Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The "acting alone" fallacy

President Obama said this in his 2nd inaugural address:

For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together.
I object to this move, which seems to have become popular with Democrats in the past couple years, of equating "doing things together" with government. To suggest that anyone who'd like to see less heavy-handed government regulation thinks one person can do everything alone is a straw-man argument. It indicates a lack of understanding of how the private-sector economy works and how libertarians or conservatives actually think about economics. The private sector isn't just a bunch of people "acting alone." As Matt Welch pointed out in his critique of the speech, making and selling an object as basic as a pencil is such a complex endeavor that it takes lots of different specialists. No one person has the knowledge to accomplish that seemingly simple task; that's how decentralized knowledge is in society. And with a truly complex product, like a computer or movie, the need for people to work together is even greater still. The private sector isn't fundamentally about everyone being secluded and isolated from each other; it typically involves many people working together. Government regulation often rules out the options people would otherwise want to pursue that would let them work together more. The idea that you're "alone" unless you're being directed by the government strikes me as dehumanizing and almost abusive. So I resist this scare tactic of presenting the government as the alternative to being "alone."

56 comments:

Synova said...

Nicely explained.

chickelit said...

For we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

Policy disrobed! The naked consequences chill.

pbAndjFellowRepublican said...

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Mark said...

Government is really capable of doing two things: telling citizens what they may not do, and telling citizens what they must do.

That's it.

A government that lets the gray areas go is a good thing; a government that treats the gray areas as an opportunity for prosecution is tyranny. And that's where we are.

Rose said...

Excellent! I object, as well.

chickelit said...

Government is really capable of doing two things: telling citizens what they may not do, and telling citizens what they must do.

That's it.


Excellent visual too! I see parentheses: the right hand paren is the "may not do;" the left hand paren is the "must do." As Government expands into the gray area, both parens thicken--further constricting what's between them!

Roger J. said...

well done essay, sir--as an aside, the pencil example was employed by Milton Friedman to highlight the roles of the free market. He used to start his economics lectures by talking about the skills and materials needed to produce a pencil and at an insignificant cost.

Eddie said...

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for."

All true, which is why we pay taxes. But notice that these are not the expenditures that conservatives and progressives generally fight over, except maybe that progressives want to spend less on national defense. (Note too how these expenditures are largely expenditures of state and local governments.) The fight is generally over welfare transfers, and here the argument is pretty weak. Paying forward the relevant social contract would mean continuing to educate and build roads, not providing universal health care.

Anonymous said...

just one word in this post caught my eye. "Libertarian" is at last becoming part of the wider dialogue. I hope all reading this will investigate the libertarian ideas and the Libertarian party.

Anonymous said...

This goes to the heart of Western civilization's whole notion of man as a dignified and sovereign individual, worthy of voluntarily entering into his own transactions with other voluntary parties, with both getting something out of the deal.

What Obama objects to is that in such private sector transactions, government is cut out, and it wants a piece of that deal. Hence, a government framework or directive is required, usually involving a cash tribute of some kind.

goethean said...

But notice that these are not the expenditures that conservatives and progressives generally fight over, except maybe that progressives want to spend less on national defense.

Really? Is that why we have bridges that are so poorly maintained that they are falling into rivers?

SH said...

Like most things progressive it has bad roots. 'you are alone' was a socialist taunt at protests for a long time before its being mainstreamed by dem pols. Your crit of it works in both cases.

Anonymous said...

You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for.

The rest of us? As if trucks operate with no license tags and run on fuel that had no state or federal taxes added.

Anonymous said...

It's true that America couldn't have fought the Nazi's or Communists with a musket. But if our federal government were responsible for overseeing the American Revolution, given their abilities, we'd still be part of the British Empire.

Squid said...

Really? Is that why we have bridges that are so poorly maintained that they are falling into rivers?

The reason our bridges are so poorly maintained is that our state legislatures tend to underfund the unglamorous, taken-for-granted things that should be their first priority, so that they can spend more on feel-good, highly-visible programs that get their faces on TV and in the papers.

