Mr. Hagedorn is Economist and Vice-President of the National Association of Manufacturers. This article is from his column in NAM Reports, January 26, ¹970.
There is always a certain amour of talk about the necessity for setting national economic goals, and you are hearing some of it now. Although such proposals are seldom outlined with any precision, they seem to envision some kind of council of elder statesmen that will make a choice among the possibilities for future development of the economy. The council would be assisted by technical experts making use of computer technology so that all the implications of each option would be fully understood.
Sometimes the idea is advanced by persons who, on the basis of their past achievements, deserve our respectful attention. And it seems to gain strength from the impressive contribution that modern decision-making techniques, process-undeniably made, this warts for the parts of our economy, why not apply it to the whole?
Nevertheless, at the risk of appearing paranoid, we want to record the qualms we feel when we hear enthusiastic discussion of the idea. Bluntly, the language of "national goals" sounds much like the language of totalitarianism.
We are sure that those who talk about the need for national goals have no such subversive intention in mind. But the essence of totalitarianism is that the nation, in some mystic sense, is conceived as having goals of its own which are distinct from the goals of its individual citizens. In practice, the right to select goals in a totalitarian state is assumed by a self-appointed elite. We find this an unattractive prospect, whether the self-selected group is composed of elder statesmen, technical experts, or street thugs.
We would rather think in terms of a society whose main collective goals are, first, to allow everyone maximum freedom in selecting his own individual goals and, second, to furnish him maximum opportunity for achieving them—whatever they may be. In such a society you have to accept the fact that what develops is unplannable and only partially foreseeable.
We also believe that proposals for national goal setting are often unrealistic. In some instances, at least, they seem to embody an engineering approach to the problems of the economy. If you are building a machine, you can’t expect the parts to fit together, or the finished product to work, unless everything is carefully designed in advance.
Nations Grow as Does a Tree
But the growth of nations and of national economies is an organic process, rather than a mechanical on. It resembles the natural growth of a tree more than it resembles the construction of a pre-designed machine.
If you want a full-grown tree, you plant a seedling where it will get the necessary sunlight and water. You do not have to plan the roots so that they, will be strong enough to support it, or plan the limbs so that they will fit properly on the trunk. You do have to protect your tree against diseases or accidents. The highest form of economic statesmanship, we believe, approaches the problems of the economy in this spirit rather than in the spirit of the machine designer.
In raising these objections to goal setting, we do not mean to be preaching a doctrine of atomistic individualism. Plainly, we can achieve our own goals more effectively in cooperation with others.
And, if cooperation is to be effective, it must be organized. Institutions have been developed through which individuals work together toward common goals. But these are instrumentalities for achieving goals, rather than entities which have goals of their own.
Among our institutions, and unique among them, is government. It alone has the ultimate coercive power. However, unless the language of the Declaration of Independence is now outdated, government too is an instrumentality we can use rather than a power we should serve.
It may be that, with the growth of population and industry, it has become appropriate to use government for new purposes and in unprecedented ways. People do have common concerns, about the environment for instance, that didn’t exist in earlier periods.
We don’t concede, however, that it has now become the function of the Federal government to set our goals for us. The goals we decide can most effectively be pursued through government are still only a part and not the whole.
All this may seem an absurdly exaggerated reaction to a lot of innocent talk about national goals. But, if there is a kernel of rationality at the core of such proposals, we must assume that those who want to set national goals also want to impose measures that would lead to the achievement of those goals. In the usual jargon, it comes down to a question of the "allocation of resources." The resources to be allocated consist of manpower, land, and capital—in other words, our individual energies and our property.
The present method of allocating resources is through the action of the market place. This is impersonal and allows everyone a maximum of free choice both as to his input and his takeout. The over-all result is unpredictable and may not match someone’s idea as to proper national goals. That seems a fair enough price to pay.
The opposite of civilization is not barbarism but Utopia. Utopia can let no man be his own worst enemy, take the risk of going uninsured, gamble on the horses or on his own future, go to Hell in his own way. It has to concern itself more with the connection of the parts than with the separateness of the parts. It has to know where everyone is; it has to keep track of us. It can’t protect us unless it directs us.