The philosophical demise of socialism has caused many on the economic left to change their complaint about free-market capitalism. While it may be effective, they now say, it comes at the cost of human goods like community and social solidarity. Such claims are now commonplace in policy debates. But are they true?
In a political climate dominated by debates about individual mandates and restrictions on religious freedoms, an issue like road privatization isn’t likely to be on the top of anyone’s list of major concerns. But the excellent post on “The Mirage of Free-Market Roads” by Timothy B. Lee, a writer with Ars Technica and the Cato Institute, is worth reading even if you don’t care about toll roads. Lee provides an intriguing example of why we need to think clearly about how we apply principles to policy:
In The American Spectator, Acton Institute’s Michael Matheson Miller throws his hat into the ring as he launches a tongue-in-cheek candidacy for World Bank president, but also raises serious questions about the institution’s poverty fighting programs. Miller is a research fellow at Acton, where he directs PovertyCure, an initiative that promotes enterprise solutions to poverty. Jeffrey Sachs — are you listening?
Here are some planks from Miller’s campaign platform:
I don’t believe that foreign aid is the solution — or even a solution. It has subsidized corruption and delayed the development of local business. In short, it is generally part of the problem. And I’m not alone in thinking so. There are growing numbers of Africans, Latin Americans, and Asians who are saying no to aid and instead want the chance to have free and fair competition.
I also don’t believe the developing world is a lab for Western scientists and technocrats to test out their various utopian theories on others. When I am president of the World Bank, none of these people would be given support to experiment with the lives of others.
In this connection, I should mention that I don’t believe in a “scientific” solution to poverty. Nor do I believe that I or anyone else can end poverty “forever.” There will always be some poverty because there will always be human weakness, human error. There will always be a need for human love and caring.
Read “Here I Come to Save the Day — How I would lead the World Bank” by Michael Matheson Miller on The American Spectator.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Corrupted Capitalism and the Housing Crisis,” I contend we need to add some categories to our thinking about political economy. In this case, the idea of “corporatism” helps understand a good deal of what we see in the American system today. Adding corporatism to our quiver helps us to make some more nuanced distinctions than simple “socialism” and “capitalism” allow.
Take, for instance, Mitt Romney’s contention this week while campaigning in Michigan that the bailouts of the auto companies was a feature of “crony capitalism.” A better way to understand the relationship between big business and big government today might instead be characterized as “crony corporatism.” You have a select group at the highest levels of an industry influencing government policy, which in turn favors those big businesses, provides various moral and fiscal incentives to consumers to patronize these industries, and then when necessary bails them out.
In this week’s commentary I use corporatism as a way of unpacking what happened in the recent housing crisis. For too long the American dream has revolved around home ownership. Owning a home is a good thing for many people; for many others it isn’t. What we have failed to recognize is the moral hazard that attends to government promotion of a particular vision of the American dream and the crises that result. As Dambisa Moyo characterized the housing crisis,
The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.
The definition of the American dream offered by politicians should be far less precise, and presumably not include the level of specificity that says we should all own a home, drive a GM car, and have a college degree. As Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps put it in a 2009 interview,
I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.
The cultivation of an “ownership society” through government subsidy is only one feature of the creeping corporatism of contemporary America. As has been documented just in the last few days, the role of the government in directing and providing social goods has increased dramatically over recent decades. Following a New York Times story describing the increasing dependence of the American middle class on governmental initiatives of one form or another, Steve Hayward summarizes, “increasingly we’re taxing the middle class to pay themselves their own money, minus a large commission to Washington DC” (HT: The Transom). The government is increasingly using these subsidies and incentives to shape how people live their lives.
As I conclude in today’s piece, “The American people do not need politicians to tell them what happiness is and how it should be pursued. These are functions that our families, churches, and friendships fulfill.” One place to look instead would be the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to enjoy God and glorify him forever.” Another would be the words of Jesus: “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
The story of Keynes’s rise as the scholar shaping economic policy from “within” is more, however, than just the tale of one man’s meteoric career. It also heralded the surge of an army of activist-intellectuals into the ranks of governments before, during, and after World War II. The revolution in economics pioneered by Keynes effectively accompanied and rationalized an upheaval in the composition and activities of governments.
