Beware the Lure of Social Engineering

A common criticism of the free market is that it subjects individuals to impersonal forces beyond their control. The solution, according to the critics, is a representative democratic government, which gives people control over their own economic fate. We find such an argument in the work of political scientist Alan Wolfe, whose interesting writings I’ve examined previously.

Another way to put this criticism is to say, as Mark Linsenmayer says in his critique of libertarian magician Penn Jillette, that “the task of social engineering itself is unavoidable: We’re already being engineered by social forces, and it’s much better to try to steer these for good rather than just people’s lives be determined by the market or other so-called ‘natural’ forces” (emphasis added).

Linsenmayer, who co-hosts a popular and engaging podcast on philosophy, “The Partially Examined Life,” expresses his belief in the inevitability of social engineering in response to a video paean to personal liberty made by Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame. (Jillette’s main target is crony capitalism, or corporate welfare. He accepts many aspects of the welfare state.)

Linsenmayer specifically contests Jillette’s claim that we generally don’t know what’s best for other people, and that the government should be allowed to use force only when you would personally be willing to use it (for example, in defense of innocent life) and not simply for any cause you think worthwhile.

Linsenmayer concedes a great deal to Jillette. He agrees, for example, that “of course each of us is a unique conundrum with our own path to follow, and so of course the government should not, for instance, administer aptitude tests and then route each of us into the jobs most suited for us.” And Linsenmayer asks us to “remain humble and, let’s say, for lack of a better word, conservative in what actions we’d like to be prohibited with such a threat [of arrest, imprisonment, and deadly force].”

So far, so good. But then he commits a couple of equivocations, using words imprecisely and in ways that allow him to smuggle his conclusion into his premises. For example, in defending government interference with peaceful activities, he writes, “We know that not only poverty, but the threat of poverty hovering just one lost job or medical emergency away, is oppressive.” The word oppressive has different senses, but when used in a political context, one ought to be careful because the “oppressiveness” of poverty or the threat thereof is nothing like the oppressiveness of government control of people’s economic endeavors. (Look at Venezuela and North Korea, where both kinds of “oppression” reign.) My answer to Linsenmayer on this count is the same as I wrote in response to George Orwell’s review of F.A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom.” Orwell said that “a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State.”  I wondered whether Orwell "could … really have thought that what goes on in market-oriented societies, even during depressions, could be worse than the famine Stalin inflicted on the Ukrainians, the show trials and executions, or the labor camps in Siberia?"

It seems appropriate to add that no better way has been found to lift the threat of poverty and the illness it causes than measures that allow people to pursue their economic well-being, otherwise known as liberalization. Such measures range from freeing individuals to engage in local commerce without the government’s permission to eliminating the barriers to global trade. As economist Johan Norberg put it,

If someone had told you in 1990 that over the next 25 years world hunger would decline by 40%, child mortality would halve, and extreme poverty would fall by three quarters, you’d have told them they were a naive fool.

But the fools were right. This is truly what has happened.

Linsenmayer and the many who share his perspective have yet to come to grips with how freedom has quickly lifted worldwide living standards dramatically, reducing inequality in the ability to consume.

But it’s Linsenmayer’s equivocal use of the term social engineering that I want to focus on.

He’s got both sides of his story wrong. A free market economy does nothing that can be accurately described as social engineering, and contrary to Linsenmayer, the alternative to freedom within a property-based market order is not a “society [that acts] as a deliberative body” to “steer” social forces.

On the first point, the phrase market forces, like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, is metaphorical shorthand for people being free to produce and exchange in peace. If a person decides he would rather make more money writing computer programs than less money cutting hair, he has not been engineered by market forces. He’s simply making a choice in light of consumer demand and personal considerations. Could he earn a living doing anything he chooses? Probably not — but only because other people are free to abstain from buying his product or service.

In other words, Market Forces “R” Us.

Free and decentralized decision making is not social engineering, which implies a plan and an agent who carries out the plan. That’s precisely what the market process is not.

Therefore, social engineering is avoidable.

On the second point, as the public-choice school of economics emphasizes, social engineering through government will not be steered by society, because society as such does not act. In reality, better-off, better-connected individuals and groups have a built-in advantage in gaining access to power because, among other reasons, the benefits of government intervention are concentrated on a relative few while the costs are spread thinly throughout society. We’re overdue for what Nobel laureate James Buchanan called “politics without romance.”

Penn Jillette could have made an even stronger case for freedom and free markets. But his case for scaled-back government is far superior to his critics’ claim that human dignity, autonomy, and social cooperation are best left to the tender hands of politicians and bureaucrats.

Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute, senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest book is America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.