Sunday, January 15, 2012

Is Intellect (In Politicians) Overrated?

In the course of most political debates, supporters of President Obama inevitably turn to the topic of great intellect and the alleged cognitive deficit of his opponents. While I place great value in intellect and am troubling by the anti-intellectual vein (i.e. Sara Palin) present in conservatism, I believe that in the realm of politics, intellect can be overrated. Broad knowledge and strong analytic faculties are important components in policy making and problem solving, but history is littered with examples were a leader's or movement's intellectual hubris led them to undertake disastrous policies. Their inflated belief in the power of their intellects led to unwise and overly ambitious campaigns to reshape economic and social life according to their whims.

This is most clearly seen in the Economic Calculation Problem, or the question of how to coordinate prices, production and distribution of resources and labor in an economy. Ludwig Von Mises demonstrated that economic activity could only be rationally coordinated through the decentralized decisions of millions of consumers, producers and workers (categories which are not mutually exclusive), responding to and driving changes in prices, which convey the relative supply and demand of goods and services at any given time. Without ever meeting the multitude of individuals and industries who utilize their product, the rubber industry is provided with incentives to appropriately expand or contracts their production via changing prices. Without the "wise" mandate of a central planner, fluctuations in wages, send vital signals that reallocate labor towards regions, professions and sectors of the economy in which a real, sustainable demand exists. 

 Time and again, history has demonstrated that even the most brilliant economist or politician did not have the capacity to successfully obtain, analyze and act upon the continuous flow of data generated in an economy.When teams of brilliant economists and mathematicians attempted to do so, nations faced vexing shortages and wasteful surpluses of vital goods and services. This is also seen in the crippling booms and busts that are occur when the cost and availability of credit (interest rates) are determined by central planners, rather than by forces of supply and demand. So, if faced with the choice of a "brilliant planner," like President Obama or a "mediocre mind" who understands the inherent hazards of engaging in endless crusades to re-shape economic and social life, I will choose the latter. The path of limited government and decentralization of power are pursued by so few politicians, because it curtails the power and prestige that they command over the social and economic life of their peons...I mean citizens of the nation. 

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