“I have seen the future, and it works!”
Thus exclaimed progressive journalist Lincoln Steffens on his return from the Soviet Union in 1919. Left in awe at the country’s central planning and its egalitarian ideals, Steffens felt sure it was a model for all of us, and one that was well-suited to his revolutionary tastes. But things, we know, didn’t quite work out as he hoped. History, economics and the human spirit disagreed with his assessment, and with those three implacable foes against it, the Soviet Union collapsed. Looking back, we wonder how he could ever had fallen for such nonsense.
I’ve come to the conclusion, though, that Steffens’ mistake is not a rare one. I have, for example, done business in China over the years, and on my visits there with other Westerners, it always struck me how some of them fell all too easily in love with what was clearly a corrupt and repressive system. These people were typically very intelligent and they were typically technocrats, and what they saw in China was people like them—the elite of the country—directing the economy and the nation’s future. Truth be told, they liked this idea. And they no doubt imagined what a wonderful job they could do back in the West if only they were given the power to put their plans into action.
Now, of course, it doesn’t work. Let’s leave aside the little detail that central control of the economy implies central control of people, and is thus fundamentally evil. A bigger problem—but not the biggest—is that the people you put in charge are never quite as clever as they think, and they are never free of the temptation for corruption. The myth of the benevolent dictator is always that. We are all fallen beings—or barely evolved apes, as per your theological bent—and so the power never ends up being used well.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find the most intelligent and incorruptible people in the country and put them in charge? Surely we can dream? Well, no. Even if such superhumans existed, they still wouldn’t be able to run things so as to meet the needs and desires of the people, for they would not be able to gather the information needed to make their decisions. Per the famous Knowledge Problem at the heart of Austrian School economics, the information needed exists the individual minds of hundreds of millions of people, and changes every day. It is nebulous and ephemeral, almost like a ghost. And it stubbornly refuses to be captured by the butterfly nets of the technocrats, no matter how smart or capable they may be.
As we struggle to put the country back to work in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we see similar patterns emerging. The technocrats are out in force, pushing their ideas of central planning, and assuming that their greater intelligence can bring the country back to economic life. Every day, they propose complex, technical solutions, pushed by unreliable modellers, technology fetishists like Gates, Pichai and Zuckerberg, and old-school consultants like McKinsey who never found a problem that didn’t justify a fat report and a fat fee.
“Data Driven” is the new buzzword, with states falling over each other to create dashboards, and gather unlimited information from universal testing, universal contact tracing and universal movement tracking. Some of this is needed, but at its heart, much of it is driven by the same, discredited urge to control the whole process from the middle. And in the end, it won’t work. People are going to have to be set free of central control, and let back out into the world. Businesses are going to have to open and figure out how to keep their staff and customers safe without rules handed down from above. And the world is going to have to move beyond experts and dashboards, and start living its life for itself once again.