Amity Shlaes over at Forbes has published an article in the October 22, 2012 issue called “The End of Behaviorism.” (If you’re unfamiliar, Amity Shlaes is the author of the very good “The Forgotten Man,” a realistic history of the Great Depression. She is also the author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge, one of my absolute favorite presidents and a sadly all-too-often-ignored figure.)
In this article, Shlaes lays out the contrast between the economic policies of the two major political parties in simplistic terms:
Get the rat to the cheese.
That’s really what each U.S. political party is promising to do if its candidate is elected President. The rat in this analogy is the enervated American worker. The cheese is his reward. If all rats make their way through the maze and to the cheese faster, the economy will grow faster.
The only way that Democrats and Republicans differ is in the manner in which they animate the rat. Democrats take the Habitrail approach: Give the worker the equivalent of a roomy cage with a deluxe wheel, and he’ll be fit enough to pursue his cheese. Republicans focus on incentives: Double the cheddar, and the rat will navigate his turns more quickly. The rat analogy comes from modern economics, a discipline that classes itself as lab science, precious and pure.
Neither approach works particularly well. The article goes on to probe the deeper depths of the human psyche viz. “getting to the cheese.” What is it that really motivates people? I think Shlaes assertion that freedom in and of itself is the goal of many is right on the dot.
But people aren’t lab rats. They are souls, to use a pre-social-science word. Souls, pious or not, make their choices in complex fashion.
Indeed, freedom itself is what motivates many people who are not currently free. We in this country tend to get so caught up in how much money we have, how many things are available to us, whether our material situation is better now than it was four years ago – that we utterly forget to appreciate the necessary condition to material wealth and comfort.
That is freedom.
And thus, I find Shlaes’s article to be a – perhaps unwitting – explication of the libertarian position, and especially of that position’s superiority over the position of the major political parties in this country.
The cheese is not really what matters, although getting rats to cheese is a nice side benefit. What really, truly matters is whether people are free to live their own lives without coercion.
Over at Cafe Hayek, the inimitable Donald Boudreaux has a piece called “An Undeniable Asymmetry” that is well worth the time it takes to read. Briefly, it touches on the non-linear nature of the political world, in that moving closer to statism may not create the horrors of North Korea, and moving closer to freedom may not create a harmonious and peaceful society.
This idea, that we do not and cannot know exactly what consequences lie ahead of incremental changes in policy, is a pet project of mine. Anyone who attempts to sell the idea that they know what the future holds, even with regard to a single piece of legislation or policy, is either lying to you or stupid, or possibly both.
And therefore, it necessarily annoys me when advocates of the free market make promises that are impossible to keep. Letting people do what they desire to do in a peaceful and non-coercive way will, I assert, absolutely make things better. Will they make them perfect? Absolutely not. And those who innocently advocate freedom as a solution to all of our societal ills are setting themselves (and me) up to fail.
And when statists see that freedom and free markets do not stop criminals completely in their tracks, do not resolve all negative externalities, do not stop certain people from losing their jobs or dying of disease, the statists point to these failures as failures of freedom, not as failures of our baser human natures.
This is why I particularly appreciate the realistic tone taken by Boudreaux in this piece:
But we must never lose sight of this important asymmetry: complete or near-complete state control of the economy has proven to be a sure recipe for deep impoverishment and brutal tyranny, while historical periods that have been close to laissez faire – that is, much closer to laissez faire than is America at the dawn of 2012 – have produced nothing remotely of the sort. Indeed, whatever problems might be caused by more and more reliance upon laissez faire capitalism are always accompanied by – and are at least partially (and arguably more than completely) off-set by – unambiguous benefits of capitalism such as the elimination of starvation, more abundant supplies of clothing, and better housing.
Any problems promoted by greater and greater reliance upon capitalism, in short, are first-world problems (which isn’t to say that these problems should be tolerated); they are problems incomparably more tolerable than are the horrors promoted by the elimination of capitalism.
If you read the whole piece you will see that it frankly and honestly addresses the problems correlated with freedom and free markets, but it weighs them against the problems of statism. It does not attempt to sell us a free lunch or naively take up a utopian cause.
Because those liberty-loving folk who expect freedom from government to wash all of our sins and indiscretions away are merely providing ammunition to other side when things turn less than perfect, as they always do. Realistically, libertarians can offer the world more safety, more prosperity, more comfort. No one can provide the whole thing.
On June 12, 2011, John Hospers left this world. Among the leading lights of the then-new Libertarian movement, he was the first presidential candidate of the official Libertarian Party, and despite being on the ballot in only two states, managed to garner an electoral vote from a faithless elector pledged to Richard Nixon.
He was also the author of “Libertarianism – A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow,” published in 1971 when the movement was still in its infancy. This book remains as accessible, comprehensive, and important a work on the philosophy of freedom as just about any in the canon. He was an academic superstar, securing a post as Chair of the Philosophy Department at USC, until his overtly non-Leftist political views turned his colleagues against him and he became another casualty of the political intolerance of academia.
Standing out among his other impressive credentials, he managed to have a run-in with Ayn Rand, which led her to denounce him. This, of course, seems to be the mark of a true friend of liberty, and the progression is always the same. Dr. Hospers met Rand, was impressed by her thoughts, became great friends with her, engaged her in intellectual conversations, challenged her on a particular point, was denounced by her.
The common story of the falling-out surrounds Dr. Hospers’ criticism of Rand’s aesthetic philosophy at Harvard. He assumed that the presentation was nothing more than a typical academic conference, and although he disagreed with Rand, he presented his disagreement in a fair and disinterested way. She, on the other hand, took this as a grave personal insult and broke off all ties.
I find that one of the quotes on the dust jacket of the book Libertarianism is an applicable, if necessarily inadequate summation of his life’s work:
“In days to come, when Libertarianism is accepted as one of the major political philosophies, and perhaps the prevailing one, Professor Hospers will be remembered as one of its founding fathers. His magnificent work offers a true intellectual foundation for all those who profess to be advocates of, or objective about, personal, political, and economic freedom.”
—Robert D. Kephart, Publisher of Human Events
Rest in peace, Dr. Hospers.