Let's begin with a problem that Hoover Institution's Visiting Scholar Paul Romer might pose: Imagine a simple manufacturing process that requires attaching 20 different parts to a frame. They may be attached in any order: part 1 first, then part 8, part 14, etc. Or you can first attach part 18, part 11 next, then part 3, etc. The number of possible sequences for attaching those 20 parts to the frame totals 1018. That's a pretty large number, roughly the number of seconds since the big bang.
Now think a moment about the thousands of parts involved in automobile manufacturing. Japanese assembly line workers are allowed to experiment with slightly different ways of doing their jobs. They may, for example, put the rearview mirror on the door before attaching the door to the car, or they do it the other way around. That way the company can discover which is the more efficient method.
These two manufacturing problems aren't important in and of themselves. What's important is there are literally trillions of ways of doing even the simplest of tasks. That being the case, what would you think of a person, a committee, or a bureaucrat who said, "I(we) know which is the single most efficient way of doing a particular task."? Unless that person has tried the trillions of ways of doing that task, how can he know? You'd probably call him a fool. And if he was a politician and mandated one way of doing the task, and outlawed all others, you'd probably call him an arrogant fool.
That is precisely the description we can give politicians who want to micro-manage our lives. How can Clinton and Hillary know, as they pretended last year in their attempt to nationalize our healthcare system, what is the best use of a person's earnings? Jennifer might be a healthy 25 year old young lady who chooses to risk being uninsured so that she can save that money to purchase high-tech computer equipment to research and develop an idea she has on DNA. Or she might want to save the money to start a landscaping business. What the Clintons and their minions were in effect saying, "Of the millions of possible uses for that $3,000 Jennifer earned, its best use is to purchase health insurance."
How can they possibly know that? They don't even know Jennifer. I'm not saying Jennifer can predict her future perfectly or knows what best serves her long term interest. But who's in the best position to make the choice about her earnings: Clinton or Jennifer? And how arrogant and brutal it is when they tell Jenni-fer, "Even if you swear not to take a single taxpayer dollar should you get sick, we're going to make you buy health insurance whether you want to or not. If you resist, we'll put you in jail."
Fortunately, Clinton was unsuccessful in nationalizing healthcare, but think about the thousands upon thousands of regulations mandating the way we do things as if bureaucrats knew the most efficient method of getting things done. Republican efforts toward regulatory reform should take this information and knowledge issue into account. For example, instead of EPA's mandating anti-pollution methods, there should be reasonable pollution targets like industries can emit only so many tons of pollutants into the air. Permit companies and local communities to develop and experiment to meet the target, so the best means can be discovered.
Far more wisdom can be found among millions of individuals acting privately to discover the best ways of doing things than a room full of bureaucrats.
Walter E. Williams
August 3, 1995
Return to Articles Page