Topic: Political Philosophy

Gods That Fail

Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post has a column titled “Gods That Failed.” He’s referring to a famous book:

In 1949, a number of famous writers, among them Arthur Koestler, André Gide, Richard Wright, Stephen Spender and Ignazio Silone, wrote essays explaining why they were no longer communists. The essays were collected in a volume entitled “The God That Failed.”

And then he makes this analogy: “Today, conservative intellectuals might want to consider writing a tome on the failure of their own beloved deity, unregulated capitalism. “

Where to begin? Certainly we haven’t had any unregulated capitalism lately. As I put it the other day, the kind of capitalism that has encountered the current crisis is “the kind in which a central monetary authority manipulates money and credit, the central government taxes and redistributes $3 trillion a year, huge government-sponsored enterprises create a taxpayer-backed duopoly in the mortgage business, tax laws encourage excessive use of debt financing, and government pressures banks to make bad loans.”

As for conservative intellectuals, some of them may wish for some form of “unregulated capitalism,” though plenty of them – from Russell Kirk to David Brooks and Michael Gerson and that Arkansas Aristotle, Mike Huckabee – have been pretty darn skeptical about capitalism. But whatever the more free-market conservatives may have dreamed of, they didn’t get laissez-faire. Nor did they ever make capitalism their deity, the way communists truly did make the workers’ state their god.

But let’s think about the comparison that Meyerson is making. Some intellectuals once supported communism, and that failed. Some intellectuals, we’ll concede for the moment, were just as enraptured with capitalism; and that system, too, in Meyerson’s view, has failed. Are these equivalent failures?

Communism’s failure involved Stalin’s terror-famine in Ukraine, the Gulag, the deportation of the Kulaks, the Katyn Forest massacre, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Che Guevara’s executions in Havana, the flight of the boat people from Vietnam, Pol Pot’s mass slaughter – a total death toll of 94 million people, according to the Black Book of Communism. Prominent American leftists – from Lillian Hellman and Dalton Trumbo and lots of other writers to Alger Hiss of the State Department and FDR speechwriter Michael Straight, who became the publisher of The New Republic – were members of the party that did these things. And that party had total control in the countries that it ruled. There were no opposition parties, no filibusters, no election-related maneuverings that prevented the party in power from getting what it wanted.

What the Communist Party wanted, it got. Communism in practice was communist theory made real.

In the United States, on the other hand, economic and political outcomes are always the result of jockeying between parties and interest groups. So even if Ronald Reagan and his advisers wanted to give Americans “unregulated capitalism,” they had to deal with Tip O’Neill and the Democrats, and with critics in the media, and with many other players. As these forces played out, in the late 1970s and early 1980s some deregulation did occur, along with some tax-cutting. And indeed there was some financial deregulation in the Clinton years as well.

And what is the ”failure,” as Meyerson puts it, of this semi-deregulated capitalism? Does it involve mass starvation? Does it involve terror-famines? Does it involve millions of deaths? No, so far it involves a sharp decline in the stock market from record levels. Taking 1980 as the starting point for Meyerson’s nightmare vision of “unregulated capitalism,” here’s what has happened to the S&P 500. It’s had some dips, but it still reflects vast wealth creation, and vast increases in the assets of our IRAs and 401(k)s.


(click for larger version)

The “failure” of capitalism and the failure of communism are not morally equivalent, and Meyerson should be embarrassed to even imply such a comparison.

A Libertarian Dilemma

In the November issue of Liberty magazine I write about one factor that I think reduces the political impact of libertarian-leaning voters: the fact that they’re all over the map about which party or faction represents the lesser of the evils:

One reason why libertarians underperform politically is that they are politically split, not just between radicals and incrementalists, as can happen in any political movement, but also among various political movements — while being too small to influence any of them very much.

It seems to me that libertarians come in several political groupings:

(1) Those who care primarily about free markets and thus support conservative Republicans. Given the candidates on offer, that means helping to move the GOP to the right on social issues (and war and civil liberties) as well as on economic issues. This group would include the Club for Growth, Republican “Leave Us Alone” activist Grover Norquist, many donors to free-market thinktanks, and probably most libertarian-leaning politically active people.

