CHIPS Act, David McGrogan, Dierdre McCloskey, Don Boudreaux, Industrial Planning, Inflation Reduction Act, Jason Brennan, Joseph Stiglitz, Lionel Trilling, Lockdowns, Pandemic, Paul Krugman, Scientism, Solyndra
Statistics and measurement might not be critical to the exercise of the authoritarian impulse, but they have served to enable the technocratic tyranny idealized by contemporary statists. Certain influential thinkers have claimed our ability to compile statistics helps give rise to the bureaucratized state. I ran across a great post that led with that topic: “The Brutalization of Compassion” by David McGrogan. The mere ability to compile relevant statistics on a population and its well being (income, jobs, wages, inequality, mortality, suicide, etc… ) can motivate action by authorities to “improve” matters. The purpose might be to get ahead of rival states, or the action might be rationalized as compassion. But watch out! McGrogan quotes a bit of cautionary wisdom from Lionel Trilling:
“‘When once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest,’ he put it, something within us causes us to then ‘go on and make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.’”
Ultimately, to pursue their vision, interventionists must impose controls on behaviors. In practice, that means any variance or attempted variance must be penalized. Here’s McGrogan’s description of the steps in this process:
“The conceptualisation of the population as a field of action, and the measurement of statistical phenomenon within it – the taking of an ‘enlightened interest’ in it – gives rise to both ‘pity,’ or compassion, and the application of ‘wisdom’ to resolve its problems. What is left, of course, is coercion, and we do not need to look far to identify it in the many means by which the modern state subjects the population to a kind of Tocquevillian ‘soft despotism,’ constantly manipulating, cajoling and maneuvering it this way and that for its own good, whether through compulsory state education or ‘sin taxes’ or anything in between.”
Follow the Scientism
I can’t neglect to mention another important condition: the hubris among apparatchiks who imagine the state can improve upon private institutions to achieve social betterment. They will always fail in attempts to replace the action of the private markets and the price mechanism to process information relating to scarcities and preferences. Absent that facility, human planners cannot guide flows of resources to their most valued uses. In fact, they nearly always botch it!
Government provision of public goods is one concession worth making, but the state capacity needed to fulfill this legitimate function is subject to severe mission creep: we frequently see efforts to characterize goods and service as “public” despite benefits that are almost wholly private (e.g. education). Likewise, we often hear exaggerated claims of “harms” requiring state intervention (e.g. carbon emissions). These situations often hinge purely on politics. Even when legitimate external benefits or costs can be identified, there is a pretension that they can be accurately measured and corrected via subsidies or taxes. This is far-fetched. At best, it’s possible to vouch for the directional appropriateness of some interventions, but the magnitude of corrective measures is variable and essentially unknowable. Too often we see government failure via over-subsidization of politically favored activities and over-penalization of politically disfavored activities.
One of the most egregious errors of intervention is the over-application of the precautionary principle: if risks are associated with an activity, then it must be curtailed. This often relies on measurements of highly uncertain causes and effects, and it involves aggregation subject to its own biases.
Just as questionable is the ability of “experts” to model natural or behavioral processes such that outcomes can be “predicted” over horizons extending many decades forward. That interventionists tend to ignore the uncertainties of these predictions is the most blatant and damaging conceit of all, not least because the public and the media usually have limited knowledge with which to assess the phenomenon in question.
Public Health Tyranny
The Covid pandemic presented a compelling excuse for precautionists in government and even private institutions to impose radical controls under a set of claims they called “the science”. These claims were often false and really antithetical to the principles of scientific inquiry, which calls for continually questioning hypotheses, even when they represent “consensus”. Yet a series of questionable scientific claims were used to justify abridgment of basic freedoms for the general population, most of whom faced little risk from the virus. This included lockdowns of schools and churches, business closures, cancellation of public events (except of course for protests and riots by Leftists), deferred medical care, vaccine mandates, and mask mandates. The damage these measures inflicted was fierce, and in the end we know that it was almost entirely unnecessary. Still, the public health establishment seems all too willing to ignore the facts in its readiness to repeat the whole range of mistakes at the slightest uptick in what’s now an endemic infection.
Standard Issue Cronyism
In the wake of the pandemic, we’ve witnessed a surge in calls for government to enhance the security of our nation’s supply chains. Too large a share of the critical goods required by domestic industries are produced overseas, which has made supply disruptions, and the threat of future disruptions, especially acute. Right on cue, advocates of industrial policy and planning have arranged for the federal government to provide $85 billion to domestic producers of semiconductors under the so-called CHIPS Act. But semiconductor producers are in no need of government incentives to “re-shore” production:
“… there has been even more chipmaking investment dedicated to the U.S. market, even as federal subsidies have languished. Construction is now underway at four major U.S. facilities and will continue with or without subsidies—something even Intel reluctantly acknowledged when it delayed the groundbreaking ceremony on its much‐ballyhooed Ohio facility to protest congressional inaction. This is because, as numerous experts have explained over the last year, there are real economic and geopolitical reasons to invest in additional U.S. semiconductor production—no federal subsidies needed.”