From this standpoint, it’s not hard to understand why New Dealers such as John Kenneth Galbraith were so giddy when they first read Keynes’s General Theory. Confident that Keynes and his followers had given them the conceptual tools to “run” the economy, scholars like Galbraith increasingly spent their careers shifting between tenured university posts, government advisory boards, international financial institutions, and political appointments — without, of course, spending any time whatsoever in the private sector.
In short, Keynes helped make possible the Jeffrey Sachs, Robert Reichs, Joseph Stiglitz’s, and Timothy Geithners of this world. Moreover, features of post-Keynesian economics — especially a penchant for econometrics and building abstract models that borders on physics-envy — fueled hopes that an expert-guided state could direct economic life without necessarily embracing socialism. A type of nexus consequently developed between postwar economists seeking influence (and jobs), and governments wanting studies that conferred scientific authority upon interventionist policies.
Read Samuel Gregg’s “The Madness of Lord Keynes” on the American Spectator.
Director of Research Samuel Gregg’s thoughts on the debate are up at The Corner. He sees a parallel between the Italian crisis unfolding across the ocean and the problems facing the United States — particularly in Michigan, where this debate was held. The collapse of Italy would certainly be a dramatic illustration of the shortcomings of crony capitalism, and Gregg thinks a candidate could find a majority of voters who don’t want that to happen.
With the Italian-flavored shadow of the European Union’s ongoing financial implosion overhanging the United States, it was expected that America’s own fragile economic state would be front-and-center at this debate.
This time, however, there was less argument among the GOP candidates. Instead, there were far more direct critiques of (1) President Obama and (2) the pattern of crony capitalism with which more and more Americans are visibly losing patience. The debate’s setting — the state of Michigan — is a living exemplar of all the fallacies of bailouts and business-union collusion, as well as a failure to promote the type of innovation that produces wealth but that also threatens businesses (like the Detroit car companies) that don’t like competition.
Also noticeable was the increased willingness of the candidates to advocate market solutions to any number of problems, the most prominent being America’s ongoing mortgage farce, the looming crisis of student debt, and the inexorable rise in health-care costs. That’s a welcome development. If this trend keeps up, maybe one of them will make the dismantling of crony capitalism a central plank of his platform. That won’t please the likes of General Electric and the City of Chicago, but there are surely votes there.
I can always find common ground with the Distributists I meet. We want to replace the government-corporate cronyism that characterizes so much of our current economic system. And we want our culture to raise up young people with the skills, virtues and freedom to accumulate productive capital and invest it in ways that promote human flourishing for themselves and others.
But then there’s the question of centralized political power in the economy. Sometimes when Distributism is described, you get the sense that Distributism and one of its leading early proponents, Hilaire Belloc, have always been committed to a largely grass roots, bottom-up strategy of change. But Belloc himself painted a different picture in An Essay on the Restoration of Property:
We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. The effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice. (P.29)
So when I have a conversation with Distributists, the first thing I like to clear up is what they mean by Distributism. Do they merely want people and companies to model best-Distributist practices voluntarily, so as to propagate Distributist ideas and behaviors in a free marketplace of ideas? Do they just want to get the federal government out of the job of picking winners and losers in the economy? Or do they also want to vote in politicians who will arrogate to the federal government expanded powers to seize and redistribute private property and keep it more evenly distributed?
Until those questions are cleared up, the opportunities for muddle and fog are just too great to bother wading in.
Hilaire Belloc, An Essay on the Restoration of Property, (Norfolk, Virginia: IHS Press, 2002).
Acton director of research Samuel Gregg offers his thoughts on last night’s GOP Roundtable in this NRO Symposium. Gregg thinks the debate offered an important alternative to the government-driven economy talk that fills the news every other night of the week.
In a week in which two American economists from the non-Keynesian side of the ledger received the Nobel Prize for Economics, last night’s GOP debate gave us some insight into the depth and character of the various candidates’ free-market commitments and the different policy priorities which flow from the various forms of those commitments.
