Domestic Policy

October 27, 2003
Text, from National Public Radio, Morning Edition
Click here for the audio

Remaking Iraq
by Russell Roberts

A lot of people are complaining that Bush doesn't have a plan in post-war Iraq. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. Maybe he did and maybe he didn't.

It doesn't matter. Plans aren't very useful when it comes to building nations.

We know the ingredients that are necessary for a successful post-war Iraq. Self-government based on a constitution. Private property. Free markets. The rule of law. The basic ingredients are straightforward.

The problem is that knowing the ingredients isn't enough. Think about baking a cake. Knowing the ingredients is next to useless. If you take eggs and flour and butter and sugar and baking powder and mix them in a bowl and then put them in the oven, you don't get a cake. You don't get an imperfect cake. You get a mess. You need to know more than the ingredients. You need to know the proportions and you need to know the order of mixing the ingredients together and some special techniques. If you don't know how to "fold in the eggs," you're cooked.

This is true of any complex system. As the great economist F.A. Hayek pointed out, adding the ingredients together doesn't create the system. Complex systems are dynamic. Dynamic systems have to evolve. Most of the time, maybe all of the time, our understanding of complex systems at the level of a national economy or a national political system is inadequate.

Iraq, no matter how noble our intentions, no matter how much money we spend, no matter how carefully we plan, will almost certainly be a mess and remain a mess for a long time. In the real world of institutions and their evolution, evolution is crucial. Some of the ingredients of a successful democracy will have to be added before others so that everything can stick together. And we'll find that out through trial and error with an emphasis on the latter.

The lesson? We should lower our expectations. We may not need to bake a cake in Iraq. Even if Iraq is a mess and stays a mess, Iraqis may be better off than they were in the well-ordered hell's kitchen where Saddam Hussein was the chef. But we shouldn't fool ourselves. It may take Iraq a long time to get to a stable democracy, if ever. And if we ever get there, we'll discover a lot of the key steps along the way, not through some plan, however careful.