Reps. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) have proposed legislation that would establish an Office of Critical Trends Assessment within the Executive Office of the President. The ostensible objective of the new office is laudable enough: to advise the president "of the potential effects of government policies on critical trends and alternative futures."
According to supporters of the pending legislation, government policies are either misguided or left unguided by the lack of sound information. The solution: establish a whole new government agency that would be dedicated solely to filling the information vacuum. The government bureaucrats who staff the office would be asked to foresee the future, to tell us where we are headed, and to chart courses that we should take.
Virtually no one questions the need to base policies on "good" information. Few seriously dispute the proposition that government has undeniable functions that cannot be performed by the private sector and that government should continually assess the impact of its own policies.
Nonetheless, the Gore-Gingrich bill, for several very good reasons, should be worrisome to free-spirited Americans who fear further centralization of decision-making in this country.
First, the proposed charge of the Office of Critical Trends Assessment is virtually open-ended, encompassing the identification and analysis of "such trends and alternative futures (as they relate to) economic, technological, political, environmental, demographic, and social causes and consequences." Such an open-ended proposal implicitly assumes that government should be allowed to do anything, a proposition that stands at odds with our form of constitutional (or constrained) government.
Second, a presumption behind the legislation is that information, in raw or analyzed form, is ideologically neutral. This may be the case when dealing with narrow scientific questions (such as the existence of acid rain), but it is rarely, if ever, the case when the issues involve predictions of the future and are sociological and economic in nature (such as the structure of American industry). And there is every reason to fear that charting our economic future would eventually emerge as the central concern of the proposed new office.
Third, the Office of Critical Trends Assessment would not be, as presumed, staffed by eminent visionaries with talents dramatically elevated above those of many other Americans or government workers. Rather, it would likely be managed by political appointees and run-of-the-mill bureaucrats who have no greater grasp of the future than anyone else.
Nonetheless, these visions of the bureaucrats, whose only claim to unusual foresight is that they have been annointed with the powers of office, would be the ones who would guide public discussions and, perhaps, direct government policies.
Fourth, the case for the new office is premised on the belief that information does not exist usefully unless it is possessed and processed by government policy-makers. Indeed, the proponents of the legislation fail to see that the magic of the market system emerges precisely from the capacity of free people to collect, analyze and react to an immense amount of information on what people want and are willing and able to produce. Such information is known only in bits and pieces by tens of millions of people and cannot possibly be comprehended by a few "chosen" perched in the White House.
Fifth, we could expect the information managers to reduce the magnitude of their "assessment" problem to the limitations of their own intelligence, a fact that very likely would imply not only merely government assessment of the future but also government control of the future.
Sixth, contrary to what is suggested, the ability of government to plan for the future is reduced by the growing complexity of economic activity. Growing complexity of production processes and products implies that individual policy-makers will be progressively less capable of handling the task they have been assigned, which is assessing "critical trends and charting alternative futures." They will be able to know progressively less of what is known by others.
Seventh, when it comes to the economy--what should be produced and how it should be produced --the future is constantly unfolding from the actions of many people who cannot always know what they want or should do until they observe what is happening to them at the time. Because it is largely unplanned, such an unfolding process is not necessarily chaotic, as the history of markets has proved. Without the knowledge of what unfolds, government assessors of the future will make their mistakes, especially if they attempt to handle all of the information possessed by others (which they can't do) or if they disregard most of the information that is relevant to others (which is what they are likely to do). Just as there are mass-marketed video recorders and home computers today that could not have been foreseen by bureaucrats of the past, there will be products of the future that can never be foreseen by bureaucrats of the 1980s.
Eighth, even if we could expect the government to
hire the most illustrious visionaries
in the country, we would not want
them all to operate from the same
office. Government bureaus are no torious for requiring their workers to
clear their published views with their
bosses to ensure that the bureau's
interests and viewpoints are not vio lated in what is purveyed to Con gress or the public. Unfortunately,
an Office of Critical Trends Assess ment could very well be transformed
into a monopoly on "visions" of the
future. Government needs to enn courage the opposite: competition in
ideas and visions of the future.
Ninth, in the past government
has displayed considerable inept ness in assessing and plotting future
trends in key industries. The ware houses of the Department of Agri culture are brimming with surplus
commodities accumulated over the
years because of government policies founded on a political assessment, now half a century old, that farmers need help. A host of industries have benefited from government regulation, meaning protection. We have been witness to three decades of rapidly increasing government deficits.
Perhaps we should ask the government to prove that it can handle effectively the tasks that have already been given it before we ask it to do more.
A strong case can be made to have government assess and reassess its own policies. However, an equally strong case can be made for ensuring that any such assessment authority is not used to manipulate and direct economic activity. Given media and political interest in a "national industrial policy," our fear must be that an Office of Critical Trends Assessment would be the first step on the road to central economic planning.