≡ Menu

Let’s Change the “Change the World” Obsession

At the gym earlier this afternoon I caught a snippet of what was literally a water-cooler conversation between two women, each of whom appeared to be in her late 40s.  The subject of the conversation was one of the women’s daughters who just this week is starting her freshman year of college.

Woman #1 (to the woman whose daughter is starting college): “What’s she majoring in?”

Woman #2: “Political science.  She wants eventually to run for office.  She tells me all the time, ‘Mom, I want to change the world!’  And she means it.  She’s volunteering for the Clinton campaign.”

Woman #1: That’s so great!  You must be so proud!”

Woman #2: “I am!”


Were I not a model of politeness, I would have turned to Woman #2 and said, “Ma’am, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.  I’ve one request: Please tell your daughter to mind her own business.  The world doesn’t need the kind of change that politicians, both actual and aspiring, want to bring.”

This “change-the-world” meme is, at best, juvenile.  At its worst it is downright dangerous.

I’m certain that there’s a great deal in the world that could be changed for the better.  But I’m equally certain that no such beneficial change will be achieved by social-engineering performed by politicians and other government officials.

The world changes for the better incrementally, bit by bit, and experimentally.  Smith opens a new restaurant in competition with Jones’s established restaurant, and consumers – spending their own money – ultimately decide if one or the other or both is to continue operating or shut down.  This competition changes the world very slightly: the restaurant scene in this town is improved.  Williams breaks his addiction to alcohol and returns to school to learn a trade; his success at getting a job as a machinist or electrician improves the world.  Johnson invents a new app to help birdwatchers keep track of interesting sitings: this advance, too, changes the world.

With rare exceptions, each world-improving event is too small to be detected in statistics.  It’s not sufficiently newsworthy to land its doer’s name in the headlines.  It’s one of millions of everyday improvements, each one small, but the sum total amounting to noticeable change indeed over time.

Most people who want to change the world seldom pause to ponder what, exactly, about the world needs changing.  After all, much about the world is pretty darn good and, hence, is likely not an appropriate candidate for the wiles of any “change-agent.”  Worse, most people who want to change the world have in mind schemes that involve forcing others to behave in ways that these others would otherwise not behave.

Our world has massively changed, mostly for the better, over the past two or three centuries.  And nearly all of this change came in doses so small that the names of those who performed each beneficial change were never widely known and are today lost forever in the thick mists of history.  Most – although by no mean all – of the “change-agents” whose names are known were human butchers (e.g., Hitler and Stalin) or arrogant ‘men of system’ (e.g., Clement Attlee and Franklin Roosevelt) who saddled others with counterproductive burdens and restrictions even if the destructiveness of these efforts is today still largely denied.

The bottom line is that attempts to “change the world” whole – to change it in a way that is noticeable and traceable to one action or small set of actions – is the height of arrogance.  No such change, no matter how well-intentioned the change-agent, will be for the better.  Beneficial efforts to change the world are almost always small, incremental, and performed in the voluntary sector of society – in the market, in families, in civil society.  Not in or through the state.  Most beneficial change occurs by adding small drops to the Prosperity Pool.  Not by making big splashes in that Pool.


See also this earlier Cafe Hayek post.


Next post:

Previous post: