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OPINION | The same people who want to run an entire economy can’t run a simple caucus

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AS almost everyone knows by now, the Iowa Caucuses were a disaster.

As I write this, we still don’t have results, and there is a lot of finger-pointing going on. Did the apps the Iowa Democratic Party rolled out to help report results not work, or were precinct captains not trained properly? (It’s worth noting the app apparently was designed by a tech company founded by a pair of alums from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.)

How did the backup plan — reporting caucus results by phone — also fail?

There will be plenty of time to answer these questions, but in the meantime, one can perhaps find a silver lining in this hot mess.

Americans often take order for granted but the meltdown in Iowa serves as a useful reminder: systems are complicated. We often forget that. We show up at the grocery store and shelves are packed and there’s fresh meat and produce. We need a lift and we pull out our phone and press a button; an Uber shows up. Our car makes a weird sound, and we drop it off and the mechanic takes care of it.

All of this happens on its own. No one is directing the mechanic to be open and service my car. The Uber driver isn’t giving me a lift out of altruism. The grocery store owner doesn’t have fresh produce brought in every morning because she knows how much I love organic peaches right off the tree.

The mechanic, grocery owner, and Uber driver are part of a vast, complicated system that operates with an efficiency the human mind cannot fathom. It’s a system that is directed by no one, and it involves billions of people working in invisible concert. Acting in their own interests, they serve the whole.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest,” the economist Adam Smith famously observed in “The Wealth of Nations.” “We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

I bring up Adam Smith for a reason. He may never have heard the phrase “spontaneous order,” but it’s a concept clearly reflected in his idea of “an invisible hand,” which he introduced in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759).

“The proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest ... [Yet] the capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires...the rest he will be obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets which are employed in the economy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice...The rich...are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition.”

Smith’s ideas are considered old-fashioned by many, and this is perhaps particularly true for those who turned out to vote in the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus night. Many were there to vote for Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and others who are seeking to extend the regulatory state’s grip over everything from wages and emissions to health care, education, and housing.

As I noted, it’s hard not to see the irony in this. You have people running for president who are promising to regulate an entire economy in a party that apparently can’t effectively manage a caucus vote.

Is that a little scary? You bet. But it’s also useful. Iowa will have done Americans a great service if it reminds us all of a simple truth: systems are complicated.

It’s easy to forget that in our modern world, but it’s a lesson we’d do well to remember.

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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