The Folly and Presumption of Big Government Social Engineering

First Published: 2015-05-05

Executive Summary

The worst disaster to fall upon humanity over the last hundred years has been the "social engineering" mentality, with its presumption that governments have the knowledge, wisdom, and ability to plan the direction and future of society better than and superior to leaving mankind’s development to the free interactions and associations of people in the marketplace.

This has been not only in its "extreme" forms such as in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, but in our own times in the form of what the French have called "indicative planning," that is, the use of regulations and taxes to "nudge" people in the paths wanted by those in political power.

Two questions arise in the face of the political planners and regulators of our lives: On what moral right to those in government claim the authority to dictate and direct our lives, and on what basis do they assert the capacity to do such social engineering without bringing about outcomes far worse than if the "wisdom of the free market" was given full rein instead?

Neither question, I argue, has been successfully answered by our modern political paternalists and planners.

The Folly and Presumption of Big Government Social Engineering

by Richard Ebeling Ph.,D.

One of the social mythologies of our time is that it is in the power and ability of governments to remake society in any image or shape that those with political authority consider “good,” “right,” and “just” for mankind. No other idea has caused more horror and hardship in modern times.

The extreme attempts at such “social engineering” in the twentieth century were in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. The communists believed that man is the product of his social institutions. Abolish private property, impose material egalitarianism, and indoctrinate people from their youth in an ideology and psychology of economic collectivism and political altruism, and a “new socialist man” would be created that would lead to post-scarcity heaven on earth.

Making a “Better World” Whatever the Human Cost

In the name of remaking mankind for that “better world,” the communists were willing to imprison, torture and murder tens of millions who they considered to be resisting or opposing the “reeducation” needed to free people from the residues of the individualist and capitalist mentality that threated the successful creation of Utopia.

The Nazis in Germany had their own vision of the desirable racial “shape of things-to-come.” Unlike their communist cousins, the National Socialists spoke of “race conflict” instead of “class conflict.” A master race was to be constructed by physically eliminating “inferior racial types” and in their place introduce comprehensive racial “breeding” to genetically engineer a superior German type through “scientific” eugenics.

Concentration camps, death camps, torture chambers and crude acts of bestiality against millions of innocent men, women and children were the shining paths to a centrally planned new human race.

We stand back in horror and near disbelief when we try to comprehend the collectivist mindset that could bring such misfortunate and tragedy on so many tens of millions of people during the last one hundred years.

We have been less conscious of how much of the same mindset pervades our own societies today. While certainly less brutal and less blunt, the social engineering mentality pervades and dominates our own times in our own new century, and has for many decades.

The Planning Mentality Continues to Pervade Mankind

In the United States and Europe, for instance, governments do not directly control and command our lives most of the time. The social engineering is subtler and less visible on a daily basis.

The regulations on business and industry, for instance, set up spiders’ webs of rules and restrictions specifying how and in what forms enterprisers and entrepreneurs may go about their business. If you want to start up a business, if you want to produce this particular product or supply that particular service, you are free to do so . . . as long as you meet and follow government standards, implement the mandated methods, and follow the imposed procedures for manufacturing and marketing the goods you’ve decided to specialize in producing. No one “forces” you, it’s just the way you have to operate if you wish to own and manage an enterprise.

Again, the taxing system is constructed and imposed in such a way to “nudge” people in the directions those in political power (and those special interest groups able to work with and influence those in political power) wish the direction of the society to move.

Taxes as a Method of Engineering Outcomes

Taxes, after all, are a form of a compulsory price. It is what you have to give up to the government if you decide to direct your own activities in one way rather than another in the pursuit of income and profit. By manipulating the taxes to be paid from doing one thing rather than some other, the government can “seduce” individuals and enterprises to “freely” select where their energy and efforts will be directed in the market to serve the plans of those in political power.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the French called the use of taxes and government spending as a technique to socially engineer the development and direction of society, “indicative planning.” The tax structure influences the costs of people and businesses doing more of some things and less of other things. And government spending more directly generates profits to be made and employments to be had in some parts of the economy rather than others, by going where the government money leads you.

