Whose plan?

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From the BBC today: Is it right to waste helium on party balloons?

“Some scientists believe a finite resource that could one day run out should not be used for party balloons.

All of the other elements we’ve scattered around the globe, maybe we can go digging in garbage dumps to get them back,” says chemist Andrea Sella, of University College London (UCL), “but helium is unique. When it’s gone it is lost to us forever.””

Helium is a by-product of the gas industry and is used for super-cooling magnets in MRI scanners, making computer chips, in deep-sea diving, and in party balloons that float, of course.

“”We’re going to be looking back and thinking, I can’t believe people just used to fill up their balloons with it, when it’s so precious and unique,” says Cambridge University chemist Peter Wothers, who has called for the end to helium-filled party balloons.”

“”I suspect the amount that is used in party balloons is quite small compared to the other main uses of it,” says Dr Wothers. “But it’s just a rather trivial use of something we should be valuing a little bit more.””

Peter Wothers’ very high regard for his own judgment and his apparent ignorance of the fact that value is subjective leads him to believe that his valuation of helium as “precious and unique” is somehow more ‘valid’ than anyone else’s valuation of helium. This in turn leads him to believe that it would be morally acceptable for a group of people with guns (i.e. government) to use force against innocent people in order to prevent them from producing and/or selling helium-filled party balloons.

Think about that for a moment. What could be more debased and anti-social than pointing a gun at someone who produces a product that people want and saying: “you’re not allowed to use helium in your party balloons because I believe that what your customers want is of little or no importance!” As economist G.L.S Shackle put it: “the man who would plan for others is something more than human; the planned man, something less.” Peter Wothers believes that he capable of knowing more than anyone else can in regards to the use of helium, that he is something more than human, and advocates action that reduces everyone else to, as Gene Callahan puts it “subprocesses in a production function, to be tuned so as to maximize the output of the function.” A quite perverse and ghastly perspective to have of your fellow-man.

I don’t think Peter is evil, however. In fact I’m quite certain that if Peter had to confront every producer of helium-filled party balloons himself and issue this decree he would not do so. His own sense of moral outrage would cause him to refrain from doing so.

When Peter asserted that “we should be valuing [helium] a little bit more” he revealed his ignorance of basic economics. There is no such thing as a scientific “should”. As economist and all-round spankingly-good thinker Ludwig Von Mises pointed out:

Ultimate decisions, the valuations and the choosing of ends, are beyond the scope of any science. Science never tells a man how he should act; it merely shows how a man must act if he wants to attain definite ends.”

Only someone who did not understand that value is entirely subjective would call for people to be forcibly prevented from producing helium-filled party balloons. Here’s how Austrian economists define value.

“Value is the importance that acting man attaches to ultimate ends. Only to ultimate ends is primary and original value assigned. Means are valued derivatively according to their usefulness to the attainment of ultimate ends. Their valuation is derived from the valuation of the respective ends. They are important for man only as far as they make it possible for him to attain some ends.

Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things. It is within us; it is the way in which man reacts to the conditions of his environment.”

Peter believed he was making an objective statement of truth about the ‘undervaluing’ of helium, but that is impossible and nonsensical because value, as we’ve seen, is subjective. In reality all he was doing was asserting that his valuation of helium should supersede everyone else’s; and therefore that his plan for the use of this particular resource should be imposed upon everyone else via the forcible prevention (by government) of any action that deviates from the course set by his plan. It’s quite disturbing that never once does it seem to occur to Peter that threatening innocent people with violence might not be a nice thing to do and that there is no rational argument for choosing his plan over anyone else’s. Peter clearly believes he is facilitating the betterment of society, but in fact he’s doing quite the opposite.

“The market economy makes peaceful cooperation among people possible in spite of the fact that they disagree with regard to their value judgments. In the plans of the socialists [like Peter Whothers] there is no room left for dissenting views. Their principle is perfect uniformity enforced by the police.”  ~ Mises

If would have been perfectly valid for Peter to argue that: if society wants to have more helium available for use in MRI scanners and for making computer chips, then we should stop producing helium-filled party balloons. If and when the time comes that society demands an increased supply of MRI scanners and computer chips, such that all helium would need to be directed towards their production, then the mass manufacture of helium-filled party balloons will be rendered a pointless endeavor (because it will be unprofitable) and therefore will cease. Thus peacefully solving, through the market process, what scientist Peter Whothers perceived to be a social problem unsolvable without pointing guns at people.

Imagine, for a moment, the world that would result from steadfastly following the advocations of men like Peter Wothers and others who are convinced that their plans should supplant everyone else’s. Every thing that brings a little joy, a little satisfaction, a little colour and entertainment into your life or someone else’s, those “trivial” things like helium-filled party balloons would be prevented from coming into existence. This would be a world entirely lacking in individuality and innovation, a sterile world of bleak uniformity. An inhuman world.

I leave you with one last pertinent observation from Mises.

“Socialism cannot be realized because it is beyond human power to establish it as a social system. The choice is between capitalism and chaos. A man who chooses between drinking a glass of milk and a glass of a solution of potassium cyanide does not choose between two beverages; he chooses between life and death. A society that chooses between capitalism and socialism does not choose between two social systems; it chooses between social cooperation and the disintegration of society. Socialism is not an alternative to capitalism; it is an alternative to any system under which men can live as human beings.”

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