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Comprehensive Reform versus Piecemeal Reform

In the previous two articles in this three-part series on bipartisan comprehensive political reform, we dealt with the excuses for extortion and evasion such claims for reform provide and with the fact that such claims often lead to more comprehensive ignorance being applied to social problems. Now, we turn to the question of comprehensive reform versus piecemeal reform.

When it comes to bipartisan comprehensive political reform, beyond its rhetorical use to enable government abuses along with its massive destruction of usable information and inaccurate accounting of the costs of government, there is still another issue. The presumption that comprehensive political plans must be preferred over piecemeal improvements is highly questionable.

As Friedrich Hayek has noted, “in complex conditions . . . a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order.” However, this potential is undermined by centralization because “the more the state ‘plans,’ the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.” In other words, more central planning often means less, and less effective, planning in addressing the problems unavoidably imposed by scarcity and limited information.

To see this more clearly, some questions are in order.

If you and I believe we have discovered a way to arrange our affairs to better serve us both, should everyone who might be affected in even the slightest way, or even not at all except by pimping their votes on legislation, get to vote on our “reform”? Or is it enough that you and I, whose rights and resources are involved, both vote yes? The first is an invitation to robbery; the second is a defense against it.

Did early America “work” so well that other countries sent deputations to discover and try to replicate the “magic” because of some sprawling, comprehensive political plan? No. It was precisely because government was strictly prevented from imposing such plans in most areas of Americans’ lives that gave individuals the freedom to more effectively coordinate their productive actions. That is borne out in the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of unalienable rights and the many times the words “no” and “not” appear in the Constitution to limit what our federal government is to be allowed to do.

Did capitalism spring whole from an implementation of a well-reasoned comprehensive political reform? No. The most productive social organization ever discovered resulted from centuries of evolution, largely by way of piecemeal changes discovered and implemented by some, then imitated and adapted by others in search of similar mutual gains. Not only were those changes not the result of a comprehensive plan, they were frequently the opposite—attempts to avoid or evade the nonsensical, abusive, and inefficient comprehensive plans that rulers have imposed.

In other words, the annals of politics show a long train of comprehensive plans that, while based on freedom, not only do not advance the incredible productivity of the voluntary associations of capitalism but also hamstring both freedom and capitalism as well as impoverishing societies. One could say that comprehensive political plans have often been roughly as responsible for peaceful and productive societies as blood-sucking parasites have been responsible for a shark’s high speed in the water.

Despite the problems that bedevil comprehensive political plans, there is one central plan that can benefit all members of a society (except for predators who prey on others)—jointly protecting everyone’s private property. As John Locke pointed out, and many of America’s founders echoed, that is the only thing the government’s coercive power can do that can make all citizens better off.

In other words, “don’t ever allow the violation of others’ rights” is adequately comprehensive for extensive, successful social cooperation. However, it is comprehensive only in spelling out what no one can do to others without their consent. It imposes no limits on what individuals can create voluntarily with and for others, a far cry from the political delineation and delegation of privileges to some and duties to others. It is also far superior in both ethical and economic terms to legislation or regulations that are supposedly comprehensive, yet routinely violate citizens’ rights.

Maintaining individuals’ rights inviolate also allows individuals to voluntarily determine and achieve the most efficient degree of comprehensiveness in their planning, without necessitating any comprehensive government plans.

In markets, the degree of comprehensiveness of plans adopted is a variable that is left to those whose rights are involved. There are no barriers to more comprehensive plans (as when there are large economies of scale or scope or important dependency issues in production relationships) other than the need to get others’ voluntary agreement. Projects can be as large scale as is consistent with not violating rights against invasion. The market mechanism allows consumers the effective means of punishing and eliminating failed comprehensive plans in contrast to consumers’ far weaker power over political plans (where government-induced failure is always blamed on markets and claim to require still more government control). Projects and agreements can also be as narrow or as piecemeal as participants choose. When all such parties agree that certain arrangements and terms benefit them, saying they aren’t completely comprehensive doesn’t stop them from being implemented and delivering those benefits.

The supposed need for bipartisan political action, coupled with claims such action must also be comprehensive, provides an excuse for a great deal of waste and many political abuses. However, people don’t need such government dictates for social cooperation.

Individuals can put together plans of whatever degree of comprehensiveness they find mutually agreeable, without violating “losers” rights, which is the ultimate source of political benefits. These plans include piecemeal changes that are often more appropriate to the circumstances and knowledge available to the parties involved. In fact, comprehensive government planning reduces our ability to coordinate our actions effectively by replacing massive amounts of valuable individually held information with increased ignorance as the basis of policy. In contrast, the only comprehensive political commitment necessary is a commitment not to violate any citizen’s rights, including by imposing “new and improved” comprehensive plans.

Friedrich Hayek may have best described the upshot of comprehensive political planning when he wrote: “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.” Recognizing the weakness of the case for such planning is the first step to limiting rather than expanding how comprehensive that harm can be.

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