- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Represents Unaccountable, Illegitimate Exercise of Power - December 9, 2019
- Why Does the Left Loathe the Free-Market System? - July 11, 2019
- Government Job-Guarantee Policies Guarantee Nothing but Fewer Jobs - August 29, 2018
The presidential primaries, in particular the Bernie Sanders campaign, have recharged the conversation about wealth and income inequality, replete with the usual emotive (if nebulous) talk of social justice and fairness. When the subject of wealth inequality arises, the paladins of the free market are forced to assume a defensive posture. The enemies of the free market system condemn it because it is an ideological defense of economic injustice, inequality, and exploitation, a system of ideas and institutions through which the rich get richer and the poor poorer.
The problem, though, is that free markets are not at all a defense of those things, neither in theory nor practice. Libertarians are called on to answer for results and realities that, in fact, have very little to do with the operations of a free economy, the result being abortive exchanges in which libertarians and our detractors talk past one another and fail to isolate points of actual disagreement.
Burdened with clichés and unchallenged conventional wisdom, the language we’ve grown accustomed to using in our discussions of these issues can be obfuscatory. We tend to forget that all of the factors and players we’re discussing are human institutions, comprising real individuals with their own interests, preferences, and motives. It is not enough to simply repeat the platitude that government must protect the common man from the wild oscillations of an untamed free market, a myth learned by rote in American educational institutions. That just begs the question, asserting the very proposition that wants proving. If capitalists are supposed to be driven by selfishness and avarice, ready to trample on working people, then why doesn’t that assumption hold for politicians and government bureaucrats? We would do well to think more about the mechanics of our institutions and less about the names we give to them.
Given that all of society’s institutions are made up acting human beings, we have many reasons to prefer decentralized forms of organization (like the free market) to centralized government ones; in the latter, power is concentrated and decision makers are insulated from the consequences of their actions. While progressives take it for granted that government regulators will act beneficently, aimed at the public good, government actors are neither omniscient nor unsusceptible to the temptation to use their authority in the service of private ends. Where free market competition disincentivizes waste, fraud, and abuse, our bureaucratic leviathan makes them the standard.
Political scientist and economist Michael C. Munger associates the progressive way of thinking with “Unicorn Governance”: the idea is that if we take the progressive’s assumptions about government and how it works to be true, then government becomes a unicorn, supernatural, superhuman, and thus impossible not to support. As Munger explains, “people who favor expansion of government imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world,” ascribing to it “properties, motivations, knowledge, and abilities” that accord with their values. But it ought to matter that actual governments don’t act like the unicorn governments of progressive imaginings.
Of course, the only program that has ever actually helped the worst off is to treat them like people, which means allowing them their natural and rightful freedom — freedom to practice the occupation of their choosing, to associate with (and dissociate from) whomever they please, to defend themselves, their families and their property, to innovate and trade. History teaches us that even the slightest move in this direction, the direction of liberty, will have enormous positive consequences for productivity and wealth creation, lifting millions out of abject poverty.
And still another difference distinguishes the mechanics of the marketplace from those of government, that between voluntary exchange and coercive imposition. Market relationships are, by definition, consensual and mutually beneficial; we enter and exit them freely, based on our judgment and preferences. Government is different, commanding from on high, issuing mandates that everyone must follow, choice be damned. At bottom, government is force and, as such, should be limited to protecting individuals and their rights, not, as is so often the case, violating those rights. If we must have mandatory rules in society — and it is granted that we must — they should be few in number, unambiguous in their terms, and uniform in their application across society, taking no notice of race or ethnicity, sex or gender, or any other category. Such are the “right wing” economic notions proposed by libertarians, conservatives, and classical liberals.
Justice cannot mean an arbitrary distribution of wealth decided upon by a handful of elites in government; rather, it means respecting the inalienable rights of every individual, maximizing the freedom of each to act within his own “sphere of discretion” (borrowing a phrase from the philosopher William Godwin). Defenders of a free market economy shouldn’t cede the moral high ground to Bernie Sanders-style “democratic socialism.”
Given any quantifiable standard, freedom and private property have proven themselves superior to planning, bureaucracy, and the welfare state. As the great laissez-faire economist Jean-Baptiste Say wrote in 1803, “Nothing can be more idle than the opposition of theory to practice!” Say’s message is as clear now as it was then: the mechanics of liberty work precisely because they respect our individual rights.