Home > central planning, regulation, socialism, the free market > The Contingency of Socialist Utopias: Some Problems of Central Planning and Rationalist Design   [Part 1]

The Contingency of Socialist Utopias: Some Problems of Central Planning and Rationalist Design   [Part 1]

June 30th, 2008

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From time to time an author or thinker will create a work, often in the Utopian genre, which lays out a detailed design of an ideal society. Fourier’s phalanestères are one example: they are described as the structure of a social unit, all the way down to the number of inhabitants and to the shape of the actual buildings that house them.

The general problem with these plans is that they lack generality over time and space. They fail the test of universality. The following will be my random walk through some of the problems with rationalist institutional construction and the subsequent problems of central planning. –more–>Most people would recognize that a particular building design or architecture can become obsolete. Many would laugh if there were an actual plan to actually construct Campanella’s City of the Sun or Fourier’s phalanxes in the present day. Their reasoning would be obvious: those things were designed in an entirely different time, under different circumstances. This is not to say that those authors and many like them put forth their ideas as timeless and never requiring change (some occasionally have had the delusion of technological growth simply stopping at one point), but a large degree of universality is frequently attached to more abstract kinds of social planning.

Some examples of central design are much more concrete than others, but central planning when it involves a particular kind of physical engineering is not the only instance in which central design encounters severe problems. It can also include institutional design. For a long time, it was thought to be sound business strategy to always have a middle-man for many kinds of transactions. With changes in technology, the middle-man has frequently been cut out, and with good reason: he’s no longer needed. Yet what would happen if, in my ideal construction of a society, there were always a middle man between wholesale and retail? What if I claimed that this middle man led to the greatest well-being of my society’s members? Economics would most certainly stand against me.

Despite that, all kinds of social manifestos, utopias, and even national constitutions establish permanent institutions as a feature of the society. It can be a ruling council of Thirteen, a Guardian class, or a president, a 480-member congress, and a 11-member judiciary. They make the mistake of integrating information available at the current time and creating a set of concrete institutions that are to be held as universal, but are not in fact universal. This is symptomatic of a general problem with leftist thought, which is that it is often too concrete-bound in its approach to society. Those contingent concretes – such as the current distribution of income and power in society – are then used as premises from which “universal principles” are derived, like: there’s always the class of the rich and the class of the poor, and the former always oppress the latter. The problem is that those supposedly universal principles only apply in narrowly contingent cases, which makes them not universal (not even considering whether the derivation of those principles is valid). They ignore changing circumstances and technology (never mind all the other fallacies, like the total fabrication of principles of justice, ignorance of actual factors that cause poverty, etc. )

The general empirical principle underlying this is that no mind or group of minds can ever gather, process, and coordinate all of the information necessary to perfectly govern complex human conduct. Even without any normative principles relating to individual autonomy, the idea of governance – especially economic governance – by few over the many is riddled with problems, in theory and as it has been demonstrated in practice. Every economic agent has a delicately unique and complex set of circumstances and preferences, and has direct access to his own set. Supposing that someone trying to make economic decisions for this person was acting totally altruistically (another very generous premise, again as demonstrated in practice), he would require a means of translating that agent’s changing circumstances and preferences (closely related to subjective experiences of pain, pleasure, etc. into usable information which he then must process to prescribe a course of action which must be then executed correctly. Multiply this process over thousands or millions of people, and there is quite a huge problem. It is wishful thinking already that one person can make decisions for another effectively (people already have enough problems making decisions for themselves), so it must be even more wishful to think that some people can do it for many others, even suspending for a moment the selfish interests of those decision makers.

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