I read an amusing but painful aphorism: “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that comes from bad judgment.” Most of us learn from experience. We believe we know better when we are young and ignore the advice of our elders. Time passes, we make painful mistakes and eventually come to realize how much wisdom we ignored.
Despite our sophisticated technology and advanced knowledge, human nature has not changed in thousands of years. Many of the lessons about human life and human folly which were noted by philosophers many years ago remain true and we ignore them to our own sorrow.
Adam Smith is recognized as the father of modern economics based on his Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776 and which helped inspire the principles on which the United States was founded, among them free trade, free markets and limited government. Less well known is a book that he wrote in 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, As described by the Adam Smith Institute, “It identifies the basic rules of prudence and justice that are needed for society to survive,and explains the additional, beneficent, actions that enable it to flourish.”
In this book, Smith described what he called “the man of system”:
“The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”
In other words, there are people who think they know how to arrange society and seek to impose their vision. They put their plan into operation with highly detailed rules, penalties and prescriptions. They override the individual desires of the governed and subject them to the will of the government. In the end, the failure to take into account the desires and actions of the governed leads to disorder and unhappiness and in the end, the destruction and overthrow of the plan.
The failure to heed the wisdom contained in Smith’s words has caused great suffering. The French Revolution attempted to remake society, but resulted in thousands of murders and the eventual reaction. The various Communist revolutions led to millions of deaths, the oppression of the survivors and impoverishment of most of those living under these regimes. Most very eventually overthrown, but a few miserable countries continue to live under these systems.
But the man of system doesn’t just try to remake entire societies, but can try to execute plans of more limited scope. We are living through the imposition of just such a system, which is formally known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Who could be against protecting patients and making healthcare affordable? But the law’s name was only a wish, an intention, designed to make it seem desirable. Added to this branding PR, the administration has added deception and changes to the legislation by fiat in order to keep it afloat as its major provisions are poised to come into effect in 2014.
First came the problems with the Healthcare.gov website, which we are promised will be fixed. Next came a wave of cancellations of policies and replacement with less desirable or more costly policies. The chessboard pieces stopped moving smoothly and started to howl. The number of enrollments is pitifully small for a law that promised universal coverage. This is just the start – next will come the employer policies which will not be compliant with the law. More howling. There are more clinkers in the law which will cause more damage and pain.
Want to bet that Obama did not read Adam Smith?