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Ditch the Planners

March 23, 2011

Tags Free MarketsInterventionism

What is the law of the land? Many Americans are under the impression that it is the US Constitution, distorted by time perhaps and the plain meaning changed by bad (or good, depending on your point of view) amendment, court decision, or indifference. This is a complete myth. The actual law of the land is contained in the US Code published every six years by the Government Printing Office.

No one so much as suggested such a thing as the US Code in the first hundred years after the US Constitution was enacted. It would have been only a little longer than the Constitution itself. The first attempt to create such a compilation of laws occurred in 1878 but it languished because no one felt the need to update it. Then in 1926, in the midst of Prohibition when the feds became deeply involved in regulating the details of life, Congress made the thing come into existence. It is printed every six years.

An institution was born, though most people know nothing of it. The next printing will come out in 2012, but the 2006 with annotations was 356 thousand-plus-page volumes that cover every aspect of life as we know it. The next one will add many new sections and probably more than 100,000 pages.

This is America's central plan — or own Gosplan, so to speak — and it is as elaborate and detailed as any set of laws that have ever governed any society in the history of the world. Much of this central plan is absorbed into our daily lives in ways that we don't notice or aren't aware of. This is supplemented by an additional layer of state and local regulations that have been pushed on these governments by higher government or grew up from within to adapt the central-planning ethos to the particular circumstances of place and time. The effect is the same: life amidst an impossibly tangled legal thicket that grows more elaborate and complex by the day.

It defies human comprehension but it is not without human effect. Every aspect of our lives is subjected to it from birth to death. Every product we buy, every service we use, every decision we make is filtered through this morass. You can try this on your own by going to gpoaccess.gov and typing in anything from chicken stock to funerals, and observe the state at work, managing the whole of life as we know it in the most minute detail one can imagine. Think of anything and search it, and then see if you think we enjoy "free enterprise."

Just yesterday, I decided to look up the federal laws that govern the production and distribution of beer, wine, and spirits, which, thanks to the Internet, I can do without access to a law library. I immediately found myself swirling in an incredible maze of dictates and demands governing who can produce and under what conditions, how they must sell and to whom, what taxes apply and when, what warnings must be affixed to every product, and even the shape of bottles that can be exported and imported. Even if I had a month to do it, there was no way that I could read all that, much less understand it all.

Of course this is just the beginning. We are told when our kids should start school, when they are to learn to read and write, when they are to graduate from high school and under what conditions, at what point we can go to work and what we can be paid, what kinds of jobs we can accept and what we can be asked to do at them. Our speech at the office is controlled, as are the words that we can speak in any public setting such as radio and television. Every one of our home appliances is heavily regulated mostly with the goal of making them perform more poorly than manufacturers would otherwise have them perform.

How our mattresses are made, where we can purchase them from, what materials they have in them, and how they are labeled are regulated to the nth degree. So it is with all our groceries, our trash pickup, our water use in our home, and how all things that are involved in each of these is constructed, distributed, and used. Our work lives are governed in great detail: coffee breaks, lunch breaks, hours per week, and the things we are allowed to think and say about others. Literally every aspect of life is touched in some way by this enormous apparatus.

In the world of computer code, legacy code that is no longer useful and ends up only making the program work more slowly is called "cruft." All coders know that they must first get rid of the cruft if they are going to create clean and efficient code going forward.

So it is with government regulations. They choke off the functioning of society in its biggest and smallest parts. They prevent development in ways that we don't see. They are hugely costly, again, in ways we can't see, because, as Bastiat says, it is impossible to quantify the products and services we don't have or otherwise see the ways life would be different in the absence of such controls.

Adding to the grim reality is the perverse irony that the whole of this code cruft came about in an age when the whole of our lives were restricted by physical space and time. The world has changed, and today we rely heavily on digital information and products. These, however, are not well covered in the US Code. Sure enough, we wake every day to a digital world that is better than it was yesterday, with product improvements, lower prices, better accessibility, and generally in service to humanity.

As we look around the economic world, no sector better reflects the ideal than this one. It is not a coincidence that this is currently the least regulated part of life. The digital world is the frontier, the place of freedom where innovations are freely tested, service to the consumer (not bureaucrats) is the driving force, and competing for who is best at providing that service is the test of success or failure. This digital world gives us a window into how life would be in the absence of the state in the physical world.

This is one reason that the world of digits is so much more pleasing and useful to people than the physical world. The physical world is gummed up by this anachronism we call the state and its vast central-planning apparatus. The digital world (for now) is not. One feature is that boundaries of the nation-state tend to evaporate. We deal with people and associate with people as individuals — potentially with all 7 billion individuals, regardless of their locale or political identities (which is all that being from or living in a particular country really amounts to).

Nonetheless, we must live a large part of our lives in the physical world, making real decisions day-to-day that affect the quality of our lives. That means that we must find the workaround. We must see through the fog created by the state and find what is best for us. This is not always easy to do. It means going against the grain that the state has grown up around us.

For example, it might mean that we should find a way to homeschool rather than send the kids to public school. We have to hunt for loopholes in the law that permit us to do that. It might mean going to extra effort to hack our home appliances such as our water heaters or shower heads or toilets. It might mean that we eschew normal employment for self-employment or dare to move to some remote country where our job prospects are better. It might mean rejecting welfare, refusing to retire when the government tells us to, or embracing a faith that is out of the mainstream. In doing these things, we risk being called names or looked at as strange by others who just assume that the only way not to be strange is to comply with the plan.

We need to read books that are not on the approved list, explore forms of art that are not blessed by our masters, and otherwise smash the model that has been given to us. We might need to choose a profession that is not listed in the plan.

In fact, I would suggest that every truly successful person (successful in ways that deserve respect) has done this in one form of another. They have lived their lives outside of the plan. What usually happens is that only after making their own way in this world, they confront the rude discovery that they have upset the powers that be. The lawsuits pour in, the congressional hearings start, the media frenzies appear, and so on. Eventually the person figures out how to make his thing work within the prevailing plan; meanwhile, someone else is rising through the ranks — someone who cares nothing for the plan.

This is something we can all do. It can start at a young age. It can continue all through life. But the first step is to see the plan for what it is. The plan not only violates our liberty and contradicts the whole theory of freedom — which is that society can manage itself without government controls — but it causes ossification of the social order and our personal lives. There is no predetermined way to get around it. That requires creativity, plus lots of trial and error.

The question presents itself: if enough people reject the plan, does the plan still exist? It will always exists on the library shelves, and in the search engine for the US Code, but in our own choices and in our own ways, we can all make a contribution to making the plan less relevant for the functioning of our lives.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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