Tuesday, June 19, 2012

McCloskey on Markets & Government

Deirdre McCloskey has posted a wonderful short essay over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.  You should read the entire piece because there is far too much good stuff in the essay for me to make not of here.  However, I will make note of her summary of the master narrative of High Liberalism:

The story is, in a few brief mottos to stand for a rich intellectual tradition since the 1880s: Modern life is complicated, and so we need government to regulate. Government can do so well, and will not be regularly corrupted. Since markets fail very frequently the government should step in to fix them. Without a big government we cannot do certain noble things (Hoover Dam, the Interstates, NASA). Antitrust works. Businesses will exploit workers if government regulation and union contracts do not intervene. Unions got us the 40-hour week. Poor people are better off chiefly because of big government and unions. The USA was never laissez faire. Internal improvements were a good idea, and governmental from the start. Profit is not a good guide. Consumers are usually misled. Advertising is bad.
McCloskey finds this narrative to be factually mistaken.  I agree.  So, now, click through to the essay and read her defense of the conclusion that this narrative is mistaken.

You should also read the interchange of comments to follow the essay.  She writes some remarkable responses there are well.  Here is one response I especially like:
Dear Jason, Your sober and sophisticated words are correct. As I said, some state action is desirable. I lived in England in 1959 as the laws against soft-coal burning were taking effect, and there is no entity but a state that could have achieved such a good compulsion. But good compulsions are much rarer factually than people think who talk of "services" or congresspeople who talk of "programs," and that's most people these days. It is why I lean against. It is wrong to put the issue at the "cosmic" level. That after all was my point: let us get down to the facts, if facts is what we are assuming. But this much is true in the cosmos: states have monopolies of violence, and use them; markets and gifts do not. Of the three realms of state, market, and grace, I want every time, acknowledging in the style of Ronald Coase that we can't do this analysis on a blackboard, to see the actual evidence that violence is necessary before I sign on to using it to achieve "actual consequences." I have a bias towards markets and what Boulding called the grants economy ("grace" I am calling it here, theologically speaking: caring for children, loving your friends, feeding the poor), and I have a bias against monopolies of violence, so easily tempted to be used to enrich ones friends and tyrannize over the poor and weak. I repeat what I said to Brian: I do not understand the reflex to defend the massive modern state. As Hayek said, the more complicated the society the worse is the argument for top-down Reason as the way to organize it. Sincerely, Deirdre McCloskey
I tell my students all the time that when thinking about government and public policy it is important to recognize that social interactions involve either voluntary behavior and cooperation or they involve force and compulsion.  Government operates in the realm of force and violence, while the market process is what emerges from the realm of voluntary human interactions.  I suggest that the way McCloskey has described the use of government force in this comment is the best way to think about government and policy issues.  I too have a bias against the use of violence and a bias toward the use of markets and grace.  I suggest that voluntary social interactions should be the normative default position, and to move away from the default position should require some good evidence that a proposed act of government violence is necessary.

2 comments:

agriculture investments said...

Perfect summary. Behind every government law or regulation is the implicit threat or force or coercion.

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