It seems, sometimes, that human history has a parallel with English law, which is that any idea that becomes popular is presumed brilliant, and the onus of proving otherwise falls on anyone who disagrees.
A telling example would be Milton Friedman’s insistence that all free markets are not just benign but benevolent:
Government, he believed, cannot exist without compromising the freedom of markets and reducing their benevolence and government must therefore be evil.
Some socialist goody-goodies [e.g. any person more than one micron to the left of Genghis Kahn] only demand government intervention in markets because they want to guarantee equal outcomes, according to Friedman.
That is, not only should every person be ensured a start in every race in life’s Olympics, but they should also be guaranteed an equal-first place prize.
Not only will this not work, said Friedman, it’s counter-productive to try.
His best selling book Free to Choose was a monumental success, in part because it is rare for any book about economics to set out its arguments in such a straightforward and accessible style. The book stresses, more than the clip above does, his assertion that progressives want equal outcomes, not just equal opportunities. Friedman was as careful in his choice of arguments as the best of us. He was also always very adept at deflecting questions by reframing them before he answered.
Although I won’t be around for it, I do anticipate that 100 years from now history students will read of Friedman’s 20th Century influence and power, especially his work for the IMF, and conclude that our generations were gullible and backwards, or that his theories were given a little too much credence to be morally acceptable.
What is less certain, but I think, quite possible, is that time will show the current worldwide popularity of privatisation is another idea best described as “monumentally misguided“.
- The proper purpose of a political /economic system is to provide the best possible result for the greatest number of people.
- Capitalism and the free market are the most efficient ways available of sharing around scarce resources.
- Although capitalism and free markets are efficient, they are far from perfect. [think drug trafficking].
- Some government interference in the market place is necessary.
- Some government interference just makes things worse.
- Sometimes governments should just mind their own bloody business.
This is probably what most people believe. Where we might disagree is in how to achieve our goals, or where to draw a line between government and government-free policies.
Two of the very important assumptions [amongst many] on which much economic theory rests:
- Everyone who buys or sells makes rational decisions ; and
- Everyone who buys or sells has perfect information.
My gut reaction to the first of these is ROFLMAO, but the ‘perfect information’ assumption can provide a clue to when it is appropriate for a government to interfere.
When Adam Smith first wrote The Wealth of Nations - the bible by which Milton Freidman swore - he was writing at the beginning of the industrial revolution. In the 1770s, even Smith didn’t have perfect information about how the industrial revolution was panning out, but he quite reasonably believed if someone went to the market and bought a cheese which was no good, then it served him right. Let the buyer beware.
But when it comes to a modern car, or computer, or even a house, 250 years after Smith’s era it would be silly to expect everyone to have perfect information. Consumer protection helps to level the playing field a little, bridging the gap between the original theory of free markets, and today's reality.
To be fair to Friedman, he wasn’t totally indifferent to social inequalities; it’s likely he really believed his own theory that the more we leave the market alone, the better off everyone will be.
Traditionally, we place conservatives on the right of the political spectrum. Traditionally, conservatives don’t like to meddle in economics or human affairs, believing that when the time is right change will come and there is no need to force matters. The smaller the government’s power and influence the better.
In some countries more than in others, the right is also synonymous with religious conservatism. If I were to hazard some guesses about why, some of the following ideas might rate a mention:
- Freedom of religion means governments should not be deciding what is right or wrong, for that is the Lord's job;
- Fundamentalists resent paying taxes to a government full of godless people;
- Fundamentalists resent subsidising godless lifestyles [e.g. supporting single mums and therefore encouraging careless promiscuity];
- Communism means even more government than capitalism does - tsk tsk tsk;
- The Russian model of Communism, as practised in the 20th Century, was not just godless but brutal - it also left people without basic, day to day goods and services;
- The good thing about waiting for change rather than wanting to push for it is that there's no need to question anything, or allow shades of grey to complicate matters. Claims like those of the Tea Party leaders, that God himself abhors big government, shift the burden of proof to those with more liberal inclinations;*
- Socialism is a Jewish [i.e. Anti-Christian] doctrine **
* to oversimplify: Christians from a range of different 'churches' can agree that God [i.e. Christ] exists and might also agree government should be small. On the other hand, people who tend to the left tend to disagree about everything amongst themselves, e.g. is this problem caused by class exploitation, racism, or sexism? They might agree in general terms on goals but different priorities or isms prevent them from speaking with a united voice against the very values and attitudes they all want to change.
**please don't shoot this messenger!
next time: rednecks