Column by Tony Pivetta.
Exclusive to STR
Don’t let those anal Austro-libertarians fool you: central planning isn’t all bad. Sure, there’s that nagging economic calculation problem, and the inevitable resource misallocation it entails. And no, State actors don’t stop acting in their own interest just because they claim to act in the public’s. But all is not terror collectivization, winding bread lines and nine-time-zone company towns. A semi-command economy can mean great things!
“Semi” being the operative prefix here, as nothing brings an economy to its knees faster than full-blown central planning. This much even the most hardened statist concedes. Still, the question of optimum planning persists, with many clinging to the belief that a democratically managed mixed economy—fascio-socialism light—can generate abundant wealth and distribute it in more socially desirable patterns. Hayek’s Fatal Conceit tells us otherwise: no central planner or planners can amass or process information sufficient to design an economic system that outperforms the decentralized, self-ordering processes of the marketplace. Laissez-faire delivers the goods (and services)! The entrepreneurial calculus is too bold, the aggregate inputs and outputs too dispersed, and the hierarchies of values too subjective for even the infinitely wise solons of State to engineer improvements to it. And that’s leaving to one side the very real, if oft ignored, ethical questions raised by the requisite tax-and-control power grab. If “Thou Shalt Not Steal” is good enough for the rest of us, how do the central planners rate? Can any good come of the exception they’ve carved for themselves? When did good intentions stop paving the road to hell?
To put the problem in Roy Childs’ stark terms, “Government does not consist of men who have powers of epistemological elitism.” Starker yet, even if government did consist of such chimerical personages, its ends don’t justify their means.
True to dead-tree media form, the Detroit Free Press cites Michigan’s recently enacted smoking ban as an exception to Childs’ insight. Take Annette Berman. For years her Royal Oak restaurant was as well known for its smoky confines as its tasty appetizers and entrees. The restaurateur had long contemplated instituting her own smoking ban; she never followed through, knowing she risked alienating a large portion of her clientele. Halfway measures proved fruitless. “I added every smoke-eater device known to man,” she told the newspaper, but nothing seemed to work.
How could she balance smokers’ interests against those of non-smokers while advancing her own interest in turning a profit? What a dilemma!
Happily, the Michigan State Legislature and Governor Jennifer Granholm came to the rescue. By banning smoking at bars and restaurants throughout the state, they took that weighty decision out of Ms. Berman’s delicate hands. Find fault, if you will, with the flagrant usurpation of property rights, management prerogative and freedom of association. In this utilitarian age, only consequences matter. The ban delivered. “I expected it [the new law] to affect us in a positive way,” Ms. Berman says. That it did: food sales doubled!
The lesson we’re to take from all this? The Detroit Free Press’ headline—“New Smoking Ban Means Great Things for Mt. Chalet in Royal Oak”—tells us in no uncertain terms. The epistemological populists are all wrong. Government really does consist of men who are better and smarter than the rest of us. Some central planning—the happy medium!—works better than too much planning or none at all. And sound economic analysis, pace Henry Hazlitt, means looking at the seen and short term and ignoring the unseen and long term.
Never mind the smoking ban took effect just last May. In the long run, smokers may well come to resent their pariah status and eat more meals at home, even as non-smokers grow blasé with smoke-free environs and revert to their pre-ban dining-out ways. In which case restaurateurs may well find themselves with a shrinking market and decreasing revenues. That’s not such a great thing. They’ll certainly find themselves with less freedom to formulate strategies to reverse any such trend. Less freedom is what happens when government diktats impinge on commercial acts between consenting adults. That’s not such a great thing, either.
Worse yet, the smoking ban advances pernicious precedent. The camel’s nose has long since breached the tent; its head and hump have joined the party, and now its hindquarters encroach. Where will it all end? Will it ever end? What other economic freedoms will the government—in its infinite wisdom, citing whatever overriding public interest it presumes to serve—come to seize?
Some people like the food at Hooters but are offended by the waitresses’ provocative attire. Others patronize the chain precisely for that reason. No, knave, not to be offended—to feast on the eye candy! So how does a competing restaurant horn in on that action? Emulating Hooters’ menu alone won’t do it. Does it hire buxom waitresses as well? Institute a dress code intended to showcase their charms? Does it risk alienating its current base of customers if it does?
Establishing a restaurant motif and employee dress code is a weighty decision all its own. Should the government make that decision as well?
We’re all poorer and less free when the government insinuates itself in the marketplace. Interventionism represents an assault on property rights. It takes elements of business competition out of the picture. Producers, employees and consumers have less latitude in forging mutually satisfactory arrangements. Consumer choice narrows. The fascio-socialist infringements in this case may indeed be light. But even an incremental step in the wrong direction is not a great thing.