The Social Engineer as Ethical Authoritarian

Published February 22, 2022

Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, advocates of greater government planning and redistribution have used “following the science” as the rhetorical cover to rationalize the growth in political paternalism. Now, however, some of them are coming out of the closet and insisting that economists, for example, must explicitly adopt an authoritarian ethic that requires the end to any free-market society.

Diane Coyle is a prominent professor of public policy at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and has long been on a mission to justify increased government control over social and economic affairs. In the past, she has usually argued her case on pragmatic or utilitarian grounds. That is, markets are inefficient or cannot adapt to changing technologies that modern society needs to more fully organize, including centralized collection of “big data” for better government-guided economic outcomes.

Economists as government policy advisors

But in an opinion piece a while back in the pages of the Financial Times (October 4, 2021), Professor Coyle wrote an article entitled “Change Is Needed in the Next Generation of Economists.” Economists have done important work, she states, in advising and consulting with governments over the collection and use of statistical data and the analysis of public-policy options in terms of likely outcomes. It is for this reason, she explains, that “many economists think of themselves as engineers, or plumbers (as described by Nobel laureate Esther Duflo), or (in Keynes’s famous quote) dentists,” fixing and correcting the problems of society.

Economists’ proposals on how to raise taxes “efficiently,” for example, or how infrastructure investments supposedly would most boost productivity, or what university degrees people should pursue for the best social gain for the education money spent. These have all been important contributions, Professor Coyle claims, in making a better society.

But in spite of how significant and beneficial this has been, there are challenges now facing the world that require economists to go beyond their role as policy technicians. Climate change and the “excessive power of big corporations” make it necessary for economists to now step out of their presumed “value-free” posture of merely analyzing social problems in the seemingly neutral framework of “if this, then that.”

Economists as ethical social engineers

If economists are to assist in the social engineering of society, which they have been already doing for a long time, it’s time for them to understand the “implicit moral framework” behind the grand endeavor to remake a better and sustainable society. Economists need to step out of their own analytical world and “work with (real) engineers, climate scientists, computer scientists or ecologists for an integrated analysis of societal challenges.” After all, she says, “Engineering society is inherently value-laden and economists are part of society.”

Economists need to stop looking at people as “individual maximizers, with fixed preferences uninfluenced by others,” Professor Coyle argues. “The benchmark needs to flip to reflect mutual interactions,” especially in a world with social media and profit-driven advertising. In addition, economists have to think of “markets as ecosystems vulnerable to collapse.” She concludes her article by saying that the sooner economists make this change to an explicit moral framework, the better.

But what, precisely, is this moral framework that Professor Coyle wants economists to more explicitly adopt? I would suggest that it comes out fairly clearly if one teases out the implications from her presented view of the world.

Freedom cannot be trusted, so paternalists are needed

People are malleable material, she reasons, not just individual utility maximizers pursing their own chosen ends and goals. No, they are subject to being manipulated and influenced by numerous others trying to get them to believe things, want things, and act in ways that benefit the persuaders who are out for nothing but their own personal profit.

In such a world, Professor Coyle believes, there must be those who will control or correct what people hear or read from the nefarious knowledge and information influencers. Ordinary people just cannot be trusted to sort out for themselves fact from fiction, real wants from artificial desires, or true social needs and objectives from the ones that would only benefit the ones in pursuit of do their own private gain.

That’s why society — which means all the rest of us — needs those social engineers. You know, the “real” engineers and scientists and the climate and computer experts who have the objective knowledge and perspective to know what “the science” is telling us about the dangers facing the world. They know what needs to be done and why doing it would be the ethically and socially correct things to do.

The arrogance of the social engineer

Notice the implied arrogance. “They” understand things that the rest of us cannot or have not been trained to properly master and comprehend. We are mentally and morally weak. We easily fall into the traps of advertising gimmickry and the word and emotional manipulations of a tweet. We need a band of “science” and social engineering messiahs to lead us through the wilderness of everyday ignorance and misinformation to a collectivist paradise just waiting ahead of us.

They will lead, and we should follow. Where to? To the politically correct promised land of a planned and controlled socio-economic system, with these experts keeping their hands on the regulatory knobs and dials. They will determine how we will work, how we will live, how we will travel, and how we will shop, and for what. This will be based on the relative incomes they will determine to be our respective “fair shares” after a socially equitable tax system has been “efficiently” put into place.

Quesnay and interdependency of the economic “body”

Without “them,” you see, the market economy, conceived as an interdependent “ecosystem,” is vulnerable to collapse at any time, Professor Coyle warned. This is not the first time that the economic system has been analogized as a biological system or complex living organism. Indeed, near the beginning of “economics” as a field of systematic study, the French Physiocrat Francois Quesnay (1694–1774) published his Tableau Economique (The Economic Table) in 1758 precisely to bring out the interconnections of the specialized branches of a social order based on a division of labor. (Almost every student taking their first economics class learns a modernized and simplified version of Quesnay’s “economic table” in the form known as the “circular flow” diagram.)

