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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way?

Maybe not.

Many aphorisms and common expressions take on a different meaning when seen through the lens of economics.

One of my favorites is: “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we…,” followed by some earthly concern that needs to be addressed.  What that expression seems to miss is the idea of opportunity cost: Perhaps the reason we can’t solve the particular earthy problem is precisely because we sent a man to the moon.  That is, in a world of scarcity, when we devote resources to one activity, it means there are fewer resources left to do everything else.  Putting a man on the moon is exactly what makes it harder to do other things.  This is the economist’s notion of opportunity cost: The cost of every choice is the next best thing you gave up to get what you got.  And it makes the “man on the moon” aphorism look a little silly.

Recently I had cause to think about another aphorism that looks different when we shine some economics on it.  In the course of an online discussion about how to address the need for budget cuts on my campus, one member of the campus community urged us to find a way to do so without cutting the jobs of hourly or clerical staff.  Surely, he argued, there must be some way around this, perhaps by job-sharing or other strategies.  Eventually he said that if there is a will on the part of the faculty to save those jobs, there is a way.

And perhaps there is.  But perhaps there isn’t.  Taken literally, the expression says that if enough people want something to happen badly enough, it will happen.

The problem, of course, is that wishing doesn’t make it so.  And this is no less true in the social world than elsewhere.  In fact, it is probably more true there, and the consequences of thinking that wishing can make it so are much larger than they are in many other places.

Socialist Example

Perhaps the most obvious example is the history of socialism over the last 150 years.  Many smart and well-intentioned people believed that if they had sufficient will they could reconstruct the economic and social order such that it could be planned and controlled, much as human beings had come to control the natural world.  That Marx could imagine a world in which economic decision-making was coordinated not through an after-the-fact decentralized process driven by profit and loss, but rather through reason guiding action “according to a settled plan” was in his and other people’s minds sufficient grounds to believe it was possible.  With enough will to impose socialism there was a way to make it work.

But as history demonstrates, sometimes all the will in the world isn’t enough to find a way.  Not only is it impossible for socialism to work, in the same way that flapping one’s arms and flying to the moon is impossible, the attempt to make it work ended up in a nightmare.  When the will of the well-intentioned was insufficient to produce a “way,” those with fewer principles and a greater lust for power quickly rose to the top.  The results were, of course, the deaths of tens of millions at the hands of their own “socialist” governments.  All because some thought that where there’s a will there’s a way.

Of course not everyone who uses that aphorism is akin to political mass murderers.  But an unreflective use of it is suggestive of what Thomas Sowell calls the “unconstrained vision” of humanity.  This is the belief that there are no limits to what humans can do with respect to the social world – we can make the world be whatever we wish.  That vision is the one that has undergirded almost all leftist social movements of the last 150 years, from Marxism to Progressivism to the New Left to much of modern American “liberalism.”

Each of those movements has found that there are limits to what reason can consciously create and that trying to push beyond those limits is a recipe for social disaster.  Whether they realize it or not, those who operate on the principle “where there’s a will there’s a way” are paving the road to hell with their good intentions.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.