President Obama has been saying that if the United States government can find and eliminate Osama bin Laden after ten years of searching, it can do anything:
Already, in several appearances since the raid, Obama has described it as a reminder that “as a nation there is nothing that we can’t do,” as he put it during an unrelated White House ceremony Monday. On Sunday night, during his first comments about the operation, he linked it to American values, saying the country is “once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”
This is, of course, nonsense. Finding bin Laden, difficult as it proved to be, was an incomparably simple task compared to using coercion and central planning to bring about desired results in defiance of economic reality. You can’t deliver better health care to more people for less money by reducing the role of incentives and markets, even if you set your mind to it. As Russell Roberts said about a similar concept, “If we can put a man on the moon, then…”:
Putting a man on the moon is an engineering problem. It yields to a sufficient application of reason and resources. Eliminating poverty is an economic problem (and by the word “economic” I do not mean financial or related to money), a challenge that involves emergent results. In such a setting, money alone—in the amounts that a non-economic approach might suggest, one that ignores the impact of incentives and markets—is unlikely to be successful.
Obama should listen to Bill Clinton, who last fall seemed to be channeling Hayek:
Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
Bill Clinton, 9/21: “Do you know how many political and economic decisions are made in this world by people who don’t know what in the living daylights they are talking about?”