(2) Those who want to make the GOP more socially tolerant and thus support moderate Republicans, which effectively means Republicans who aren’t very free-market. This would include Log Cabin Republicans, pro-choice Republicans, and lots of Wall Street and Silicon Valley businesspeople.

(3) Those who think the GOP is irredeemably bad on social issues and civil liberties and thus support Democrats. This would again include some Silicon Valley businessmen who are pro-entrepreneurship and fiscally conservative but just can’t support a party that is opposed to abortion rights and gay rights. A dramatic example is Tim Gill, the founder of Quark, who calls himself a libertarian but has contributed millions of dollars to Democrats because of Republican opposition to gay rights. There are also broadly libertarian people involved in the ACLU, the drug-reform movement, and other civil libertarian causes.

(4) Those who support the Libertarian Party. They don’t get many votes, but they include a large percentage of libertarian activists.

If only some candidate or movement could bring them all together.

The End of American Capitalism?

At the top of today’s front page, the Washington Post joins other Big Media in dancing on the grave of capitalism and smaller government. And compared with such past headlines as “A Fresh Look at the Apostle of Free Markets” or “Crisis Turns Free Marketeers into Regulators,” the Post goes all the way: “The End of American Capitalism?” It does have a question mark.

But what is the Post’s evidence that “American-style capitalism” is a casualty of the financial crisis? Well, for one, “The Bush administration is considering a partial nationalization of some banks.” I’m not sure that an administration that has given us nationalized schools, expanded entitlements, burdensome Sarbanes-Oxley securities regulations (how’d those work out, by the way?), nation-building around the world, and a trillion-dollar increase in federal spending is exactly an example of free-marketers finally giving in to the lure of big government.

But it’s not just American politicians, the Post tells us, who have lost faith in capitalism. “European leaders … are calling for broad new international codes to impose scrutiny on global finance.” So the people who run the U.S. government and the people who run European governments are united in seeking more power for governments.

But wait, there’s more. “To some degree, those calls are even being echoed by the International Monetary Fund.” So even an intergovernmental organization devoted to forced wealth transfers also wants more power for governments.

Also Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz: “We told them if you wanted to be like us, here’s what you have to do — hand over power to the market. The point now is that no one has respect for that kind of model anymore given this crisis.” So the most left-leaning Nobel laureate thinks our policies should move to the left. But if reporter Anthony Faiola had interviewed such recent laureates as Vernon Smith, Ed Prescott, Robert Mundell, Gary Becker, Myron Scholes, Douglass North, or James Buchanan, he might have gotten a different answer.

There’s no question that the global financial crisis is causing people to question how well capitalism works. But we’re still not in any Great Depression. And the evidence in this article is almost entirely that governments are — as usual — taking advantage of a crisis to expand their scope and power.

Of course, if this crisis leads us to question “American-style capitalism” — the kind in which a central monetary authority manipulates money and credit, the central government taxes and redistributes $3 trillion a year, huge government-sponsored enterprises create a taxpayer-backed duopoly in the mortgage business, tax laws encourage excessive use of debt financing, and government pressures banks to make bad loans — well, it might be a good thing to reconsider that “American-style capitalism.”

The Real Problem with the Debate

Arnold Kling offers a strange remark about last night’s presidential debate:

If the candidates were out to correct economic ignorance instead of pandering to it, the debate would not resemble last night’s in any way.

If the two candidates had corrected economic ignorance throughout their careers instead of pandering to it, they would not be the two major candidates for the presidency.  Two other politicians who affirmed economic ignorance and pandered to it would have participated in last night’s debate.

You could say that both Obama and McCain have let their ambition get the better of them, but they are politicians and that is like saying, as many now are, that investors should not seek profits. Both candidates believe spouting economic ignorance provides an apt means to winning the presidency.

Question for the class: what does all this tell us about American democracy?

Laissez-Faire and Corporatism

I’ve just read Steven Horwitz’s excellent “Open Letter to My Friends on the Left,” on the subject of the credit crisis. I highly recommend it, whether you’re on the left or not:

In the last week or two, I have heard frequently from you that the current financial mess has been caused by the failures of free markets and deregulation. I have heard from you that the lust after profits, any profits, that is central to free markets is at the core of our problems. And I have heard from you that only significant government intervention into financial markets can cure these problems, perhaps once and for all. I ask of you for the next few minutes to, in the words of Oliver Cromwell, consider that you may be mistaken. Consider that both the diagnosis and the cure might be equally mistaken.

