The Paternalist Instincts of a Central Planner

Published May 25, 2021

Both supporters and critics of President Joe Biden have been surprised and amazed by the immensity of his political agenda and his recent actions for a far more expansive role for the federal government than many had been expecting from his time in office. He is clearly on a “mission” and is pursuing it with seeming urgency. So, what is driving him, and is this what the task of presidents is supposed to be all about? 

New York Times columnist, David Brooks, recently did a lengthy phone interview with Biden and conveyed his understanding and impressions of what guides the president in pushing for a larger and more intrusive government in people’s lives. Whenever a politician tries to tell you what drives him in pursuing government office and his motivations for wanting political power and authority, it must always be taken with a grain of salt. 

After all, when have such public pronouncements not always ended up with basically asserting the same things, no matter how differently the chosen words might be? It usually comes down to a desire to “give back” to society, a “calling” to help solve any number of “social ills” afflicting the country, and confidence that his experience and “good intentions” are just what is needed to bring about that “better world” for his fellow citizens. 

What really may be behind such a “wanting” for political office is never stated directly or openly. That being: arrogance and power-lusting, with a wish to privilege some (those who have supplied the campaign contributions and votes that have won that politician the election) and to plunder others (those who will provide the taxed funds and bear the regulatory burdens to supply those special benefits). How many of us want to be told to our face that the candidate wants to play many of us for suckers so he can have the political position he craves, and to bestow those special favors and redistributed gains to his supporters through the fiscal and interventionist policy tools of government? Instead, it invariably gets candy-coated with amorphous rhetoric about the “common good,” the “general welfare” or the “national interest.” 

Biden’s Worldview Shaped by His Father’s Hard Times

But let us put this aside, and hear what Joe Biden has to say for himself, as explained by David Brooks. It seems that Biden’s worldview has all been shaped by the misfortunes and frustrations experienced by his father. After managing a ship retrofitting company during World War II, his father ran a wholesale business that went bust because his partner gambled away all the company’s money. Then, according to Biden, his father had to get by, from job to job, suffering a life of disappointment and lost pride. 

Biden’s dream, therefore, is to make that better world where bad things never happen to people, especially hard-working middle-class people like his dad. These bad things happen for no good reason to good people, and it’s just not fair. So, he wants to play political big brother for all the other dads who may find themselves in his dad’s position. In other words, he wants to use other people’s money to do for other dads what as a boy he couldn’t do for his own father. 

How do you give back or preserve the pride and dignity that his own father lost, according to Biden? You guarantee people work – “good-paying jobs” – and social and economic security through redistributions of government supported higher education and welfare safety nets that supposedly reinforce self-respect. Or as Brooks says, Biden has a “governing philosophy, and subsequently a set of policies, that work strenuously to support people amid the setbacks of life, that offers people good jobs so they can live with dignity, that pushes against the arrogance of wealth.” This is reinforced by a Christian outlook in Biden, Brooks explains, that emphasizes “social solidarity, the organic interdependence of people and communities . . . [plus] you have serious responsibilities for one another.” 

Brooks points out that while some who enter into politics are motivated by stated ideological convictions or philosophical outlooks on the human condition, Biden’s foundation is basically emotive; that is, he extrapolates out from his own personal life experiences about what he thinks government policy should be all about and focused on. If we take Biden at his word, his worldview had been constructed from “feelings” of his saddened youth due to seeing his father’s bad luck, much more than a more general reasoning and reflection on man and society. 

To Do Good Biden Demands “Details” About Everything

If this sounds like psychobabble, well, then, it is psychobabble about Joe Biden’s own psychobabble about himself. How does his own psychobabble manifest itself in terms of his governing style, particularly now that he is president of the United States? A few days before David Brooks’ column on his interview with Biden, The New York Times ran a piece on “Beneath Joe’s Biden’s Folksy Demeanor, a Short Fuse and an Obsession With Details” (May 14, 2021).

