All Commentary
Friday, May 9, 2014

#4 – The More Complex the Society, the More Government Control We Need


The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is proud to partner with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) to produce “Clichés of Progressivism,” a series of insightful commentaries covering topics of free enterprise, income inequality, and limited government.

Our society is inundated with half-truths and misconceptions about the economy in general and free enterprise in particular. The “Clichés of Progressivism” series is meant to equip students with the arguments necessary to inform debate and correct the record where bias and errors abound.

The antecedents to this collection are two classic FEE publications that YAF helped distribute in the past: Clichés of Politics, published in 1994, and the more influential Clichés of Socialism, which made its first appearance in 1962. Indeed, this new collection will contain a number of essays from those two earlier works, updated for the present day where necessary. Other entries first appeared in some version in FEE’s journal, The Freeman. Still others are brand new, never having appeared in print anywhere. They will be published weekly on the websites of both YAF and FEE: and until the series runs its course. A book will then be released in 2015 featuring the best of the essays, and will be widely distributed in schools and on college campuses.

See the index of the published chapters here.



#4 – The More Complex the Society, the More Government Control We Need

Argued a college president at a recent seminar: “Your free market, private property, limited government theories were all right under the simple conditions of a century or more ago, but surely they are unworkable in today’s complex economy. The more complex the society, the greater is the need for governmental control; that seems axiomatic.”

It is important to expose this oft-heard, plausible, and influential fallacy because it leads directly and logically to socialistic planning. This is how a member of the seminar team answered the college president:

“Let us take the simplest possible situation—just you and I. Next, let us assume that I am as wise as any President of the United States who has held office during your lifetime. With these qualifications in mind, do you honestly think I would be competent to coercively control what you shall invent, discover, or create, what the hours of your labor shall be, what wage you shall receive, what and with whom you shall associate and exchange? Is not my incompetence demonstrably apparent in this simplest of all societies?

“Now, let us shift from the simple situation to a more complex society—to all the people in this room. What would you think of my competence to coercively control their creative actions? Or, let us contemplate a really complex situation—the 188,000,000 people of this nation [Editor’s note: now, in 2014, about 318 million]. If I were to suggest that I should take over the management of their lives and their billions of exchanges, you would think me the victim of hallucinations. Is it not obvious that the more complex an economy, the more certainly will governmental control of productive effort exert a retarding influence? Obviously, the more complex our economy, the more we should rely on the miraculous, self-adapting processes of men acting freely. No mind of man nor any combination of minds can even envision, let alone intelligently control, the countless human energy exchanges in a simple society, to say nothing of a complex one.”

It is unlikely that the college president will raise that question again.

While exposing fallacies can be likened to beating out brush fires endlessly, the exercise is nonetheless self-improving as well as useful, in the sense that rearguard actions are useful. Further, one’s ability to expose fallacies—a negative tactic—appears to be a necessary preface to influentially accenting the positive. Unless a person can demonstrate competence at exploding socialistic error, he is not likely to gain wide audiences for his views about the wonders wrought by men who are free.

Of all the errors heard in classrooms or elsewhere, there is not one that cannot be simply explained away. We only need to put our minds to it. The Foundation for Economic Education seeks to help those who would expose fallacies and accent the merits of freedom. The more who outdo us in rendering this kind of help, the better.

Leonard E. Read
Founder and President of FEE, 1946–1983



  • Complexity does not automatically suggest centralization of power.
  • You and I have full-time jobs managing our own respective lives; our task increases exponentially if we try to control the lives of a handful of others, and it explodes beyond reason if we try to control the lives of millions.
  • For further information, see:

“I, Pencil” by Leonard E. Read:

“Our Cages and Labyrinths” by Jeffrey A. Tucker:

“Consumer Information and the Calculation Debate” by E.C. Pasour:

“The Foundations of Political Disarray: Lessons from Professor Hayek” by Richard B. Mckenzie:

Editor’s Note

This was the first chapter in the first edition of FEE’s Clichés of Socialism when it appeared in 1962. Though the “complexity requires control” fallacy is not publicly expressed so boldly today, it is still implicit in the core assumptions of modern Progressivism. Almost every new innovation gives rise to some call from some Progressive somewhere to regulate it, monitor it, sometimes even ban it. Rarely will a Progressive reject new assignments for government, even though it has already assumed so many that it manages so poorly (and at a financial loss). It behooves us to point out that the more government attempts to control, the less well it will perform all of its duties, including the essential ones. Leonard Read passed away in 1983, but his wisdom as expressed here still resonates.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.


  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”