Now, of course, behind the seemingly “free choice” within the regulatory and taxing parameters that government policy superimposes over our lives, there remains, nonetheless, the same brutal hand of political power – the use of force or its threat to make all fit within and follow the confines of the government’s designs for society.

Try to operate your business outside of the regulatory rules and restrictions; try to evade or avoid paying the taxes that government says you owe from earning income or profits from one pursuit in the market versus some other.

More Government Planning Means More Threatened Force

It needs to be always remembered that the greater and more intrusive the meddling and socially engineering hand of government in society, the more political use of force is threatened and potentially used in human affairs.

As the Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, once reminded us:

“It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. Government is, in the last resort, the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen.

“The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.”

Of course, the most fundamental question to be asked is why and on what basis government’s can claim to command and control us, and thus assert its legitimacy to plan our lives and futures through its various social engineering techniques.

In the American conception and tradition of liberty, it has been argued from, say, Thomas Jefferson to Ayn Rand that individuals possess certain unalienable rights to their life, liberty and property. That, by moral right, each individual “owns” himself, and no others, either as private individuals or in any political capacity, can claim a presumed higher source of “right” to direct that person’s life or make him sacrifice any part of it against his voluntary will to serve others in society.

The Unanswered Question: By What Right?

The question to which I have rarely received a full answer is: By what moral principle or ethical claim can those holding political office in the government assert the authority to tax me to pay for someone else’s “free” medical service or “free” apartment in a government housing project?

Sometimes the response is, you “owe it” to your fellow man as a human being. But what if I choose not to recognize such a “bill” handed to me by the government in the form of taxes?

Does the government have the right to compel me to pay? The reply usually is, “Yes.” And my response to that is, what if I resist payment, does the government have the right to use his policing arm to arrest me, and if I resist arrest to use even up to lethal force under certain circumstances?

Clearly, the government has no “power” in society if it is not ultimately backed up with the authority to use physical force, including lethal force if it is deemed to be warranted under the law.

But if that is the case, the question that I have virtually never had any answer to is: what makes little Johnny’s “free” visit to the doctor or Auntie Sally’s government-supplied apartment of higher moral worth and “right” than my freedom from imprisonment or murder at the hands of government agents?

So little Johnny’s flu shot or Auntie Sally’s housing accommodations have a higher moral right than my freedom or life? On what basis is this moral decision made and on whose judgment that carries with it the power of a gun to determine my fate?

Answer: a rolling of the eyes, usually, and a look that often suggests, “Another political extremist.” Well, I think it is very modest and moderate to simply ask what makes one life more valuable than another in a setting of compulsory redistribution of wealth, so there is at least a carefully thought out ethical rationale and political justification for the denying someone their freedom or forcibly ending their life in the pursuit of a socially engineered coerced altruism?

The Social Engineer’s Pretense of Knowledge

At another level the presumption of social engineering may be challenged, as well. This concerns the usually tacit or implicit claim of the knowledge, wisdom and ability of social engineers to regulate and plan the direction of society in a way superior to leaving “society’s” evolution and development to the free actions and choices of the members of society, themselves.

There has been a long tradition in the history of social and political thinking that has argued that it is pure arrogance and hubris to believe that individual men have it in their political capacity to fully and consciously direct the evolution of society.

Most especially, but certainly not exclusively, the Scottish tradition of ideas of which one noted contributor was the famous eighteenth century economist, Adam Smith, reasoned and explained that individual men have neither the knowledge nor understanding to know enough about what their own or anyone else’s actions can or could lead to in the future to confidently confine the planning of society to one or a handful of men.