Quesnay was one of the royal physicians serving Louis XV, king of France. As a medical doctor, he appreciated the interdependency of the various organs of the human body. Each was dependent on the other, and the system as a whole had evolved networks of checks and balances when any part of the body was not functioning properly. Could the human “system” fall out of order? Yes, but this had more to do with failures on the part of the human agent to properly care for himself or from an external attack on one of the organs.

The Physiocrats emphasized that a free economic system —through the workings of supply and demand, prices and costs, and institutional supports such as property rights and market competition —was a “robust” and hearty “organism” able to withstand and correct almost any imbalances impinging to it. The best way to assure this was for government to intervene in the market as little as possible. In other words, policy advice the exact opposite from Professor Coyle’s.

Adam Smith’s invisible hand as social order without planning

This was also much of the reasoning behind Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” in The Wealth of Nations (1776). He demonstrated that individuals pursuing their respective self-interests, in a setting of established and protected property rights and an ethical and legal system of voluntary exchange and freedom of association, would help improve the interests of others in the pursuit of their own betterment.

With the emergence of specialization and the division of labor, we are all dependent on numerous neighbors, far and wide, for the satisfaction of our wants. If we are to acquire the financial means to have multitudes of others serve us at the table of global exchange, we must apply our knowledge, talents, and resources to, in turn, serve the ends of some of those others.

The competitive price system and open markets assured the balancing and rebalancing of the delicate specialized parts of this complex socio-economic order. Government needed to primarily assure what Adam Smith called a “system of natural liberty,” under which police, courts, and national defense were provided by the political authority. Most all other social and economic matters could be safely and confidently left to the private hands of the citizenry and their networks of free association and market exchange.

Viewing people as pawns on a societal chessboard

Adam Smith also warned about the very type of mentality that Diane Coyle wishes to raise to an ethical requirement: the paternalist mindset that cannot image leaving people alone to plan and guide their own lives. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith wrote:

The man of system … [who] is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of 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 that 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 choose to impress upon it.

Folly of a person who views himself fit to plan society

The social engineers who attempt to take on the task of planning society have no understanding that not only is such direction of human affairs unnecessary but it reflects a hubris that is altogether dangerous to the freedom and prosperity of all. Said Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations:

What is the species of domestic industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, can in his local situation, judge much better than any stateman or lawgiver can do for him. The stateman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

It is almost embarrassing to remind a fellow economist such as Diane Coyle that a market’s delicate interdependency and interconnectedness has been understood since the beginning of the discipline in the 1700s. Those early writers also understood that when the economic system becomes imbalanced or cannot fully function effectively, more times than not the origin is to be found in the imposition of the type of social engineering schemes that she wishes to see established around the world today.

It is why these earlier economists wisely understood that a general laissez-faire system should be the default position for any society. Any significant government interventions of any type were to be considered the exception, and only after a thorough justification could be offered as to why. They also understood the corrupting temptations from all such political infringements on the citizens’ freedoms of personal choice and voluntary association.

The more that governments had the power and authority to control the economic affairs of any society, the more having such power goes to the heads of those possessing it. Or as the nineteenth-century French liberal economist Jean-Baptiste Say observed:

Moreover, arbitrary regulations are extremely flattering to the vanity of men in power, as giving them an air of wisdom and foresight, and confirming their authority, which seems to derive additional importance from the frequency of its exercise.

Those in power, in other words, come to think of themselves as not only essential but indispensable. How can society even survive and thrive without their expert guidance?

How economists view people’s choice- making

One other point needs to be made in response to Professor Coyle’s criticisms of how economists often analyze human choice-making. It is true that economic theorists often take the actor’s preferences as “given.” This is for at least two reasons. First, it is precisely not to falsely and confusedly blur the distinction between what the economic actor being studied happens to believe and want and the beliefs and wants of the economic analyst, whose own ideas and values may or may not match those of the economic subject whose actions are being studied.

Second, by taking the actor’s preferences as “given,” the economist can more properly derive the logical implications of what follows from them. He can more easily trace out the marginal evaluations of available goods that come the actor’s way, the opportunity costs and trade-offs that he might hypothetically be willing to make, and the terms of trade under which he might enter into exchanges with others.

But few economists have presumed that individuals think, choose, and act in hermetically sealed off boxes uninfluenced by events or people around them. Indeed, some economists have highlighted that among the benefits of international trade have been more than merely the greater and wider variety of marketable goods made available to all in the global division of labor. They have also emphasized the information about other people’s cultures, ideas, and knowledge from which to learn and modify one’s own life.

The classical economists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries understood and valued the importance of shared ideas and experiences to enrich and better the minds and possibilities of all. To quote from Jean-Baptiste Say once again, this time from a 1789 essay on the benefits from the exchange of knowledge that the printing and freedom of the press offered to all mankind:

By printing, it became possible for a man to speak to all times and countries; and by an easy exchange of ideas everyone is enriched. Two men may each have one idea; by exchange, each has two; and by the thousand voices of the press they are communicated to a hundred thousand persons…. Thought is destined to fly from one mind to another. Yet among us, and in our time, a man of genius must still submit his broad conceptions to the compass of a censor, who may be inept and is always self-interested and timid….

