The Doers vs. The "Thinkers"

The fatal conceit of trying to plan the economy

This week, New York Times columnist David Brooks introduced readers to his imaginary friends, Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume, as a way of highlighting the nation's philosophical divide.

If only our ideological split were that complicated.

As it happens, I also have two imaginary friends (and boy, do I need them), named Mr. Hoover and Jim.

Mr. Hoover knows everything. He attended a highbrow graduate school and worked as a Senate aide before becoming a policy expert. (He even pretends to understand Jeremy Bentham.) He is a man who craves acceptance from the other smart people who surround him.

Jim is pretty smart, too, but hasn't squandered his talent working in Washington. Rather than theorize about economics, Jim takes an authentic risk by starting a business. He ends up employing 20 people and creating the capital that helps pay for their health insurance—as well as fund many of the social safety net programs that Mr. Hoover dreams up.

Mr. Hoover is an awesome lunch partner, though. If you ask him to recommend an Ethiopian restaurant, he'll rattle off the six best in Washington.

Jim never would eat Ethiopian food, though he unapologetically gulps carbonated drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup while rooting for his state school's middling football team.

If you put Mr. Hoover in charge of government, he'd take to the task with an unrestrained confidence. Because he's so much smarter than you, he'd have no compunction forcing you to do the right thing on an array of issues, from your light bulbs to your health care.    

If you told him to solve an intricate problem, such as global warming, he'd assemble a group of similarly dazzling thinkers to centralize the entire energy economy for the next 40 years through taxation, subsidies, mandates, and corporate giveaways. He does this because he knows precisely what the weather will be like in 2050. That's how smart he is.

Now, Jim, I'm afraid, would be far less impressive. If you asked him to "solve" global warming, he'd question the costs and benefits of federally controlled energy production. He understands, from his own life experiences, that you can't decree an economic outcome.

Jim, who never has read David Hume in his life, might take time to study the failed European cap-and-trade scheme and wonder why anyone would hamper the American economy with a regressive tax that brings only marginal environmental gains. He's no cynic, but he understands from experience that corporations -- even those swine in the fossil fuel business—are tax collectors, not taxpayers.

"I don't know the best way to generate clean energy," he'd justifiably declare, "because who the hell knows what technology will win out?" He also might ask, "Since when do we have the right to tell people what kind of energy they can use?"

Even when Mr. Hoover has come up with a sensible idea, Jim hates that it will be implemented by the state through force.

I've introduced you to my friends Mr. Hoover and Jim because they represent the choices we face in this nation on issue after issue. From its inception, the United States has squabbled over the appropriate role of government—one that pundits on cable TV, for all their bluster, rightly label a debate between socialism and free markets. Yes, this debate pits the theoreticians against the doers, but it is largely a fight between the state and the individual.

So let's have the debate. But before we do, let's understand that Mr. Hoover is going to win. Mr. Hoover always wins. He takes no real risk. If he can't convince us, he has the power to bribe, print money, "compel" citizens, bully, and monopolize the process. It's no more complicated than that.

If you want to pass anything, he is your man.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his Web site at www.DavidHarsanyi.com.

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  • JB||

    Our Enemy The State

  • Lmnop||

    Ugh, yet another false dichotomy...

  • ||

    Perhaps if Jim did a little fancy book larnin' he might know something about externalities.

  • Isaac Bartram||

    Perhaps he does. And perhaps he knows they are not all negative.

  • jk||

    Mr. Hoover - he sucks.

  • ||

    Jim takes and "authentic risks". Come on, only Mr Hoover would use that kind of language! Jim would say "I risked everything I own to start this business, I work 14 hours a day, I rarely take a day off let alone a vacation, I placed my family in jeopardy of financial ruin, everyday I come to work a little scared, everyone I know told me I shouldn't do this that it is a a bad idea, but if I had it to do all over again I would". Thats how Jim talks.

  • Joshua Holmes||

    From its inception, the United States has squabbled over the appropriate role of government—one that pundits on cable TV, for all their bluster, rightly label a debate between socialism and free markets.

    Not all government action is socialist. Not all socialist action is done by the government. Government and socialism are not synonyms.

  • ||

    A socialist government and socialism however are.

    And all socialist action is indeed done by the government.

    There is a difference between collective action, and collectiism

    Collective action is performed by a collection of individuals. As a Katrina survivor I have recent strong evidence of this.

    Collectivism is the renunciation of individual autonomy.

    There is a difference between individualism and selfishness. The same example applies. Great numbers of individuals acting on their own, unpaid, and uncoerced aided acted unselfishly.

    So similarly individualism is the affirmation of individual autonomy of thought and motivation.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    "Not all government action is socialist. Not all socialist action is done by the government. Government and socialism are not synonyms."

    I had this conversation with my roommate last night while explaining that contrary to popular myth, Sweden - while a welfare state and certainly not what I'd like to see happen here - isn't actually a socialist country. Social democracies which still have relatively vigorous (compared to say... Cuba) and open markets which feature such international powerhouse companies like Nokia and Ikea which are *not* owned by the government kind of preclude full-on socialism.

    That said, I also think we need to focus a bit more on explaining that government ownership doesn't have to be literal for government control to be strong enough that "ownership" is implicit. I tend to point out that a large aspect of our medical system, while "privately" owned is just as government-run as anything you'd find in France, except that the costs are shifted around.

  • ||

    While I don't know about Nokia, I know full well that the entreprenurship in Sweeden is damned. Read their papers. Secondly, Ikea's founder had to leave Sweeden because the nation damned him for making individual self profit (for some reason they thought he was exploiting people).