If the State got out of the private charity business, and let our traditional charitable organizations resume their historical roles, maybe they could once again focus their efforts on the basic services that form the foundation of their responsibilities. But then how could they buy votes?

harryhuntington said...

Actually there is so much more that can be said about what the rest of us did. You have electricity at your plant because government used eminent domain to take property from others so they could string a power line. You have sewer and water at your plant because government used eminent domain to seize the right of way from others for the sewer and water lines. You pollute, because government rules let you take the property (the right to pollution free air) from others without compensation. You have an internet because the folks at DARPA wanted to create a robust communications system that could survive a nuclear war. Your workers have time to work (and aren't home farming) because Federal food policy assures access to good food at low prices for all Americans. Your business is built directly on things that the government takes from others and gives to you.

And we won't even get to the roads, bridges, schools, etc.

Anonymous said...

"No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need"

Does the Douche Bag In Chief think that there can be no teachers without a super-powerful state directing them?

Neo said...

You see, President Barack Obama lives in a "bubble" within the White House. He is "alone."

Jeremy said...

"Is that why we have bridges that are so poorly maintained that they are falling into rivers?"

The bridge that fell into a river, a few blocks from my wife's office as it happens, was undergoing extensive maintenance at the time.

Also, I seem to recall us borrowing $830 billion dollars for "shovel ready" projects a few years back.

Hmmm. I wonder where that money went, what with all these collapsing bridges?

trailbee said...

There is something cloying and sinister about government waking you in the morning, looking over your shoulder all day and putting you to bed at night. The whole idea is not to be alone to think and create. Big intrusive government will take your mind from you, if you have a mind to give it.

pst314 said...

If people like Obama really cared about quality education, they would pay attention to what works. If they really cared about individual people, they would allow people to run their own lives. But what he and his allies really care about is wielding power. Nothing horrifies him more than the idea that somewhere, someone is free and independent.

Sam said...

Ignorance abounds--we have paid for all those government services 10X over. The money the Democrats want is not for roads/bridges/police. It's to siphon off to their cronies to assure their continued political power. It's absurd to claim that $3 trillion a year is not enough for all the services any American could hope for. Where does it go? Down the rat hole that is the bureaucracy. As for eminent domain, the government works for us--if we choose to allow it to "take from one to give to another" then it's our decision--NOT THE GOVERNMENT'S.

Anonymous said...

It is important to note that this leftist fallacy is due to willed denial of the obvious. In their own private actions, leftists barter and bargain like everyone else, intuitively comprehending what Adam Smith identified way back in 1776:

"It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people. Every workman has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for; and every other workman being exactly in the same situation, he is enabled to exchange a great quantity of his own goods for a great quantity or, what comes to the same thing, for the price of a great quantity of theirs. He supplies them abundantly with what they have occasion for, and they accommodate him as amply with what he has occasion for, and a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of the society.

...

This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature, which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."


Full text here.

Brett said...

Forced collectivism is tyranny; voluntary cooperation is liberty.

Joseph said...

If nobody on his own can create a pencil then ...

It's time for a U.S. Department of Pencils!

If we don't, then we're depleting the world's pencil supplies. Soon we'll have to institute rationing.

Anonymous said...

Borrowing to build all this infrastructure and pay for entitlements will mean that eventually the only people who will be driving on all these new roads will be government employees driving government Volts.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

Ritchie The Riveter said...

All you need to do is show up for work or go to school; we have experts who have the answers to your housing needs, your health care needs, your financial needs … no need to plan for your future or actively manage your career, since we can do a better job than you can; just trust us to solve those problems FOR you.

This is the face of the Democratic Party today, and almost all my life for that matter. And it enables/aids/abets what I consider to be the fundamental problem we have in this nation: the "outsourcing" of personal responsibility and personal initiative to a self-selected elite, believing that only they can solve our problems for us.

Mr. Obama's definition of unity is not unity ... it is submission to your "betters" under the coercive force of law, at the expense of accessing the brainpower, willpower, and insight of 300 million people.

Anonymous said...

Go beyond to no statism

Anonymous said...

