As the media bombard us with misleading language describing the role of government in the economy (e.g., that a stimulus plan will “inject money” or “create jobs”), those who know better need to keep up a steady drumbeat of common sense concerning the potential and track record of the state’s involvement in economic affairs. Long-time Acton associate Paul Cleveland’s newly published Unmasking the Sacred Lies is a valuable contribution to the effort.
Professor of Economics at Birmingham-Southern College, Cleveland combines here a scholar’s appreciation of policy details with a down-to-earth style that will appeal to a wide audience. Cleveland is master of the telling anecdote, demonstrating in each of a series of policy areas—inter alia, monetary, transportation, education, and welfare—that government intervention often has pernicious consequences, whether intended or not. If, for example, you were not aware of just how contorted federal agriculture policy is, his chapter on that subject will be a disturbing revelation.
Academics will quibble with the simplified story lines of some of these analyses (e.g., this historian would dispute a few points in the treatment of Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War), but the decision to sacrifice some complexity for the sake of readability is a trade-off any writer can appreciate.
Significantly, Cleveland concludes the book with a chapter titled, “The Lawlessness of Too Many Laws.” It is perhaps paradoxical, but in the present situation of pell-mell government expansion, I believe it is limited-government and (non-anarcho-) libertarian folks who are the defenders of the dignity and integrity of government. As Cleveland aptly observes, the generation of too many laws turns the normally law-abiding citizen into an unwitting law-breaker, with the result that the rule of law itself is severely compromised. Some would say we’re already there. At least in certain fields of economic activity, I think that’s hard to dispute.
If it is any longer possible to turn this ship around, it will be only by a massive intellectual and moral awakening. In that cause, this book can only help.