September 28th, 2010

Individuals as Government Guinea Pigs

photo credit: Infidelic

Few themes permeate the political process of ours and other governments as does the effort to legislatively shape society. Central planners come in a variety of shapes and sizes; monarchs, fascists, presidents, governors, and a host of other individuals who control and influence government all, to some degree, find this power irresistible.

Commenting on the socialists in his time and country who acted in this manner, the French economist Frédéric Bastiat observed that they “look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations.” The authoritarian aristocracy (in whatever form of government it may exist) has traditionally treated the masses as political putty, free to be molded to represent whatever ideal their whims lead them to pursue. Indeed, in the minds of many such individuals, their educated background and opinions entitle them to make such manipulations.

Planning is, of course, an important part of a productive society. The question at the root of this issue is not whether planning should be done, but rather by whom. Should a central authority (elected or otherwise) be empowered to organize the rest of society, whether the masses be subjects or voting citizens? Or should the planning power be independent from the government?

F.A. Hayek argued persuasively for the latter:

The conception that government should be guided by majority opinion makes sense only if that opinion is independent of government. The ideal of democracy rests on the belief that the view which will direct government emerges from an independent and spontaneous process. It requires, therefore, the existence of a large sphere independent of majority control in which the opinions of the individuals are formed.

That spontaneous control is a fundamental and necessary component in a productive, evolving society whose change is produced not by the force of government, but by the persuasion, example, and leadership of individuals whose participation in the marketplace of ideas has resulted in others voluntarily choosing to either agree and follow, or pursue another path.

The opposite of this—that is, central planning through a limited number of government officials relying upon force to influence human behavior—is a key component of a society oppressed through tyranny. “The theory of worshipping spontaneity,” wrote Stalin, “is decidedly opposed to giving the spontaneous movement a politically conscious, planned character.” It’s like George W. Bush arguing that he abandoned the free market to save it.

This rejection of independent spontaneity, and the introduction of centrally-planned restrictions on human action, appear in a variety of ways: government-protected monopolies, forcible and direct taxation, high tariff barriers to trade, restrictions on economic mobility, licensing of peaceful and harmless trades, minute government oversight of the quantity and quality of output, anti-discrimination law, marital licenses and regulation of approved relationships, etc. The itemized list of all such types of regulation would easily and exponentially exceed the number of bureaucrats employed to enforce them.

In Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard articulated the ideal of spontaneous interactions colloquially known as the “free market”:

Directly, voluntary action – free exchange – leads to the mutual benefit of both parties to the exchange. Indirectly, as our investigations have shown, the network of these free exchanges in society – known as the ‘free market’ – creates a delicate and even awe-inspiring mechanism of harmony, adjustment, and precision in allocating productive resources, deciding upon prices, and gently but swiftly guiding the economic system toward the greatest possible satisfaction of the desires of all the consumers. In short, not only does the free market directly benefit all parties and leave them free and uncoerced; it also creates a mighty and efficient instrument of social order. Proudhon, indeed, wrote better than he knew when he called ‘Liberty, the mother, not the daughter, of order’.

Individuals are and should be free to pursue their own happiness—not the government-regulated and -approved version. Majoritarian control of a central planning apparatus confers no inherent moral authority for its actions; simply wielding power does not justify its use. We are not guinea pigs to be controlled by government in pursuit of some arbitrary and committee-approved end, but sovereign human beings who “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent”.

8 Responses to “Individuals as Government Guinea Pigs”

  1. Scott Hinrichs
    September 28, 2010 at 6:38 pm #

    The key element in liberty is who gets to decide, not what is decided. Liberty is maximization of the individual’s ability to decide for himself, regardless of what others may think of the prudence of these decisions.

    Hayek argued for a strong and reactive government whose chief role is to maintain a framework wherein this maximization of liberty can occur. As the spontaneous order morphs and presents new challenges, government must react to rebalance the framework.

    The Hayekian vision of government has yet to be achieved. The natural man yields far too readily to avarice for power over the lives of others. It is easy to arrogate to oneself the imagined ability to regulate the affairs of others better than they can do so themselves — always in the best interest of the regulated, of course. How rare are those humans that refuse to take the role of benevolent tyrant when the opportunity presents itself.

    Expansion of individual liberty can only occur when a significant core of the populace believes in the principle so deeply that it is broadly implemented through common cultural mores. Absent such socially intrinsic rules, some form of tyranny is the default.

  2. Kelly W.
    September 28, 2010 at 7:06 pm #

    The title “Individuals as Government Guinea Pigs” made me think of Henry Kissinger’s quote: “Military men are just dumb stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.”

  3. Eric Checketts
    September 30, 2010 at 9:15 am #

    Nice article, Connor. You said what I’ve been thinking ever since I was old enough to realize that there are laws regulating every aspect of my life.

  4. J. Harrison
    October 1, 2010 at 6:26 am #

    It has always been the downside of a Liberty-promoting society, that some people will use that Freedom to “violate” the social order

    This is what made the Progressive Movement so popular back in T.Roosevelts day. Industry WAS exploiting workers. People WERE being given raw deals and inferior products.