But if the ideas were strong, they were a reminder of separation between our free market ideals and our considerably less free economy:
For the most part, the candidates focused upon the institutional background that either impedes or facilitates economic growth: the regulatory environment, tax levels, trade policy, monetary policy, etc. Listening to the responses was a salutary reminder of the gap betweenAmerica’s free-market aspirations and rhetoric, and the rather different Eurosclerotic economic reality that has slowly envelopedAmerica– and not just over the past three years, but over several decades.
The only way we’re really going to get our economy going, is by addressing entitlements.
The surprising omission was substantial discussion of the issue of welfare reform and the related question of America’s public debt. While Obamacare was continually criticized because of its costs, that’s only part of the picture. Substantive entitlement reform is indispensable if we want to significantly reduce the spending and deficits that threaten to suck the life out of America’s economy. Addressing this subject is of course very politically risky because far too many Americans are more attached to the welfare state than they care to admit. But if fiscal conservatives aren’t willing to tackle this issue, then who will?
Roger Scruton has written an excellent piece on the moral basis of free markets; it’s up at MercatorNet. He begins with the Islamic proscriptions of interest charged, insurance, and other trade in unreal things:
Of course, an economy without interest, insurance, limited liability or the trade in debts would be a very different thing from the world economy today. It would be slow-moving, restricted, and comparatively impoverished. But that’s not the point: the economy proposed by the Prophet was not justified on economic grounds, but on moral grounds, as an economy of righteous conduct.
Our long-term economic malaise may mystify world leaders, but Scruton sees its causes clearly: ways intended to speed economic development have become ways to acquire luxuries without payment; we have confused trade in debts with others’ assumption of our debts. This moral confusion is as much to be found in governments as it is in private markets, because the incentives are exactly the same — anyone who denies it is lying.
If you borrow money you are obliged to repay it. And you should repay it by earning the sum required, and not by borrowing again, and then again, and then again. For some reason, when it comes to the state and its clients, those elementary moral truths are forgotten.
Scruton concludes that morality is inescapable — though we may delay it, judgment will come.
The moral sense emerged in human beings precisely because it has proved to be, in the long run, for their advantage. It is the thing that puts a brake on reckless behaviour, which returns the cost of mistakes to the one who makes them, and which expels cheating from the fold. It hurts to be punished, and states that act wrongly naturally try to avoid the punishment. And since they can pass on their hurt so easily to the rest of us, we turn a blind eye to their behaviour. But I cannot help thinking that the result is at best only a short term economic advantage, and that the long term costs will be all the greater. For what we are seeing, in both Europe andAmerica, is a demoralisation of the economic life. Debts are no longer regarded as obligations to be met, but as assets to be traded. And the cost of them is being passed to future generations, in other words to our children, to whom we owe protection and who will rightly despise us for stealing what is theirs.
Read the full text here.
A friend of mine preached a sermon last week from the gospel text of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with the title, “Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?” You can check out the video here. One of the things Rev. Eichinger highlights is what a gift the ability to work and earn a living truly is.
Echoing Martin Luther’s famous dictum Wir sein pettler (“We are all beggars”), Rev. Eichinger says, “It is God demonstrating his grace when he provides us with work and vocation so that we can provide for ourselves and our family.” The hymn following the sermon was, “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling.” Here’s the first stanza:
Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,
“Who will go and work today?
Fields are white and harvests waiting,
Who will bear the sheaves away?”
Loud and long the master calls you;
Rich reward he offers free.
Who will answer, gladly saying,
“Here am I. Send me, send me”?
In God’s Yardstick, their book on stewardship, Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef note that it is our habit to “take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.”
The way in which God’s providential care for us extends to providing us the regular means to earn our daily bread was the theme in a brief reflection on President Obama’s jobs speech a few weeks ago. In the meantime, Baylor University released a survey that found some correlation between faith in God, work, and government. According to Christianity Today, the survey “found that nearly three-quarters of Americans agree that ‘God has a plan for all of us.’ Those who agreed more strongly were more likely to see financial success as the result of hard work and ability. As a result, they were also least supportive of government programs that help those out of work.” Below the break is a full story courtesy ENI that explores the Baylor study. For a heart-breaking glimpse into what uncritically sharing a “denarius” with a stranger can do, read this story.