In general, Biden is presented as a relatively slow and deliberative decision-maker, wanting to mull a matter and its policy possibilities over and over several times, along with calling upon a number of trusted advisors and “experts” from whom he expects reams of details and facts about a wide variety of aspects of any issue that he is mulling over. He is presented as short-tempered, easily impatient with those from whom he wants information or opinions, and often wanting minutia but rude and insulting when he does not get the facts he asks for. “I want the details,” he is quoted as saying, whether the news is “good” or “bad.” 

Embedded in Biden’s mindset is the micromanaging social engineer. During a meeting with his advisors about the worldwide effects of global warming and themes that should not be ignored (including methane emissions from the backsides of cows): 

“Biden quizzed them on how his climate policy would influence specific workers in Pennsylvania, his home state. How would all of this affect earth-moving workers, fabricators, those pouring concrete, derrick operators, plumbers and pipefitters, and licensed truckers, he asked. ‘We walked through each of those specific occupations, those specific tasks that people do,’ [one of Biden’s aides] Mr. Zaidi said. ‘And he probed on, you know, ‘And how much do these folks make?’ and ‘How many of them are there in southwestern Pennsylvania?’ and ‘OK, you told me about this geothermal resource, but does this geothermal resource exist in West Virginia?'” 

To Centrally Plan, Biden Needs to Know Everything

If Joe Biden is to see to it that no dad anywhere in all of America is to suffer any of the troubles that his own father had experienced, then he must presume to and insist upon knowing everything, about everyone, everywhere throughout the country. And, especially, in Pennsylvania, because in the psychobabble of his own mind those are his folks in the state where he comes from and to which he would have the closest emotional attachment. Besides, how would it look if “saving the planet” ended up having such negative effects on the people of Pennsylvania that Biden were to lose his birth state, if he were to actually run for reelection in 2024, as he says he intends to? So those under Biden better see to it that all the voters in Pennsylvania have all the “good jobs” and government guaranteed income “dignity” needed to get them to cast their ballots the right way in the next Congressional election in 2022 and the next presidential election two years after that.  

Even if we assume that Biden only has good intentions, no matter how misguided and misplaced, we are face-to-face with Friedrich A. Hayek’s warning of “The Pretense of Knowledge,” which was the title of his 1974 Nobel lecture. No one mind and no group of “experts,” however well-informed and worldly wise, can possess the necessary and sufficient knowledge to successfully plan and direct the economic affairs of an entire country, or even just the state of Pennsylvania, to assure effective, efficient, and coordinated outcomes between all the consumption and production activities of all the members within its complex social system of division of labor, upon which our material and cultural standards and qualities of life are dependent. 

The New York Times article highlighted Biden’s often slow deliberativeness before deciding on a specific policy course of action. In the real world of ever-changing market supply and demand conditions, adaptations and adjustments in small and significant ways must be made every day in different ways in multitudes of corners of society to assure effective and appropriate rebalancing and price-coordinating shifts in how resources (including labor) are allocated and utilized so they are producing the right products, in the right amounts, with the right qualities, features and characteristics, to serve and satisfy the wants and desires of the consuming public, which means, of course, all of us. (See my article, “F. A. Hayek and Why Government Can’t Manage Society”.)

Biden’s Political Paternalism Means Economic Chaos

However, what Biden and those around him who are deciding on what political paternalistic policies to implement and impose have in mind is not, “somehow,” setting prices to their market-clearing levels more efficiently than a competitive interaction of supply and demand, or a more cost-effective use of scarce resources on the product sides of the market. No, what they are deliberating on is setting prices and wages at levels having little or nothing to do with underlying market supply and demand patterns. 

