Most government central planning is based on the notion that scientific experts can determine “best practices” which will rationally control human decision-making.
They assume they can put all the relevant scientific theories together and come up with something like a black box. The doctor will feed the symptoms into the black box and the best practices answer will just pop out like a receipt at an ATM machine.
It doesn’t work that way. Not in economics, agriculture, parenting, or medicine. Unfortunately, almost all proposals for central government control rely on best practice mechanisms.
Science is a tool for understanding the world. Practical or applied sciences are tools for changing the world. But everyone, even scientists, use an enormous web of different scientific theories to explain reality and to make decisions. Each theory is like a net or a lens which only picks-up and explains some facts and ignores others. So when macroeconomic theories fail in practice, the theoretical economists generally claim they failed because of “externalities.” Externalities are facts that a particular theory cannot anticipate and cannot deal with. And those facts don’t simply go away. Facts can be stubborn that way.
Let’s take ulcers as an example. Throughout most of human history, stomach ulcers were identified simply as very bad stomachaches. Then people noticed that certain foods like spicy curry often, but not always, were associated with some very bad stomachaches. Other scientists discovered that nervous people were far more likely to get ulcers. In fact, some ulcer patients thrive on curry. As scientific tools advanced, someone discovered that there is a great deal of iron excreted in the patient’s feces. That means internal bleeding. Ulcer patients could and often did bleed to death. So for years the best practices treatment of ulcers recommended the patients eat only baby food, ingest antacids (and later newly developed drugs to inhibit the production of stomach acids) and take tranquilizers. If the hemorrhaging continued, a surgeon would cut out the ulcerated sores taking with them a large part of the stomach. Believe it or not, such stomach surgery was quite common until a few decades ago when some enterprising scientists came up with the crackpot theory that some ulcers were caused by bacteria. Those scientists began treating ulcer patients with antibiotics. For many people it worked. So the best practices people, even the surgeons, had to modify all the earlier theories to fit the new facts. Each of those theories is true to some extent. Which combination of treatments the doctor and patient choose is a question of what works for this doctor, this patient, and this situation. There is no magical “best practices” black box. No abracadabra. But thanks to the willingness to use and adapt new theories and to respect the facts, stomach surgery as a treatment of ulcers is virtually a thing of the past.
So if you are a doctor, a farmer, a parent, an entrepreneur (or all of the above) keep informed on all the available science and best practice literature. But every patient, every alfalfa field, every child, every business is different. And don’t ignore the knowledge you, your family, and your neighbors have accumulated over the years. Studies have shown that the average man in the street is a better predictor of the future state of the economy than the educated economist. Decisions made at the individual level tend to work out better.
Unfortunately, you can’t just put off making decisions until you have enough information. In the real world decisions must be made under conditions of uncertainty. You won’t ever have enough information until your crop is harvested, your patient recovers/dies, or your child is in her thirties.
- Pray that you have made the right decision;
- Hedge your bets;
- Constantly adapt to the unexpected; and
- Try not to worry yourself into a case of ulcers.