Moreover, the global shortage of computer chips appears to be ending. The subsidies will unnecessarily enrich industrialists and their shareholders, provide a source of graft to bureaucrats and various middle men, and likely over-allocate resources to domestic production of chips. Industrial planning of this kind has a long history of failure, and this time won’t be different.
We also see repeated over-application of the precautionary principle and rising dominance of industrial policy in climate and energy policy. Enormous sacrifices are imposed on consumers for the sake of minuscule changes in global carbon emissions and the “expected” long-term path of future “global” temperatures. The interventions taken in pursuit of these objectives are draconian, limiting choices and raising the cost of virtually everything produced and consumed. They distort the direction of physical investment, disfavoring reliable sources of base load capacity needed for growth, and also disfavoring the safest and most reliable zero-carbon alternative: nuclear power. The renewable energy sources foolishly pushed by the state and the ESG establishment are environmentally costly in their own right, and they don’t work when natural conditions are unfavorable. As one wag says about the climate provisions of the ironically named Inflation Reduction Act, “Gonna be a lot more Solyndras coming”.
And talk about sloppy! Our “trusted representatives” in Congress could hardly be bothered to pretend they’d done their homework. They neglected to provide any quantitative carbon and temperature impacts of the legislation. This must be a case of true honesty, because they really have no idea!
Delusions of Central Planning
One great weakness (among many) of arguments for state industrial planning is the assumption that government agents are somehow more competent, efficient, and “pure of heart” than agents in the private sector. Nothing could be more laughable. On this point, some of the most incisive commentary I’ve seen is provided by the masterful Don Boudreaux, first quoting Georgetown philosopher Jason Brennan before adding his own entertaining thoughts:
The typical way the left argues for the state is to describe what economists in the 1850s thought markets would be like under monopoly or monopsony, and then compare that to a state run by angels. Both halves of the argument are bad, and yet philosophy treats this as if it were rigorous and sophisticated.
“Far too many policy proposals are nothing more than prayers to the state-god. ‘We entreat you, Oh Powerful and Sacred One, to relieve our people of this or that misery, blemish, and market imperfection! We beseech you to bestow upon us – your faithful servants – cosmic justice, safety from new pathogens, unkind thoughts, and microaggressions, and protection from each and every burden of reality that we can imagine being cured by an omniscient, benevolent, and omnipotent deity! If we obey – and sacrifice to you without complaint our treasure and our freedoms – you will provide!’
I do not exaggerate. Pick at random any proposed government intervention offered by the likes of Progressives or national conservatives, and you’ll discover that the workability of this proposed intervention, when evaluated honestly, rests on nothing more solid than the above absurd faith that the state is – or, when in the right hands, will be – a secular god.”
On the idealization of government’s ability to “plan the economy” rationally, here is more from Boudreaux, first quoting the great Deirdre McCloskey:
Deep in left-wing thought about the economy, and in a good deal of right-wing thought, too, is the premise, as Isaiah Berlin once put it with a sneer, that government can accomplish whatever it rationally proposes to do. As has been often observed about leftists even as sweet as John Rawls, the left has no theory of the behavior of the government. It assumes that the government is a perfect expression of the will of The People.
“And nothing is more unscientific – indeed, more mystical – than is this still-commonplace practice of most Progressives, and also of very many conservatives, to analyze the economy and society, and to offer policy recommendations, using such a juvenile ‘understanding’ of the state. Yet such an ‘understanding’ of the state permeates the work even of some Nobel laureates in economics – laureates such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. This ‘understanding’ of the state is inseparable also from the work of pundits too many to count…
That these professors and pundits think of themselves as scientific – and are widely regarded as being especially intelligent, thoughtful, and scientific – testifies to the strength of the cult of democratically rubber-stamped coercion.”
Humans have proven to be incredible documentarians. The advent of measurement techniques and increasingly sophisticated methods of accounting for various phenomena has enabled better ways of understanding our world and our well being. Unfortunately, a by-product was the birth of scientism, the belief that men in authority are capable not only of measuring, but of fine-tuning, the present and future details of society and social interaction. Those pretensions are terribly mistaken. However, the actions of Congress and the Biden Administration prove that it’s adherents will never be persuaded, despite repeated demonstrations of the futility of central planning. Their words of compassion are no comfort — they must coerce the ones they “love”.