Said Adam Smith’s friend and colleague, Adam Ferguson, in his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767):

“Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments , which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design…

“Mankind, in following the present sense of their minds, in striving to remove inconveniences, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrives at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate…

“He who first said, ‘I will appropriate this field: I will leave it to my heirs,’ did not perceive, that he was laying the foundation of civil laws and political establishments…

“This is the simplest form under which we can consider the establishment of nations: and we ascribe to a previous design, what came to be known only by experience, what no human wisdom could foresee, and what, without the recurring humor and disposition of his age, no authority could enable an individual to execute…

“It may with more reason be affirmed of communities, that they admit of the greatest revolutions where no change is intended, and that the most refined politicians do not always know whether they are leading the state by their projects.”

We each live in the time in which we were born; with the particular knowledge and experiences we have acquired and accumulated. We have our goals and purposes that often include not only ourselves but also others we know and care about.

But our knowledge is imperfect; our understanding of the all the possible or likely consequences of our own actions and those of others around us is limited. We use our reason, but sometimes we follow less reflective “passions.” We act in the present, and see and partly imagine the more distant future only “as through a glass darkly.”

The Follies of Those in Power Affect Us All

We should not forget that those in political authority who would presume to guide society through designs imposed on others through the power and force of the government are no different than ourselves.

Their mental faculties and abilities are no greater than many other men; they, too, no less than us, are guided by reason but also emotions at times that hamper more reasoned and careful thought; those in political power, also, have goals and purposes of their own that may have nothing or little to do with what we consider to be the good, desirable, and right for our own lives.

If you or I make mistakes or errors in judgment the consequences fall on ourselves and maybe a relatively small handful of others in terms of the whole society with whom we may be associated in some personal or professional way.

When the social engineers make mistakes or errors in judgment in terms of their imposed regulatory, taxing and planning policies, the consequences fall on much larger numbers, in principle everyone in that society.

But since the chains of causality running from the government’s policies to its specific impact on particular people may be difficult or impossible for the ordinary individual see and follow, those in political authority often can deflect responsibility away from themselves, and blame others for the consequences of their own actions to their own political advantage.

As Adam Smith warned in his Wealth of Nations (1776):

“The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals [the labor and property], would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which can safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.”

Free Men Can Do and Discover More Than Planners Presume

Furthermore, individuals in their own circumstances and situations in their corner of the world will usually have a much better sense and “feel” for opportunities or answers to problems needing solutions that those faraway in the center of political power focused on their own goals and interests.

Finally, a crucial point that has been made from the time of Adam Smith to more recent thinkers such as F. A. Hayek is that the direction and forms of social change, development, and improvement cannot be fully and successfully anticipated by those living and acting at one narrow moment of the wider stream of history.

To confine or straightjacket people to the design and plan of that handful of men deciding and imposing from the center of political control limits the flexibility and adaptability of all in society in the face of unexpected change and discovered opportunity to what those in political power can understand and appreciate and imagine how to implement.

A politically planned and socially engineered future is a future narrowly limited and restricted to the knowledge and mental capacity of a handful of a few who decide for all of mankind.

It is for that reason, that F. A. Hayek referred to competition as a “discovery procedure,” in which we only discover possibilities and potentials by allowing a free and open field for people to be alert to what might be discoverable and to have the liberty and latitude through personal freedom and private property to see what can be done, how, and for whom in the voluntary interactions of market exchange.

Society and its history is the outcome of multitudes of individuals pursuing their purposes in association with others over many years and generations, the cumulative results and consequences of which no one, no matter now wise and well-intentioned, can ever predict or anticipate, as Adam Ferguson explained.

It is why on both ethical and consequentialist grounds, the very notion of socially engineering and designing mankind needs to be rejected root and branch. Whether in its extreme totalitarian forms of the twentieth century, or its continuing more “mild” and subtle forms in twenty-first century Western societies, it means the diminishment of humanity to the hubris and pretenses of politicians, planners and regulators who wish to play God while having none of the assumed attitudes of being all knowing, all powerful and all good.

First published at EPICTiMes, and posted here with the kind permission of the author

Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB & T Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University. Was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (FFF).

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