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.