Adam Smith and the Follies of Central Planning

Architects create blueprints for buildings; could a person create a blueprint for society? Could such a person choose how many people will be lawyers and how many will be policemen? Adam Smith discusses such a designer in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). He calls this person the “man of system,” saying that such man is “apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his ideal plan of government that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

Professor James R. Otteson explains Smith’s man of system. The man of system faces a problem: individual people are not chess pieces to be moved only under someone else’s authority. Individuals make their own decisions and move on their own. When individuals are constantly butting up against demands from the government that they find imposing or contrary to their desires, Smith says, “society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”


  1. Matt Wavle

    Love the animation.  The frustrated robot-planner with independently moving individuals really makes the futility that much more obvious.  I have known many a "man of system" in politics.  The phrase "wise in his own conceit" fits very well.  Individuals are so "problematic" for the control freaks that the political arena seems to attract.

  2. Daniel Pealer

    I have had to deal with them in the past, some are amenable to logic, most however are convinced that they are right and ignore you. Tis a sad statement, but unfortunately those that are the most difficult to convince are those who are certain that they can change the nature of mankind "if only give the power"

  3. Greg Gauthier

    What kind of "leaders" are appropriate to a society of free individuals? None. 

    That is to say, if a free individual feels he has a need for a leader, then he can go find himself one, and pay that man to tell him what to do and when. 
    The rest of us can just get on with our lives peacefully.
  4. Brian Phillips

    And that kind of power, or anything close, leads to extreme tyranny.

  5. Spencer Long

    The animation goes well with the discussion.

  6. Damian Robinson

    Central planning always fails because human being are inherently unpredictable.

    No matter how well meaning they top down social policies are doomed.
    This is one of my favorites.
  7. Kevin Burctoolla

    Central Planning can be wasting money. 

  8. Damian Gunjak

    Central planning is only worthwhile in large industrial systems ( say a metal maker) where scale is important.  Anything else it fails miserably, see: Soviet Union

  9. Anderson Chaves

    I liked the animation. You guys are good doing this.

  10. Jonathan Day

    Regulation arent good!

  11. Kenny Legge

    That describes all of Washington DC.

  12. juliansfree

    Love the animation! Reminds me of people in all sorts of field, including urban studies or architecture.

  13. asexymind

    The problem is all those individuals with different subjective preferences. Education must be controlled by the state! 😉

  14. RastaJoe

    Are you serious?

  15. RastaJoe

    Wouldn’t the USSR have been a large industrial system?

  16. Justin Jones

    That’s why there was a winky face at the end.

  17. IraPaul

    I agree completely.  

    But, the community has the obligation to set standards of behavior.  Spontaneous Order cannot happen without a strong common view of right and wrong.
    Traffic laws are a great examples.  The Community has the obligation to say what streets get stop signs, what get lights, and what gets no controls at all (all way stop).  The goal is optimal traffic flow.  The goal is not individual freedom.  
    Net Neutrality is another example.  
  18. EthanHines

    You’re right! Mind blown.

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