Government is the only institution in society with a monopoly on coercion. It uses coercion to force you to pay taxes and it forces us to consume monopolistic government services we may not want (like wars, Obamacare, whatever). And because government provides those services on a monopolistic basis without competition, there is little incentive for it to provide those services efficiently. We end up with a system littered with corruption, waste, fraud, cronyism, etc. as government grows ever larger.

The private sector, on the other hand, is based purely on voluntary exchange. We all decide who we want to do business with and how much we want to spend. Its voluntary exchange that gives individuals, collectively, the power to decide which industries, companies and products fail and which succeed. Take Eastman Kodak, for example. The company did not adapt quickly enough to changing consumer preferences for digital images. A company with a nearly 150 year history was forced to declare bankruptcy because consumers changed their preferences. All this drivel from Democrats and the political left about how evil business is is garbage. It was the ruthless consumers who used their dollars to vote EK out of business because EK no longer provided the products and services that consumers valued.

You do not get that with government. You are COERCED to pay taxes to a government that provides uncompetitive monopolistic services. Coercion is a horrible way for a nominally "free" people to allocate economic resources. That's why conservatives/libertarians value limited government so much. Because we know that while some government is necessary, whatever resources devoted to it are inefficiently used and those resources are diverted away from productive uses that are more valuable.

Anonymous said...

A excellent example of a corporeal "Great Pirate" as explained by Buckminster Fuller.

Concerned Citizen said...

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own -- nobody"

That's true. That person who got rich had to pay a lot of taxes along the way and I'd say he paid for more than his/her fair share of all the things you mentioned. In fact, you probably received more benefits from this rich person's actions than you returned to society yourself.

Your argument followed to its logical conclusion ends in the abolition of private property and everything that implies, i.e. the end of liberty.

The underlying social contract has been destroyed by corruption and Marxism, which is found in abundance today. There is no social contract.

The country's leaders ignore the laws, as do the rich and powerful. Laws are for the little people and this has now made the nation lawless. In fact, it's hard to follow one law without breaking another and for this reason, these control freaks are now trapped in their own laws.

There's nothing left to "pay forward" and why would anyone want to pay a single penny to criminals who are trying to destroy their liberty?

ScuzzaMan said...

the same (false) dichotomy is typically applied to wanti-war arguments, as well. Whenever one tries to argue that killing essentially random numbers of foreigners is hardly symptomatic of an enlightened civilisation, one gets the shrieking response: "So you'd have us do NOTHING!?"

Like there are no other choices. And so many reflexively respond to pacifism with arguments against (what they call) 'isolationism', as if they were synonymous rather than almost entirely unrelated concepts.

And so the only alternative to Robinson Crusoe is Washington, DC.

Meh.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

goethean said...

Really? Is that why we have bridges that are so poorly maintained that they are falling into rivers?

Would you be able to supply a list of bridges that fell into rivers due to poor maintenance in the recent past?

I keep hearing about our crumbling infrastructure, while all the roads around where I live keep getting redone: bridges expanded, lanes added, shoulders widened...

Anonymous said...

Strawman argument from Obama?

Say it ain't so.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, "Ignorance is Bliss"? You don't believe that we have deteriorating bridges in this country? Start with this report from Transportation for America (T4), a nonprofit coalition of more than 500 national, state and local organizations and elected officials. It concludes that of the 600,000 bridges in the U.S., about 11.5% are "structurally deficient by government standards." And this number is virtually certain to increase.

Try Googling the phrase "unsafe bridges" sometime. You'll find that this problem is well documented.

mamabincranky.com said...

Remember, it was "Yes We Can" not "Yes You Can". It has always been about the collective, i.e. BIG GOVERNMENT. We are not empowered alone, only by the government. All the grassroots on the right are collective that is ignored, but not the OWS collective.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Anonymous said...

Seriously, "Ignorance is Bliss"? You don't believe that we have deteriorating bridges in this country?

Of course we have deteriorating bridges. Every bridge, everywhere is deteriorating. Google 'entropy'.

