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No Escaping the Grip of Scarcity

My son, Thomas, and I on Saturday went to see “Apollo 11” – which inspired me to write this column for AIER. A slice:

In a nation of hundreds of millions of diverse individuals, there can never be scientifically objective answers to questions such as “At what rate should carbon emissions be cut?” or “What is the maximum accepted health risk for new pharmaceutical products?” or “How many U.S. soldiers should remain in Syria?”

Although politicians, bureaucrats, and pundits typically answer such questions as if their answers are scientifically objective, they are nothing of the sort. Such answers would be scientifically objective only if there were near-unanimous agreement not only on the goals that government should pursue but also on the precise manner in which the pursuit of each of these uncountably large number goals is to be traded off against the pursuit of other goals.

As long as Americans disagree on, say, just how much economic freedom should be sacrificed today in order to reduce the risks of warmer global temperatures tomorrow, the challenge confronted by the U.S. government is fundamentally different from the problem of successfully landing men on the moon. The latter problem is one of engineering, and the methods used to solve that problem are simply unavailable for determining what is the ‘correct’ amount of economic freedom to suppress in order to reduce the risks of global warming. Ditto for the problem of determining how many resources the government should commandeer for state-supplied health care. Indeed, ditto for nearly every problem that people clamor for the government to ‘solve.’

We can admire the engineering prowess that enabled NASA to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth. But even if politicians (contrary to fact) were apolitical stewards of the public welfare, governing society is not an engineering task. It follows that NASA’s remarkable achievement emphatically does not imply that we should look to government to solve our problems.