Mises Wire

Home | Wire | COVID-19 and the Planners’ Need to Plan

COVID-19 and the Planners’ Need to Plan

  • CDC_flickr.jpg

Tags Big GovernmentBureaucracy and RegulationCalculation and Knowledge


A few days ago, I received an email addressing the ongoing COVID-19 situation from the Wyoming State Bar, of which I am a member. Attached to the email was a thirty-page PDF entitled Wyoming Judicial Branch: Respiratory Disease Pandemic Plan. The stated purpose is as follows:

A pandemic event is distinct from other emergency scenarios such as tornados or floods because of the severity and longevity of a pandemic event. The purpose of this plan is to provide the Wyoming Judicial Branch with local guidelines, procedures, and directions to follow during all phases of a pandemic event.

Why, do you ask, does the judiciary of the most sparsely populated state in the Union need a thirty-page plan related to a virus which, until the day I received the email, had not yet been confirmed to exist in it?

Because Planners Must Plan

Planning is not necessarily problematic. In fact, a rational and organized anticipation of future events by an individual is neither uncommon nor unhealthy. A priori it would be impossible for an individual not to engage in some normal, human planning (with, you will note, the lowercase p). As Henry Hazlitt noted back in 1962,

Each of us, in his private capacity, is constantly planning for the future: what he will do the rest of today, the rest of the week or on the weekend; what he will do this month or next year. Some of us are planning, though in a more general way, ten or twenty years ahead. We are making these plans…in our capacity as consumers and as producers. Employees are either planning to stay where they are or to shift from one job to another, or from one company to another, or from one city to another, or even from one career to another. Entrepreneurs are either planning to stay in one location or to move to another, to expand or contract their operations, to stop making a product for which they think demand is dying and to start making one for which they think demand is going to grow.

On the individual level, you or I may believe that a certain individual plans too much or too little. I may perceive that person A is, like Aesop’s grasshopper, foolishly neglecting the future. You may suggest that person B is obsessing about contingencies. Or, as a Christian, I may try to follow Christ’s imperative to “not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” However, this is subjective personal preference. The problem is when planning becomes Planning. As Hazlitt continues,

Now the people who call them­selves "Economic Planners" either ignore or by implication deny all this. They talk as if the world of private enterprise, the free mar­ket, supply, demand, and competi­tion, were a world of chaos and anarchy, in which nobody ever planned ahead or looked ahead, but merely drifted or staggered along. I once engaged in a television de­bate with an eminent Planner in a high official position who implied that without his forecasts and guidance American business would be "flying blind." At best, the Planners imply, the world of pri­vate enterprise is one in which everybody works or plans at cross purposes or makes his plans solely in his "private" interest rather than in the "public" interest. Now the Planner wants to sub­stitute his own plan for the plans of everybody else. At best, he wants the government to lay down a Master Plan to which everybody else’s plan must be subordinated.

Hazlitt’s capitalization of "planning" is inspired and I will adopt it. The difference between planning and Planning is nothing less than coercion.

Planning (with a capital p) is the anticipation of future events and the creation of a discrete consequential scheme of action on behalf of and for the benefit of another individual (or, usually, a group of individuals), which said individual is obliged to accept. Planning is necessarily coercive; otherwise, it is an exercise in futility. Although I can plan for myself and adjust the plan accordingly at any time, a necessary element of any Plan for a third party is the presumption that the beneficiary will execute the plan as written. Although coercion is a necessary element of Planning, it is not a sufficient element. It also requires the scheme, the step-by-step abstract of actions to be taken to arrive at the desired end.

Other than in informal hierarchies such as families, Planning generally requires an entity with the monopoly of coercion in a set jurisdiction, i.e., a government. Government Planning may be demanded by constituents inured to a paternalistic protector, what Robert Higgs calls the “ill-defined public demand that the government ‘do something’ about a crisis.” As Higgs has demonstrated, such crisis Planning is largely responsible for the growth in the power of the American state. Planning may also be an altruistic effort to to protect those who cannot protect themselves or an insidious attempt at social engineering, or some other essentially ideological action. I would argue that the effect is the same because the Planner is forcing his will on a third party. No matter the intent, Planning ultimately does not work.

As I have written in the context of prices, Planning as such is doomed to failure because of the insurmountable economic knowledge problem. As Frederick Hayek notes, “the ‘data’ from which the economic calculus starts are never for the whole society ‘given’ to a single mind which could work out the implications and can never be so given.” Instead, you have numerous actors, each with incomplete knowledge, stepping on each other’s feet.