    So he had to move his main business over to the states.

    Socialism is completely - and entirely - upon the government. What the orginial poster was talking about was Corporatism - which is a form of socialism, which was first created in Italy.

    Italian fascist, Mussolini, decreed 22 state-run, monopolized unions. One industry was in charge of car production, another clothes, and so on. They were also in charge of redistribution of wealth within their given communities. Essentially removing the burden of the dictator from Mussolini onto the corporate entities. However they typically just voted for things that Mussolini wanted to have happen.

  • Monolith||

    Pretty simplistic.
    maybe One day Mr Hoover picks up a book called road to serfdom and starts to read it.
    and maybe one day Jim notices that his business isn't doing too well and starts to complain that he needs subsidies.
    Where do law enforcement and the armed services fit into your debate?

  • ||

    The debate is about persuasion vs. coercion. It is that simple. The prevailing social ethic, fostered for a century by progressive philosophers, is that coercion of individuals, at the expense of individuals, for the greater good is the ultimate ideal.

    Reversing this trend won't be easy or quick but promoting the positive idea that individuals can rise to their challenges (and can accept their responsibility when they fail to meet them) and should be allowed to rise to their full potential (or not, as they choose) is a good way to start back on the road to liberty

  • G Mc||

    This is a poorly conceived article.

  • ||

    The article suffers the same flaw as the original article. It portrays Hume/Jim as bumbling and ignorant regular joes that happen to be right.

    There is no argument most business owners understand economics than most 'economists'. Jim/Hume understand from experience and history the success of the philosophy and economics of liberty as opposed to the sad history of the results of the philosophy and economics of coercion.

    This doesn't mean those disciplines aren't well developed by intellectual giants.

  • ||

    Mr. Hoover must die...

  • Chad||

    Rather than theorize about economics, Jim takes an authentic risk by starting a business. He ends up employing 20 people and creating the capital that helps pay for their health insurance—as well as fund many of the social safety net programs that Mr. Hoover dreams up

    Let's see. Who here honestly believe that these twenty people would be at home, sitting on their butts, if not for Jim? Who here believes that if Jim had tragically been crushed by a bus the day before he launched his new business, one of his competitors would have stepped in to fill the void...and hired around twenty people to do so?

    He does this because he knows precisely what the weather will be like in 2050. That's how smart he is.

    Nope, we ain't that smart. But we are smarter than Jim, and demostrate it by playing the odds rather than just sticking with the status quo despite them.

    I don't know the best way to generate clean energy," he'd justifiably declare, "because who the hell knows what technology will win out?" He also might ask, "Since when do we have the right to tell people what kind of energy they can use?"

    Jim might go back to school and take economics, so that he understands that cap-and-trade (or a carbon tax) is designed precisely to avoid picking winners and losers. He might also start thinking about how his choice of energy affects other people. But he is too busy trying to figure out how to further the measely health benefits that he pays his workers.

  • MJ||

    "But we are smarter than Jim, and demostrate it by playing the odds rather than just sticking with the status quo despite them."

    That steals a base by assuming that seeing what free people come up with on their own is not a more effective method of playing the odds. Trusting in government action usually means that you've put all your money in on one bet, freedom spreads the risk around.

  • Just Passing Through||

    Cap and Trade: Avoiding picking winners and losers, by making everyone a loser (except the elites responsible).

  • Monolith||

    Why so anti ethiopian?
    Do real americans eat eritrean?

  • ||

    This column can't be fully appreciated unless you read David Brooks' original column earlier in the week in the NYT. That may explain some of the confusion in earlier comments

  • Tim||

    Cap and trade does pick winners and losers, who decides the initial allocation of carbon credits? Think there won't be any favorites there? What about the subsidies necessary to convince coal states to pass the bill?

    A carbon tax doesn't play favorites and is perfectly consistent with free markets, provided it assesses a tax equal to the level of harm each increment of carbon inflicts on society.

  • Chad||

    Tim|10.7.09 @ 9:00PM|#
    Cap and trade does pick winners and losers, who decides the initial allocation of carbon credits? Think there won't be any favorites there? What about the subsidies necessary to convince coal states to pass the bill?

    A carbon tax doesn't play favorites and is perfectly consistent with free markets, provided it assesses a tax equal to the level of harm each increment of carbon inflicts on society.

    You can be quite certain that anyone who understands and truly desires cap-and-trade also understands that every permit should be auctioned.

    So if you would quit objecting to this classic, textbook economic plan, we wouldn't need to give away permits in order to buy votes.

    However, I too, prefer the carbon tax for the very reason you suggest. Why doesn't the right propose such a bill immediately?

    Oh, because it would pass...and you really don't want that.

  • ||

    Lol at the sad statist who thinks the dems would pass a bill that didn't allow for cronyism.

    Hehe, you kill me man.

  • MJ||

    Well, Chad there's also a little problem of imposing an arbritrary cost that will be passed down to consumers, this is one among may objections. Such arbitrary government imposed costs have a perverse incentive for trying to find legal way of weaseling around them as that is cheaper.

    And before you go on about externalities, the carbon tax has no direct or even indirect causal relationship with any external costs. The government saying it is so does not make it so.

  • ||

    The government saying it is so does not make it so.

    That's the real problem. Warmism is big money and there's not anything approaching a theory to support it. Just models and hypotheses and 'research' that get funded based on whether it predicts AGW or not. And so far predictions that don't pan out.

    Even if it was true partially enclosing the externality won't accomplish anything.

    The real problem imo, is that warmism discredits genuine environmental concerns.

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