Consider instead that the problems of this mess were caused by the very kinds of government regulation that you now propose. Consider instead that effects of the profit motive that you decry depend upon the incentives that institutions, regulations, and policies create, which in this case led profit-seekers to do great damage. Consider instead that the regulations that may have been the cause were supported by, as they have often been throughout US history, the very firms being regulated, mostly because they worked to said firms’ benefit, even as they screwed the rest of us. Consider all of this as you ask for more of the same in the name of fixing the problem. And finally, consider why you would ever imagine that those with wealth and power wouldn’t rig a new regulatory process in their favor.

The seemingly arcane difference between laissez-faire and corporatism is one of the most important in today’s public policy debates. Laissez-faire means the equality of all before the law, with the state neither helping nor hindering any market actor. Corporatism means offering special favors to those who’ve already succeeded. (Just for starters: “Too big to fail” is corporatism.)

If only this distinction were more clearly understood by lawmakers, journalists, and the general public. Too often all of these groups just use the vague word “capitalism,” which seems mostly intended to split the difference – or to obscure it. But laissez-faire and corporatism are directly opposed to one another, and if more people on the left understood this, they might be far more sympathetic to free markets. Even, perhaps, while keeping a healthy mistrust of corporations.

Nihilists!

Dieter: “Ve are Nihilists, Lebowski. Ve believe in nothing! Nothing!”

–Joel and Ethan Coen, “The Big Lebowski”

“And let us recognize above all the 228 who voted no — the authors of this revolt of the nihilists. They showed the world how much they detest their own leaders and the collected expertise of the Treasury and Fed.”

–David Brooks, “The Revolt of the Nihilists,” September 29, 2008

That’s David Brooks tearing his hair out yesterday over the failure of the bailout bill.  It’s interesting that Brooks characterizes people who resist the idea of privatized profits and socialized loss as “nihilists.”  If you’re not willing to let Brooks’ “new establishment” play with up to $700 billion in tax dollars, if you don’t offer up your wallet the moment an expert cries “crisis!”–why then, you must believe in nothing! Nothing at all!

Interesting, but maybe not all that surprising.  Brooks is, after all, the architect of National Greatness Conservatism, the philosophy that says “American purpose can only find its voice in Washington.”  Inside Washington: purpose, meaning, fulfillment–glory.  Outside Washington: a vast and pitiless void.  “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” as a prominent theorist of national greatness once put it.

The Risk-Free Society Comes into View

Peter Bernstein draws a conclusion from the current problems in the financial markets:

The subprime mortgage mess, the huge leverage throughout the system, the insidious impact of new kinds of derivatives and other financial paper, and, at the roots, the vast underestimation of risk could not have happened in a planned economy.

Oh really? Another story from today’s New York Times reports:

The banking giant JPMorgan Chase, for instance, has 70 regulators from the Federal Reserve and the comptroller’s agency in its offices every day. Those regulators have open access to its books, trading floors and back-office operations. (That’s not to say stronger regulators would prevent losses. Citigroup, which on paper is highly regulated, suffered huge write-downs on risky mortgage securities bets.)

Goldman-Sachs, which was largely unregulated, mostly avoided losses related to the mortgage market through prudent hedging. Citigroup, which was highly regulated, suffered such losses. Expect state control without the promised payoff in a planned economy.

There’s a larger point here that Bernstein neglects completely. A prosperous society requires risk taking. Bernstein is correct: historically a planned economy has prevented such risk taking. Not surprisingly, such societies have not been prosperous, to put it mildly.

More important, they have not been free societies. Preventing the downside of risk requires control over people’s choices. Seventy bureaucrats reviewing your trades. More generally, the best and the brightest continually uttering imperative sentences. Stay away from that cake! Avoid that derivative! Think correct thoughts! The risk-free society will be a society filled with hectored serfs.

Right now, at this moment of hysteria, the political class suffers from availability bias. Like Bernstein, they see only the downside of risk and conclude the necessity of the planned economy. A more complex and nuanced view would see both sides of risk and the enduring value of liberty.