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In Praise of Libertarianism



Devotion to free markets is a sin??? Nah!!!. Like quantitative induction and philosophical deduction, economics has always had a political purpose, and the purpose has usually been libertarian. Economists are freedom nuts, which is to say that they look with suspicion on lawyerly plans to solve problems with new state compulsions and longer jail sentences. Economics at its philosophical birth, among physiocrats in Paris and moral philosophers in Edinburgh, was in favor of free markets and was suspicious of overblown states. Mostly it still is. Let things be, laissez faire, has been the economists’ cry against intervention. Let the trades begin.
True, not all economists are free traders. The non-free traders, often European and disproportionately French, point out that you can make other assumptions about how trade works, A’, and get other conclusions, C’, not so favorable to laissez faire. The free-trade theorem, which sounds so grand, is actually pretty easy to overturn. Suppose a big part of the economy – say the household – is, as the economists put it, “distorted” (e.g., suppose people in households do things for love: you can see that the economists have a somewhat peculiar idea of “distortion”). Then it follows rigorously (that is to say, mathematically) that free trade in other sectors (e.g., manufacturing) will not be the best thing. In fact it can make the average person worse off than restricted, protected, tariffed trade would.
And of course normal people – meaning non-economists – are not persuaded that free trade is always and everywhere a good thing. For example most people think free trade is a bad thing for the product or service they make. But, the reality is to think the need to blockade entry into the profession of being an economist: it is, in all agreement, scandalous that so many unqualified quacks are bilking consumers with adulterated economics.
And very many normal people of leftish views, even after communism, even after numerous disastrous experiments in central planning, think socialism deserves a chance. They think it obvious that socialism is after all fairer than unfettered capitalism. They think it obvious that regulation is after all necessary to restrain monopoly. They don’t realize that free markets have partially broken down inequality (for example, between men and women; “partially”) and partially undermined monopolies (for example, local monopolies in retailing) and have increased the income of the poor over two centuries by a factor of 18. The felony lies in, the lefties think, in exactly its free-market bias.
But, my dearly beloved friends on the left, think, think again. There really is a serious case to be made against government intervention and in favor of markets. Maybe not knockdown; maybe imperfect here or there; let’s chat about it; hmm, a serious case that serious people ought to take seriously. The case in favor of markets is on the contrary populist and egalitarian and person-respecting and bad-institution-breaking libertarianism. Don’t go to government to solve problems, said Adam Smith. As he didn’t say, to do so is to put the fox in charge of the hen house. The golden rule is, those who have the gold rule: so don’t expect a government run by men to help women, or a government run by Enron executives to help Enron employees.
Libertarianism is typical of economics, especially English-speaking economics, and most especially American economics. Most Americans if they can get clear of certain European errors, are radical libertarians under the skin. Give me liberty. Sweet land of liberty. Live free or die. But alas, no time, no time. Libraries of books have been written examining the numerous and weighty arguments for the market and against socialism. Really, that the average literary person believes the first few pages of The Communist Manifesto suffice for knowledge of economics and economic history, in which he professes great interest, is a bit of a scandal. As Cromwell said wearily to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 3 August, 1650, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” Oh, permit one short libertarian riff.
Nor is government obstruction peculiar to the present-day Third World. In one decade in the eighteenth century, according to the Swedish economist and historian Eli Heckscher in his book, Mercantilism, the French government sent tens of thousands of souls to the galleys and executed 16,000 (that’s about 4.4 people a day over the ten years: you see the beauty of statistical thinking) for the hideous crime of… are you ready to hear the appalling evil these enemies of the State committed, fully justifying hanging them all, every damned one of their treasonable skins? … importing printed calico cloth. States do not change much from age to age. In view of How Muches and Oh, My Gods like these – the baleful oomph of governmental intrusions world-wide crushing harmless (indeed, beneficial) exchange, from marijuana to printed calico – perhaps laissez faire does not seem so obviously sinful, does it now? Consider, my dear leftist friends. Read and reflect. I beseech you, think it possible that, like statistics and mathematics, the libertarianism of economics is a virtue.


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