Let’s cast aside the issue of coercion, property rights and even some good economics and focus on a somewhat different major distinction between a free society and the modern constructivist notions of the “good” society. That difference is in what the goals and objectives of such a “society” ought to be. The major distinction between different visionaries is that those of us who promote a free society attempt to articulate that there are no “social” goals, at least not consciously chosen. We argue this way because we do not recognize “society” as a thinking, sentient being. And we also argue this way because we respect and are in awe of the power of spontaneous processes to generate orders, many of which are far superior to what can be consciously designed. Examples of such orders include trading, language, the emergence of money, markets and even moral codes. Progressive constructivists argue quite the opposite.
At issue is the question, “What is an appropriate social goal?” In freedom, there does not have to be any such goal. But the essence of an unfree society is that goals have to be chosen. And that the goals chosen by “society” to pursue have to be imposed on the entire society. I would argue, as Hayek does, that a good many “desirable” goals end up being achieved without conscious goal settings particularly because those ends are desirable social outcomes of desirable individual behavior. Suppose you are not comforted by this and argue that “we” need to set goals.
There are only 3 options for how social goals can get set.
- They are set by an authoritarian (or perhaps benevolent) dictator. The individual surveys the population, thinks deeply and then asserts that such and such a goal shall be the chosen path for the country. Most people would find this objectionable and reject it out of hand as a way to set social goals. How can the brain of one person be relied upon to get it right? Can this person be corrupted? Might the pursuit of particular social goals enhance his own interests more than others. Does such a benevolent person exist? How is this person selected? After all, for any social outcome to be “just” in the Aristotelian sense, the lawmaker must be legitimate. More important is that what we would be allowing by having a tsar be the goalsetter is that no individual is worthy to set his own goals for himself, and that no small community is worthy of setting goals for itself, but in the next breath we are saying that some other person is worthy of making goals on my behalf. I would argue that this situation is so undesirable and nonsensical as to be rejected out of hand.
- OK, so a dictator is undesirable, then let’s rely on an elite committee of people to set the goals on behalf of society. What such a situation is saying is that despite our objection to a single person setting goals on behalf of me, a small group of people is justified in setting goals on my behalf. How is such a group to be assembled? And is it OK to allow a small band to have rights over the direction of their lives that we do not allow other groups to have? What makes them more human or more deserving of such a privilege than anyone else? Finally, what makes the group better able to articulate goals on my behalf than me? You might object – aha, this group can think of goals that are common to all men, while your own individual actions will only articulate goals common to one man, namely oneself. This thinking commits three errors. First, it dismisses out of hand the powerful evidence of spontaneously designed social orders. Second, it dismisses out of hand the reality that lots of “social planning” happens by small and large groups without a conscious plan being chosen, and that these plans are uniquely attuned to the specifics of time and place in a way that makes them more effective than centralized planning does. For example, there are thousands of non-profits and for-profit organizations with very particular goals such as feeding the hungry. Their emergence does not owe itself to some grand idea from a oligarchic planning committee, but rather from the self-interest of individual actions. Third, it assumes that a small committee of people can aggregate enough information to articulate social goals that are common to all, and that on balance could not possibly be achieved spontaneously. On all of these grounds the “goals” by committee ought to be deemed undesirable.
- Aha, so we object to a monarch making plans, and we object to some oligarchs making plans and goals, so let’s have everyone contribute to the goal setting. Of course this is simply impossible to do, so we need to rely on some democratic or republican mechanism (lowercase d and r) to aggregate preferences, and then delegate the goal setting to either an oligarchy or to a single planner. But if we object to (1) and (2) above, there is no reason to accept 3 in principle. What #3 says is that in essence no individual is permitted to plan for himself, but we allow 310 million OTHER people to exercise goal setting for me. So these 310 million other people have a right to things regarding me that I myself do not have. Given that this seems objectionable, and that devolving into (1) and (2) seem objectionable, it leaves us with the alternative that no one be permitted to articulate goals on behalf of “society.”
Now, you may be uncomfortable with having no one articulate social goals, but that does not change the fundamental problem: when you invoke the term “social goals” that means that: goals must be chosen, and that goals must be chosen to apply to everyone, even as you believe that no individual ought to be able to articulate goals himself. In a free society, explicit goals do not have to be set. In a free society, individuals and the collectives that they voluntarily associate with are free to articulate and pursue any peaceful goals they wish to pursue. In a free society, if an individual or voluntary collective see a flaw or limit in the achievement of social goals, they are free to test and do things to promote goals they find desirable. But in a free society, neither an individual nor a collective may set goals for others who have not acceded. Not only is that contradictory, it is impossible to get right.
In summary, another problem with progressive socialism is that such a system requires explicit goals to be set. In fact this seems to be a feature for its proponents. But the setting of such goals is doomed to be arbitrary, unrepresentative, and contradictory to many. Finally the setting of such goals leads us to mistakenly believe that collectives are in competition with other collectives (e.g. “we” must improve the competitiveness of American business vis-a-vis the rest of the world; “we” must have the most awesome nuclear weapons) that is not only counterproductive but at times extremely dangerous.
If we were truly keeping score (as we are increasingly encouraged not to do in modern America) someone would have applied the mercy rule a long time ago. The planning mentality’s got to go.