Saturday, May 29, 2010

Everything You Love You Owe to Capitalism

[This talk was delivered at the Mises Circle in Seattle on May 17, 2008.]   

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I'm sure that you have had this experience before, or something similar to it....But then the topic turns to economics, and things change....Then the truth emerges in the form of a naïve if definitive announcement from one person: "Well, I suppose I'm really a socialist at heart." Others nod in agreement....On one hand there is nothing to say, really. You are surrounded by the blessings of capitalism....All of history has been defined by the struggle for food....The ancients, peering into this scene, might have assumed it to be Elysium....[W]e owe this scene to centuries of capital accumulation at the hands of free people who have put capital to work on behalf of economic innovations, at once competing with others for profit and cooperating with millions upon millions of people in an ever-expanding global network of the division of labor....

...And yet, sitting on the other side of the table are well-educated people who imagine that the way to end the world's woes is through socialism....[Their definition] might be as simple as the desire to put a cap on the salaries of CEOs, or it could be as extreme as the desire to abolish all private property, money, and even marriage....Whatever the specifics of the case in question, socialism always means overriding the free decisions of individuals and replacing that capacity for decision making with an overarching plan by the state. Taken far enough, this mode of thought won't just spell an end to opulent lunches. It will mean the end of what we all know as civilization itself....Nor is it possible to divorce socialism from totalitarianism, because if you are serious about ending private ownership of the means of production, you have to be serious about ending freedom and creativity too. You will have to make the whole of society, or what is left of it, into a prison.

In short, the wish for socialism is a wish for unparalleled human evil. If we really understood this, no one would express casual support for it in polite company. It would be like saying, you know, there is really something to be said for malaria and typhoid and dropping atom bombs on millions of innocents.

Do the people sitting across the table really wish for this? Certainly not. So what has gone wrong here? Why can these people not see what is obvious?

...What we have here is a failure of understanding. That is to say, a failure to connect causes with effects. This is a wholly abstract idea. Knowledge of cause and effect does not come to us by merely looking around a room, living in a certain kind of society, or observing statistics....

Let me take you back to the years 1989 and 1990. These were the years that most of us remember as the time when socialism collapsed in Eastern Europe and Russia. Events of that time flew in the face of all predictions on the Right that these were permanent regimes that would never change unless they were bombed back to the Stone Age. On the Left, it was widely believed, even in those times, that these societies were actually doing quite well and would eventually pass the United States and Western Europe in prosperity, and, by some measures, that they were already better off than us....And yet it collapsed....They may have all the guns and all the power, and the people have none of those, and yet, when the people themselves decide that they will no longer be governed, the state has few options left. It eventually collapses amid a society-wide refusal to believe its lies any longer.

When these closed societies suddenly became open, what did we see? We saw lands that time forgot. The technology was backwards and broken. The food was scarce and disgusting. The medical care was abysmal. The people were unhealthy. Property was polluted.

...This [collapse] is what anyone who had been exposed to the teachings of economics — to the elementary rules concerning cause and effect in society — saw....But this is not what the ideological Left saw. The headlines in the socialist publications themselves proclaimed the death of undemocratic Stalinism and looked forward to the creation of a new democratic socialism in these countries.

...Now, if the proper lessons of the collapse had been conveyed, we would have seen the error of all forms of government planning. We would have seen that a voluntary society will outperform a coerced one anytime. We might see how ultimately artificial and fragile are all systems of statism compared to the robust permanence of a society built on free exchange and capitalist ownership. And there is another point: the militarism of the Cold War had only ended up prolonging the period of socialism by providing these evil governments the chance to stimulate unfortunate nationalist impulses that distracted their domestic populations from the real problem....Not even an event as spectacular as the spontaneous meltdown of a superpower and all its client states was enough to impart the message of economic freedom.

...We are also inundated daily by the failures of the state. We complain constantly that the educational system is broken, that the medical sector is oddly distorted, that the post office is unaccountable, that the police abuse their power, that the politicians have lied to us, that tax dollars are stolen, that whatever bureaucracy we have to deal with is inhumanly unresponsive. We note all this. But far fewer are somehow able to connect the dots and see the myriad ways in which daily life confirms that the market radicals like Mises, Hayek, Hazlitt, and Rothbard were correct in their judgments.

What's more, this is not a new phenomenon that we can observe in our lifetimes only. We can look at any country in any period and note that every bit of wealth ever created in the history of mankind has been generated through some kind of market activity, and never by governments. Free people create; states destroy.

...The empirical truth has never been hard to come by. What matters are the theoretical eyes that see. This is what dictates the lesson we draw from events. Marx and Bastiat were writing at the same time. The former said capitalism was creating a calamity and that abolition of ownership was the solution. Bastiat saw that statism was creating a calamity and that the abolition of state plunder was the solution. What was the difference between them? They saw the same facts, but they saw them in very different ways. They had a different perception of cause and effect.

I suggest to you that there is an important lesson here as regards the methodology of the social sciences, as well as an agenda and strategy for the future. Concerning method, we need to recognize that Mises was precisely right concerning the relationship between facts and economic truth. If we have a solid theory in mind, the facts on the ground provide excellent illustrative material. They inform us about the application of theory in the world in which we live. They provided excellent anecdotes and revealing stories of how economic theory is confirmed in practice. But absent that theory of economics, facts alone are nothing but facts. They do not convey any information about cause and effect, and they do not point a way forward.

...Data points on their own convey no theory, suggest no conclusions, and offer no truths. To arrive at truth requires the most important step that we as human beings can ever take: thinking. Through this thinking, and with good teaching and reading, we can put together a coherent theoretical apparatus that helps us understand.

...In fact, what we have here is a simple mix-up of cause and effect. Bigger companies tend to be more likely to attract a kind of unpreventable unionization than smaller ones. The unions target them, with federal aid. It is no more or less complicated than that. It is for the same reason that developed economies have larger welfare states. The parasites prefer bigger hosts; that's all. We would be making a big mistake to assume that the welfare state causes the developed economy. That would be as much a fallacy as to believe that wearing $2,000 suits causes people to become rich.

...[T]he most important step economists or economic institutions can take is in the direction of public education in economic logic.

There is another important factor here. The state thrives on an economically ignorant public. This is the only way it can get away with blaming inflation or recession on consumers, or claiming that the government's fiscal problems are due to our paying too little in taxes. It is economic ignorance that permits the regulatory agencies to claim that they are protecting us as versus denying us choice. It is only by keeping us all in the dark that it can continue to start war after war — violating rights abroad and smashing liberties at home — in the name of spreading freedom.

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