    But instead of waiting for the “delicate machinery” to kick into place, government leaders panicked and under social pressure introduced private sector regulation. (Some of it was kicked out later-The Prohibition Amendments)

    Reminds me of a quote from an Economist Article.

    The notion that democracy retards development in poor countries has gained currency in recent years. Certainly, it has its disadvantages. Elected governments bow to the demands of selfish factions and interest groups. Even the most urgent decisions are endlessly debated and delayed.

    China does not have this problem. When its technocrats decide to dam a river, build a road or move a village, the dam goes up, the road goes down and the village disappears. The displaced villagers may be compensated, but they are not allowed to stand in the way of progress. China’s leaders make rational decisions that balance the needs of all citizens over the long term. This has led to rapid, sustained growth that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Small wonder that authoritarians everywhere cite China as their best excuse not to allow democracy just yet….

    …India’s individualistic brand of capitalism may also be more robust than China’s state-directed sort. Chinese firms prosper under wise government, but bad rulers can cause far more damage in China than in India, because their powers are so much greater. If, God forbid, another Mao were to seize the reins, there would be no mechanism for getting rid of him.

    In other words, Democracy is not efficient. But it works.

    Tyranny is ultra-efficient, as long as you have “wise government” as the article points out. But the same efficiency that allows China to run a spotless 2008 Olympics allowed Hitler to run an ingenious eugenics program.

    “Social Planning” is tempting. But its also dangerous. Let people make mistakes. And then let them suffer.

    (On the second thought, this makes an interesting question. If governments have no responsibility, as Connor says, for shaping social order, then is it legal/moral to legally prohibit Homosexual marriage? I don’t have an opinion, just asking.)

  5. Clumpy
    October 1, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    It’s an interesting thought, though of course getting behind the Chinese government is difficult; it’s impossible to look beyond their censorship of the media, sheer propaganda, widescale corruption at the highest levels and often-totalitarian grip on their citizens.

    While that selection from the Economist article you linked was controversial for good reason, reading the article in full makes it clear that while the writer was certainly praising one aspect of Chinese society and criticizing that same aspect of American society, it was without value judgment one way or the other. And every line of that selection is true if you’re willing to contort the facts to some extent, though the point of the article was far broader in scope – to praise India’s private sector for thriving creatively in a country with greater openness and liberty than China.

    And the point is absolutely valid – India has a very competitive, healthy attitude toward competition that suits it well. I definitely feel that the bigger any entity – government OR business – gets, the greater potential it has to either efficiently unite the world (as Microsoft has undoubtedly done with its various platforms) or oppress and exploit others and the world around them. For this reason, small and nimble businesses and governments with local control and as uninsulatory, accountable structures as possible seem to have the best effect in my opinion.

    It’s a very LDS principle, actually. As the same article points out, aggregating power into a few hands can be fantastic if they’re wise, thoughtful people, or devastating if corrupt and conniving influences take the reigns. Though business monopolies and totalitarian regimes may be more “efficient” in a cold and calculating sense, preserving individual opportunity seems a crucial part in my mind of preserving individual liberty. Government ought to be both a check against itself and against private tyranny as well, and not much else.

  6. Jeffrey T
    October 2, 2010 at 11:01 am #


    Excellent points. Question: How would you empower a government to act as a check against private tyranny, without also empowering them with an authority that can also be abused by “corrupt and conniving influences”?

  7. Velska
    October 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    Well, to make informed decisions, we have the Science institutions.

    It just tends to be that when scientists make uncomfortable conclusions — e.g. that burning fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate causes irreparable harm to the whole planet — people tend to wish to shut their eyes from it.

    Let’s by all means take it as a grand scale experiment to see how long before the seashells start dissolving in the rising acidity of the Oceans. Then let’s see the richest few individuals go and “preserve” those shells (IOW collect the remaining intact ones for their personal collections, ignoring food production to billions).

  8. Clumpy
    October 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm #

    @Jeffrey T

    It’s a difficult question to be sure, and perhaps given a choice between a world with a powerful government working to advance the interests of particular businesses at the expense of competition and the American people, and one with a weaker government restricting only the most destructive acts of business (verifiable acts of theft, destruction of resources they do not own and fraud), I would choose the latter. Nevertheless as I’ve said several times I do not believe that the only power individuals wield comes from the barrel of a gun.

    What we call “regulations” are really just laws – if a corporation is not allowed to spread pollution to lands that they do not own, intentionally take advantage of the uninformed and desperate, or use shifty methods to limit innovation in their field to their advantage and stifle potential competition, I see no reason why a “Smithian” free market model can’t at least in theory be preserved through appropriate legislation, at least in theory. The first step would, of course, be to remove all business interest from government, a nearly impossible feat as politicians use corporate clout to gain political legitimacy and then benefit their old partners when in office, a pernicious cycle that is probably to blame for much of our current situation including the pressing need to have a few profitable wars going at all times.

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