The anecdotal evidence of this is myriad.

For example, central government "year Plans" that promise Eden and Valhalla (if correctly imposed) have become quintessential exemplars of central planning hubris: we have the Soviet series of five-year Plans, which, though managing to achieve an impressive industrialization, did so at the cost of thousands of lives, famine, and a generally ramshackle economy. Then there are the Argentinian five-year Plans under Perón, which led to short-term political gains at the cost of the nation’s long-term economic health, resembling most of Argentina’s modern history. Consider also the Chinese five-year Plans which did little to pull China out of destitution until Deng forced market discipline on the Communist Party of China (CPC). Based largely on the Chinese model, the Indonesian five-year Plans improved infrastructure but also enriched the corrupt Suharto family enormously. And (because Nazis are obviously so efficient that they do not need that extra year) what about the German four-year Plans, which despite providing Germany with mass war-making powers were a disaster for its economy? The common theme seems to be a mortgaging of the long-term health of the nation to realize ephemeral, but politically expedient, short-term gains.

Take a topical boondoggle. As the New York Times recently opined in the context of the COVID-19 scare, testing in Washington State was delayed or prevented altogether by red tape, regulations, and finger-pointing:

C.D.C. officials repeatedly said [immediate testing] would not be possible. “If you want to use your test as a screening tool, you would have to check with F.D.A.,” Gayle Langley, an officer at the C.D.C.’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, wrote back in an email on Feb. 16. But the F.D.A. could not offer the approval because the lab was not certified as a clinical laboratory under regulations established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a process that could take months….The C.D.C. promised that replacement kits would be distributed within days, but the problem stretched on for over two weeks. Only five state laboratories were able to test in that period. Washington and New York were not among them….[Later] investigators and Seattle health officials gathered with representatives of the C.D.C. and the F.D.A. to discuss what happened. The message from the federal government was blunt. “What they said on that phone call very clearly was cease and desist to Helen Chu,” Dr. Lindquist remembered. “Stop testing.”…But on Monday night, state regulators, enforcing Medicare rules, stepped in and again told them to stop until they could finish getting certified as a clinical laboratory, a process that could take many weeks.

Despite the fact that the CDC’s formal name contains the word “prevention” and its stated goals include various Planning buzzwords, its managing of the COVID-19 response on the West Coast was an unmitigated disaster.

I could continue on in this vein ad nauseum, discussing various historical anecdotes of failed Plans, regulatory capture, government failure, or unanticipated consequences, but I believe the point has been made: Planning is at very best inexact and at worst counterproductive. As with any human action, any given Plan may “succeed” to some degree in the sense that some desired outcomes transpire, but there is no objective criteria that can determine when a Plan will succeed and when it will not, thus rendering the entire process pointless.

Instead, I would posit that the only truly successful and lasting human structures are those which arise independent of Planning. As Hayek notes in Legislation and Liberty, volume 1, Rules and Order:

It would be no exaggeration to say that social theory begins with—and has an object only because of—the discovery that there exist orderly structures which are the product of the action of many men but are not the result of human design….Since such an order has not been created by an outside agency, the order as such also can have no purpose, although its existence may be very serviceable to the individuals which move within such order. But in a different sense it may well be said that the order rests on purposive action of its elements, when "purpose" would, of course, mean nothing more than that their actions tend to secure the preservation or restoration of that order.

Later, in The Fatal Conceit, Hayek continued in the same vein:

To understand our civilization, one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection—the comparative increase of population and wealth—of those groups that happened to follow them. The unwitting, reluctant, even painful adoption of these practices kept these groups together, increased their access to valuable information of all sorts, and enabled them to be "fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28). This process is perhaps the least appreciated facet of human evolution.

Sadly, too few harken to Hayek’s words. Instead each and every 2020 presidential candidate has proudly and without irony announced their Plans to save the nation. Elizabeth Warren may have been the most unrepentant Planner, but she was definitely not alone.

Because Planners must Plan.

Originally published at Disinthrallment.


Eric Nies

Eric John Nies is an attorney who lives in the Mountain West. He enjoys history, Korean cinema, and progressive rock. He writes for Disinthrallment and Beneath the Lamp.

Do you want to write on this topic?
Check out our submission Guidelines
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source:
Flickr | Raed Mansour | https://www.flickr.com/photos/raedmansour/29431936805