Their concerns are with “social justice,” “fair wages,” and “equity” allocations of jobs based on race and gender. In other words, their world is one of potential economic irrationality, production inefficiency, and social disharmony in the division of labor. Setting prices and wages at levels defined as “socially just,” and determining employment based on race and gender “equity” having little or nothing to do with the skills, knowledge or experience to perform specific jobs in different corners of the stages of the supply-chains of the production processes of the market. 

What it would mean is nothing less than increasing economic chaos. Too little of many goods that people want; too much of other goods that those same people don’t desire; and too many of the wrong people doing the wrong work in the wrong places due to the fact that they have been assigned and assured quotas of jobs in employments for which their abilities are not matched with what the work requires. (See my article, “Hayek’s Still Relevant Response to Today’s Paternalist Planners”.)

It is impossible, of course, for Joe Biden and those immediately around him to not only decide all the politically correct things to do, and then to directly manage and oversee all of the multitudes of specific tasks to make that social justice better world. Responsibility and authority have to be delegated to those manning and managing the government bureaucracies. 

Bureaucratic Mandates for Climate Control of Business

For instance, on May 20, 2021, the White House reported that Biden had signed an executive order directing federal agencies to determine the financial costs and risks of climate change on various sectors of the economy, and especially the financial and investment markets, with a mandated “revealing” by regulated industries and companies to provide money estimates of everything they do that could in any way affect “climate change.” Gina McCarthy, the White House climate change advisor to the president, told the press, “This cannot be voluntary. This cannot be optional. The stakes are simply too high.”   

Based upon the climate-affecting financial and risk assessments, the government bureaucracies would then decide what controls, commands, and restrictions would be imposed upon those who have supplied the cost data needed to determine the climate central plan to be imposed on all of those same private enterprises and organizations. Is this an exaggeration? Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, said: “The global financial sector will be a crucial player, helping channel capital into investments to green our society.” In other words, there is to be direct political planning over the economic future of the United States. 

In his interview with David Brooks, Biden said, “The progressives don’t like me because I’m not prepared to take on what I would say and they would say is a socialist agenda.” However, here is a name for what Joe Biden is determined to implement and impose over the entire country. It is called economic fascism. Yes, the government does not, outright, nationalize, own and directly plan the economy. Instead, private enterprises are placed under the straightjacket of government-mandated prices and wages, methods and amounts of production, and uses and allocations of resources (including labor) in virtually every economic sector of the society. 

It is the command and planned economy with the outward veneer of private ownership, but under which private businessmen are reduced to the role of enterprise managers following the compulsory government orders of how and what for “their” companies shall exist and operate. “Socialism” and “fascism” are simply two institutional variations on the same collectivist theme of government coercive control of economic and social life. (See my articles, “Biden’s Agenda of ‘Democratic’ Paternalism and Planning” and “Stakeholder Fascism Means More Loss of Liberty” and “Why Hayek was Right About Nazis Being Socialists”.)

Under the Dictates of a President with Paternalism Issues

If Joe Biden is sincere about what motivates his quest for larger and more intrusive government, then we are in the presidential executive grip of someone who is determined to make us all the players on a grand stage of life upon which he gets to make up and make right for his own frustration, anger, and embarrassment that he experienced as a youngster over a world that did not give his father a “decent break.” We have a 78-year-old president with some very serious paternalism issues.

This may be true, or it may be merely one of the typical fairy tales that politicians try to create to make themselves seem “sincere,” and “human,” and just like the “common man,” with whom Biden says he identifies. The result, nonetheless, is someone in the White House who lives in an emotive and irrational mental world, with a misunderstanding of how an economic system works and how dangerous it is to try to nullify or circumvent the laws of supply and demand, the reality of scarcity, and the value of individual freedom of choice and personal decision-making. 

We are in for one hell of a ride that may lead to “destination hell,” and not the la-la land utopia that Biden and those around him imagine will be the last stop. (See my article, “Free-Market Liberalism vs. Corrupted ‘Capitalism’ and La-La Land Socialism”.)

[Originally posted on American Institute for Economic Research (AIER)]