Start with this report from Transportation for America (T4), a nonprofit coalition of more than 500 national, state and local organizations and elected officials. It concludes that of the 600,000 bridges in the U.S., about 11.5% are "structurally deficient by government standards." And this number is virtually certain to increase.

So a group of people who believe they would benefit from more infrastructure spending created a report saying we should spend more on infrastructure.

I skimmed the report, but didn't find the list of bridges that had fallen into rivers in recent years. Which page was that on?

Forbes said...

>"Government is really capable of doing two things: telling citizens what they may not do, and telling citizens what they must do."

Yes, of course--that which is not permitted will be required. There is no gray area with this government as it is totalitarian.

Good luck with that.

geoffrobinson said...

Government is what we do together as a society. Like require 10 year old girls to have a license to sell lemonade or no-knock raids at wrong addresses.

Anonymous said...

I have an experiment. Take 50 engineers and put them in a room and tell them to build a rocket. Give them a $1M budget and 6 months.

Take another 50 engineers, put them in a room with $1M and 6 months, but give them the benefit or 10 or so government types. One is in charge of minority rights, one is in charge of making sure the rocket is eco friendly, one is in charge of making sure union members have their say, one is in charge of safety, one is in charge of making sure they don't discriminate again gays and women, one is in charge of making sure the rocket complies with gov't regulation,etc.

Which room would you want to be in?

Ritchie The Riveter said...

ScuzzaMan ... the problem with most of the anti-war alternatives is that they end up effectively doing nothing when your enemy has no respect for life, liberty, or good faith, and has no problems turning your good faith against you.

They can work when your adversary still has a measure of respect for the above ... as Great Britain did when Ghandi et. al. worked to make India an independent nation ... but not when your adversary is willing to lie and cheat to get their way.

OTOH, simply doing nothing is no longer a viable option in a lot of cases ... since we live in such a highly-interconnected world, a few miscreants can leverage technology and freedom-of-movement and wreak havoc at a level that it took six aircraft carriers to achieve at Pearl Harbor.

And keep in mind that "blowback" can come from doing nothing, as much as it can from acting ... especially when your nation promotes life and liberty as unalienable rights that belong to ALL men, yet ignores (when not making nice with) tyrants in the name of realpolitik. People remember that.

Without freedom ... and the respect for and protection of it by those who govern ... the only real peace is that of the grave.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Okay, here's a list of bridge collases.

It looks like the most recent one that was due to lack of maintenance was April 1, 1989. So over 23 years ago.

James Oswald said...

Maybe you're misunderstanding him. He could be making the Hayekian point that no one person has the dispersed knowledge necessary to run schools, do research or create jobs and that those tasks should be left to the free market. :-)

Richard Forty said...

to mark, good comment.
I would add a 3rd function though, national defense, which prevents other nations telling us what we must do.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Maybe you're misunderstanding him. He could be making the Hayekian point that no one person has the dispersed knowledge necessary to run schools, do research or create jobs and that those tasks should be left to the free market. :-)

Theoretically, yes! In reality, each sentence in a presidential inaugural address is carefully crafted to advance the president's agenda and ideology. It isn't the same thing as some random comment someone makes in a free-ranging political debate over beers. Everything he says should be seen through the prism of: here's why it's a good thing that you're going to have a Democratic rather than Republican president. Obama's "acting alone" point resonates with the theme of the Democratic convention that "government is the only thing we all belong to." He might not explicitly say what I've attributed to him, but he strongly implies it over and over.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Would you be able to supply a list of bridges that fell into rivers due to poor maintenance in the recent past?

That Minneapolis bridge in 2007.

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Rafique said...

I think the problem here is one of a poor choice of metaphor--the acting alone versus working together theme does tend to gloss over the legitimate disagreements over public versus private, federal versus state, etc. I think it's clear what Obama means--that there are certain things that can only be done on a national level (infrastructure, military, disaster relief, etc). His approach to this collective action is baked into the language.

He phrasing here is a straw man--a straw man to challenge another man, used to counter the idea of Obama being for top-down government. He tends to use broad metaphors to defend his approach to government and the economy. He doesn't always get it right.

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