Central Planning Undermines Democracy

Part of the appeal of a democratic electoral process are the ideas that it helps to maintain accountability and legitimacy of the presiding governing structure. With that in mind, some advocates of a state hold that the primary function of government is to maintain a democratic process, as opposed to defending individual rights as minarchist libertarians might say. I think that helps to explain some of the divide between libertarians and others.

For example, liberals are keen to say that politicians, who have to be elected every number of years at least, can be flawed but are often more desirable than a rule by corporate oligarchs. I think the libertarians have the better argument that those corporate oligarchs are in power primarily because of politicians, which is all the more reason to strip government of the power to grant privileges to businesses and artificial restrictions on everyone else.

Leaving that point aside, I think there is a second point to be made about why the government’s direction of the economy and social affairs — central planning — is detrimental to the democratic process. Granted, having a say in who takes elected office and which statutes are enacted is preferable to not having a say at all. But what merit there is for having a genuinely democratic process is more often negated by the substance that process generates.

I think I have good reason for thinking why that might be. Having a unified plan of action is made more difficult in a legislative body. That is because the agenda has to be molded and interconnected in just the right way for it to function properly. However, planning a society requires making trade-offs among mutually exclusive ends using an unquantifiable number of means, each with a multiplicity of uses. And unlike coordinating fixed parts for an engineering design, there are over 300 million self-molding parts in the United States alone with their own motives and ideas. That kind of coordination would be difficult enough within a small committee of like-minded and trained experts, particularly as the committee process itself is not bent toward engineered action, but delay and compromise. Those inefficiencies are magnified again and again within a legislative body made of conflicting agendas.

As it becomes more apparent that central planning itself is inimical to a legislature’s piecemeal approach, policy making has to be entrusted to even more remote planners like the NCTCOG, TXDPS, NTTA, RCT, TRA, and any number of other alphabet state commissions and agencies just in my part of Texas. There are calls to “get it out of politics” or something similar, which really amounts to “do as we say.” Considering, it is understandable why people would favor giving power to planners who can escape political influence.

For a practical matter, unless the scope of the government’s powers are severely limited, the legislative and executive functions of government are likely to be tainted by corruption. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, because politicians have so much sway over what businesses can buy and sell, the first thing businesses are going to buy and sell are politicians. Yet even in the unlikelihood that only incorruptible and uncapturable politicians and central planners were in power, the “iron law of oligarchy” teaches that their effort to direct people’s lives would increasingly become cartelized and cemented. If for no other reason, politicians and planners will have to rely on the economic data provided by big businesses for shaping their policies and determining how those policies impact the economy. Intentional or not, big government reforms will serve the interests of big business.

Some might say that democracy still functions as intended since these “independent” planners still face the scrutiny of legislatures, who are voted into office by the people. That is beside the point since there is no general consensus on the substance, only on the means for enacting what, the planning should consist of. Planning boards present their proposals as effectively a “take it or leave it” proposition. Some tweaks can be made, usually for it gain wider appeal, but the political pressures for approval will be coming from voters demanding that something — anything — be done to avert greater turmoil. That is hardly what democracy should look like. As Friedrich Hayek has pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, the legislature

will at best be reduced to choosing the persons who are to have practically absolute power. …

…; it will often be necessary for the will of a small minority be imposed upon people, because this minority will be the largest group able to agree among themselves on the question at issue.”

Whatever merit democracy might have, that surely is not it.

I regard democracy as a critical social value, but not as the primary social value — liberty — a value that individuals overwhelmingly share simultaneously with others in society. At its best, the democratic process is limited in scope and serves to maintain accountability to shifting popular opinion, but democracy does not in and of itself restrain the government (or restrain others at the behest of the government) from exercising arbitrary power. Unfortunately, the power of statism corrupts, and statism corrupts and distorts democracy just as it does the market economy and other beneficial practices.