligatory for non-participating firms, starting with mandatory submission of credible plans for improving the quality and quantity of jobs.

The Political Meddler as Central Planner

Here we have the economics busybodies who presume to know where businesses should invest and in what technologies to invest to enhance what they define as the more “productive” methods of production to increase the value of workers and the wages they may earn as a result. They wish to use the power and tax-funded financial means at the government’s disposal to subsidize, direct, and target how the actors on the demand and supply sides of the marketplace will use their wealth and private enterprises concerning the application of their investable property.

Businesses will be obligated to set goals, demonstrate success in pursuing them, and answer why they have only gone so far along the politically directed road and not further in creating the investments, technologies, and jobs that Professors Rodrik and Sabel consider best for the good of the society as a whole.

Notice that at first they propose “voluntary” government-business partnerships to test the social-engineering techniques for improving, as they say, the qualities and quantities of the jobs that they consider the most desirable. But having gotten into their central-planning “groove,” they then say that the government’s reach will extend beyond those private enterprises that at first “freely” decided to collaborate with these political planners to “be made obligatory for non-participating firms.”

In other words, the end goal of our planning paternalists is the command economy, the government-directed market, with all businesses required to follow the planner’s investment and employment directives and, presumably, be subject to some type of punishment if the imposed targets are not met. And be sure, if any private enterprise fails to meet the targets it will be declared to be another instance of a demonstrated “market failure.” It is a new proof that government will need to far more directly take control over such enterprises to fulfill the technological and employment targets because profit-motivated self-interest cannot be trusted to improve the quality and quantity of those most productive and valued enhanced jobs in the American economy.

The Arrogance of Knowing What Is Best for Others

The arrogance and hubris of a Professor Rodrik or a Professor Sabel is no different, I would argue, than the neighborhood meddlers and busybodies who say they know how we should live, how we should act, how we should associate with others. They would, likely, claim they are not like the nosey old biddy in the house next door who watches everything you do, gossips about all the wrong things you are doing in your life, and tries to get others on the block to condemn and pressure you to conform to how the meddling busybody thinks you should behave.

Dani Rodrik is, after all, a Harvard University economist, and Charles Sabel is a Columbia University law professor. They are, well, the experts building and playing with their mathematical and statistical models of the economy and the legal structures of the society for inducing certain forms of human conduct rather than others. They are implicitly presuming, I would suggest, that because they are trained professional academic social meddlers, they know what has to be done and how to impose the right industrial policies to generate the jobs that they think to be good and best. They are, after all, “qualified” social busybodies as opposed to merely neighborhood amateur ones.

If the Political Meddler Gets It Wrong Others Pay for It

But who bears the costs if they get it wrong? Will they lose their academic tenure? Will they be shunned and ostracized by those in their economic and legal fields? Will they be required to wear sackcloth and ashes as penance for making the conditions of their fellow man possibly worse than if they had left their intervening hands to themselves?

No. They will rationalize the disappointment and failures by pointing to the selfishness of the businessmen who did not do what they were told; they will argue that they just need more data and more discretionary authority and control to get it right; they will never admit that they were guilty of what Austrian economist F. A. Hayek called a “pretense of knowledge” in believing that they could know more and better than the multitude of market actors and social participants who possess the divided and dispersed knowledge that the economic planner can never know and successfully master. (See my article “F.A. Hayek and Why Government Can’t Manage Society.”)

In the image of small-town life where the meddling busybody may be irritatingly and incessantly putting their nose into other people’s business, the right response by the target and victim of such presumptuous intrusions is to tell that neighbor to mind their own business. They should keep their advice and comments to themselves, unless they are asked for them. And they should stop trying to churn up trouble in the neighborhood with their constant attempts to cause trouble with their unasked-for invasions into other people’s affairs.

Social- and economic-policy meddlers and busybodies should be told the same thing. They should keep their interventionist and planning schemes to themselves. If businessmen investing and risking their own capital need advice about how best to employ it, they can ask chosen consultants for assistance. If workers want or need help in deciding what human capital may be best to invest in in terms of education and training, they can find their own sources of information and advice.

Tell All Meddlers to Mind Their Own Business

Who asked for Professors Rodrik and Sabel’s advice? And if that advice is so useful and valuable to private sector investors and employees in the marketplace, why do they need to be peddling their meddling to the government, an institution that forces courses of action on people rather than persuading them through reason and voluntary choice?

It is time for more people to see these political meddlers and busybodies for what they are: arrogant and irritating people who seem to spend too much of their lives believing they know better than everybody else. And when others in society won’t listen to them and follow the advice of their own volition, they turn to government and those manning the seats of political power to make the rest of us do what they want us to do — and always in the name of doing it all for our own good.

We ought to see them and call them for what they really are: compulsive coercers who just cannot leave the rest of us all alone. Maybe it’s an uncontrollable addiction for which they need medical treatment and psychiatric help — but please, not at taxpayers’ expense!

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Richard M. Ebeling

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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.

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