It can be instructive to look at the breakthrough products of the past two centuries – items that have transformed the daily life of human beings from bare subsistence into comfort and even luxury.
Just think how much harder life would be without the telephone, automobiles, airplanes, radio, television, copy machines, computers, refrigeration, frozen food, central heating, air-conditioning, life-saving drugs, or any of dozens of other things we take for granted. Without them we might lead lives of quiet desperation, just barely surviving for short life-spans.
Do we have these products because politicians stuck a gun to the heads of scientists, inventors, and capitalists and ordered to them create these innovations – under threat of fines and imprisonment?
Or because reformers shouted in the press that we were all entitled to these things?
Or because consumer advocates demanded them?
Of course not.
These things happened because their creators were seeking better lives for themselves – through the making of money, or by satisfying their creative urges, or because they possessed the simple desire to do something good for humanity. Whatever the reason, no one had to force them to develop these products that have so benefited us. In fact, if the innovators had been forced to work on a project of bureaucratic design, it’s highly doubtful they’d ever have done anything worthwhile for the rest of us.
Those revolutionary, dramatic breakthroughs are easy to recognize. And it isn’t hard to realize that we’re better off because their creators were left alone to follow their own stars – rather than being ordered to conform to a plan put in place by political action.
Little things mean a lot
But those aren’t the only benefits that flow from leaving people alone to act on their own self-interest in their own way.
Every day the revolutionary breakthroughs are duplicated in millions of smaller ways that aren’t so easy to see: When a businessman discovers how to get a product to his customer more quickly, when he finds a way to cut costs somewhere so he can reduce his prices, when he develops a new system that allows people to obtain what they want more easily.
Do businesspeople do these things because a politician or bureaucrat sticks a gun to their heads and says: Do it or risk fines and imprisonment? Of course not.
Do they do it because some consumer advocate has demanded it? Of course not.
Do they do it to avoid having demagogues accuse them of turning away good employees or good customers by being racist, sexist, homophobic, or just plain stupid? Of course not.
They do it because this is what they do for a living – making money by helping people get what they want. They know far more about what their customers and employees need and want than any politician or reformer could ever know. And they care far more about their customers and employees than any politician or reformer. They have to care – or they go out of business.
Are businesspeople always right? Of course not. But when they’re wrong, they pay for it – through the nose, out of their own pockets – in smaller profits, in outright losses, in diminished goodwill, in employee discontent, in long-time customers’ looking for new alternatives.
When a politician or bureaucrat is wrong, the mistakes don’t hurt him personally. In fact, the failure of a political program is used to justify increasing the budget, expanding the program, giving the politicians more political power.
All that we value has come from the work of people freely doing what they thought best. Most of society’s problems – falling health-care standards, poor schools, high crime rates, illegitimacy – have come from turning to politicians for help.
So, now, what of future innovations?
Will progress stop now – now that the politicians, not the doctors and scientists, are in charge of the nation’s health care?
Will innovations come to a halt now – now that innovators can’t develop and market a better computer product unless they can prove to the politicians that what they’re doing isn’t unfair to their competitors?
Will the breathtaking developments come to an end now – now that innovators must prove to some federal agency that they haven’t discriminated or made any employee unhappy or done anything that isn’t the way a politician or bureaucrat thinks he would have done it (but, of course, never has)?
Progress comes from people working voluntarily to better their lives. Inefficiency, retrogression, chaos, resentment, and unintended consequences come from ordering people to do what other people think is best.
Which do you want for the future?
Harry Browne was an American writer, politician, and investment analyst. He was the Libertarian Party’s Presidential nominee in the U.S. elections of 1996 and 2000. He is the author of 12 books that in total have sold more than 2 million copies.