Since to print is only to speak more loudly, so as to be heard by a greater number, do not tie the hand that traces signs more than the tongue that voices sounds…. Then, how many ideas will be expressed! If useless, they will be forgotten; if harmful they will be scorned; but those that are beneficial will germinate, prosper, and spread among us all the good things than a perfected human spirit can produce.

International trade increases new and useful knowledge 

In The Commerce of Nations (1899), Irish economist Charles Bastable (1855–1945) pointed out that besides the enlargement of material prosperity due to international trade, the growing intercourse among nations had excitedly brought people together culturally and intellectually:

One of the most striking features of modern times is the growth of international relations of ever-increasing complexity and influence. Faculties for communications have brought about closer and more constant intercourse between the different countries of the world leading to many unexpected results. This more intimate connection is reflected in all the different sides of social activity…. Literature, Science, and Art have all been similarly affected; their followers are engaged in keenly watching the progress of their favorite pursuits in other countries, and are becoming daily more and more sensitive to any new tendency or movement in the remotest nation.

But no doubt, Professor Coyle is more focused on the notion of people being the mind puppets of those intentionally trying to manipulate them for “selfish” personal or ideological purposes through social media outlets and advertising in general. It is true that people can sometimes be manipulated to believe in the strangest and most fallacious things. Like the idea that self-proclaimed wise and knowledgeable people who say they understand and are simply “following the science” really know enough and can be trusted to command and control how everyone else lives and interacts in society!

One of the purposes and values of competition, besides effectively and efficiently “delivering the goods,” is for an open rivalry of ideas and arguments. This way, people may listen to, judge, and even participate in the controversies of the day and to more effectively separate the intellectual and asserted “scientific” wheat from the chaff. Once there is a resumption that some elite must insert themselves into the process as the imposers of correct interpretations of real from fake news, we are on the way to a political closing of the public mind.

Only competitive markets ensure balanced coordination

It is interesting to note that neither in this article nor in her recent book Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is, and What It Should Be (2021) does Professor Coyle explain in any meaningful detail how and on what basis her social engineers will choose from among any relevant economic principles the answers to the questions: what should be produced, how it should be produced, where it should be produced, and to whom and in what relative amounts those outputs should be distributed among the members of the society?

The great advantage of a free market is precisely that all the people in the society get to participate in the decision-making that determines all of this. As consumers, we inform our fellow global economic citizens what it is we want and what we might be willing to pay to get some of it. As producers, we inform those same fellow global economic citizens what we might be able to produce and supply and at what (opportunity) costs of doing so, given all the competing uses for the same scarce means of production that we and others might want to employ them for.

We communicate and convey all this information through the worldwide price system that interconnects everyone participating in that social system of division of labor anywhere on the planet where production and trade occur. If we see disruptions and imbalances today in the global supply chains, we do not need to look any farther for its cause than the government policies that have locked down and shutdown multitudes of people, along with disruptions to the patterns of international trade through additional regulatory restrictions.

If governments would simply get out of the way, in short order, a natural rebalanced coordination of the economic system would soon occur. If, on the other hand, we want to preserve or worsen these imbalances, following the type of policy outlook proposed by Professor Coyle would assure that as the outcome.

Beware the “ethical” social engineer

Diane Coyle’s normative proposal for economists is for an ethics of paternalist elitism. They are the shepherds, and everyone else make up the sheep. It oozes with the hubris of Adam Smith’s “man of system” who suffers the folly and conceit of someone who believes that they have the knowledge and wisdom to be an economic dictator over the future of the world.

Critics of political paternalism and government planning have often been accused of exaggeration and taking things to unwarranted extremes. But is it not an economic dictatorship when self-appointed “scientific” social engineers declare that they must have the power and authority to set the world right, since freedom cannot be trusted to result in what they consider the “objectively” correct outcomes?

And what do we call it other than ethical authoritarianism when someone like Diane Coyle insists that economists must view themselves on a moral mission to work with other self-appointed social engineers to use the power of government to reshape the social landscape? Which, of course, means reshaping humanity according to a preconceived design considered to be the ethically right one for the entire human race.

Few things are as dangerous as religious fanatics confident that they are on a mission from God that justifies almost anything they decide to do to bring mankind to salvation. Here we see the economist social engineer insisting that “science” and the economist’s technical expertise, along with that of other technocrats, provides them with the ethical right and duty to remake the secular world in the name of “saving the planet” and bringing equity justice to all humankind.

Welcome to what can only be viewed as the new version of “scientific” socialism with its revolutionary vanguard of “ethical” social engineers. Diane Coyle wants to see this happen. And as she ends her article, “the sooner this change happens, the better.” We are living in dangerous times.

First published at: Future of Freedom Foundation.

Photo by Osajus Photography, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).