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OPINION | The myth of intelligent (government) design

A FEW years back, intelligent design was a red-hot controversy. It has cooled since, but it doesn’t take much to stir the embers.

When British astronaut Tim Peak repeated his openness to an intelligently designed universe this year, he was attacked with rejuvenated enthusiasm. One Guardian story responded by quoting, among others, evolutionary biologist Matan Shelomi about problems with our eyes: “Who designed these faulty things? The answer can’t be a God, because a God so incompetent in designing vision sensors isn’t worth worshipping.” 

What I find striking about such an “imperfection as proof against believing in something” standard is seldom applied to government, which affects us, and often assails us, every day. That is, why don’t we use that criterion in evaluating whether government is intelligently-enough designed to believe it will solve our human problems?

A centerpiece of calumny against intelligent design as science is that it is neither proven nor provable. However, is it proven or provable that government — whose only superior ability is in coercing others — advances Americans’ life, liberty, or happiness by its ubiquitous intrusion in our lives? Our founders certainly did not believe so.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution imply nothing of the sort. And our experience since has certainly been far from perfection. As a result, is there any reason to believe that government overriding ever more of our choices will give us better results?

Can we conclude that government policies and programs work so well, with each intricate part fitting together so seamlessly, that we should credit their designers with sufficient intelligence to trust still more decisions to them? And if not, why should we believe in demanding that government “do something” about every perceived problem, old or new, real or imaginary?

Why would we think that moving decisions to government will result in more intelligent arrangements? There is no way a government plan can replicate the market system’s integration and productive use of the vastly different and overlapping knowledge of each of its participants, coordinated without government central planners. Consequently, moving decisions to government throws away reams of valuable, detailed information that millions of individuals know, leading to less intelligent results.

This is illustrated by government ineffectiveness at even simple things. The apparently straightforward logic of mandates such as the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, as well as innumerable safety and other requirements, have been undone by the law of unintended (and more importantly, unanticipated) consequences, often powerful enough to produce effects opposite of those intended.

Government’s questionable expertise is reinforced at innumerable regulatory hearings. After thanking regulators for their efforts, those who work in and understand the regulated industry share why regulators’ proposals won’t work as planned, as a result of omitting multiple crucial considerations.

The minuscule number of demonstrated government “successes” that are really the result of involuntary “contributions” coerced from others (e.g. Social Security taxes) offers no more support to intelligent government design. Through markets, people can make use of the highly varied, dispersed information each has, without needing to precisely understand and communicate “who, what, when, where, why, and how” to government bureaucrats.

All that markets need to perform this task is for people to be free to buy or sell in their varying circumstances. In contrast, for government decision-making, all the knowledge must first be centralized, which unavoidably loses a great deal of valuable intelligence (i.e., sources of wealth creation) in the process. The result is governments telling citizens what to do based on unavoidably inadequate and often incorrect information. And that fatal error is not rectified by the electoral process because voters also know little about the relevant issues, much less the details necessary to implement government improvements.

When you spend your own money, you don’t delegate crucial decisions to designers with extensive records of failure. They are not intelligent enough in the relevant ways to let them decide for you. But saying we need the government to do more — on no better evidence, as so many candidates in the midterm elections did — is no more sensible. Intelligent government design is not established, and the “faulty things” that American public servants create cannot possibly justify our faith in them.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. His recent books include “Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies” (2014) and “Apostle of Peace” (2013).