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Quotation of the Day…

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… is from page 145 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague Jim Buchanan [2]’s important 1968 paper “An Economist’s Approach to ‘Scientific Politics’,” as this paper is reprinted in Jim’s 1979 collection, What Should Economists Do? [3]:

Most economists and, I suspect, most political scientists view government as a potentially benevolent despot, making decisions in the “general” or the “public” interest, and they deem it their own social function to advise and counsel this despot on, first, the definition of this general interest and, second, the means of furthering it. They rarely will admit all this quite so bluntly as I have put it here, but surely this is the honest way of stating the prevailing methodological orthodoxy. This position is, of course, a relatively happy one for the political economist. Once he has defined his social welfare function, his public interest, he can advance solutions to all of society’s economic ills, solutions that government, as deus ex machina, is, of course, expected to implement. Politics, the behavior of ordinary men in this process, becomes tainted activity, albeit necessary in a begrudgingly admitted way. But politics should be allowed to interfere as little as possible with the proper business of government. So runs the orthodoxy.

DBx: There are no scientific ‘solutions’ to society’s problems. This reality is so in part because in many cases people legitimately disagree over what arranged changes are desirable and which are undesirable. For example, some people join me in celebrating marijuana legalization; other people disagree sincerely and deeply even if there is no disagreement over the predicted health and behavioral effects of marijuana use. There is no scientific ‘solution’ to this disagreement or to any other disagreement that turns on differences in values and preferences.

But another reason why there are no scientific ‘solutions’ to society’s problems is that even arranged changes that are universally regarded as being “in the right direction” are not costless to arrange. Improvements on one front require the diversion of attention and resources away from other worthwhile fronts. Producing more butter means producing fewer guns. And in the real world there is no objectively determinable, fixed optimal amount of butter to produce relative to the amount of guns and to the amounts of millions of other goods and services to produce.

In short, as Thomas Sowell insists about society’s challenges: there are no solutions, only trade-offs [4]. The danger is that if one group of people who favor making a trade-off in one specific way obtain enough power, they will falsely insist – although they may sincerely believe – that their particular way of making the trade-off is the way sanctioned by science. And once science is believed, however mistakenly, to sanction a ‘solution,’ opposition is perceived to be, and painted as, irrational and anti-social. The experts must rule.

Such is the inevitable conclusion of those who believe that society is a mechanism to be engineered.