Over at The Agitator, guest blogger Jason Kuznicki has a terrific post titled “An Open Letter to My Friends on the Right,” in which he tries to explain how the right wing gets freedom wrong.
He begins by complimenting them for their support of the free market:
You also affirm something the left goes out of its way to deny: The freedom of the marketplace is fundamental. Markets matter not just because they supply consumers’ needs better than any other arrangement yet devised — although they do. Markets matter because what we do in the market is an expression of who we are, both in our consumer preferences and in where and how we earn our livings. Markets are never perfect, never fully free, never fully efficient. But they are the theaters of our aspirations, our goals, and our deepest values. When liberals snobbishly put down workers’ or consumers’ choices in the market, this is what they are denigrating.
But then he hits on the two major mistakes that so many on the right make:
The first is that you have mistaken mere wealth for market process. You praise the industrialist and the banker. Very well. Often they deserve it. But have you looked closely at the industrialists and the bankers just lately.
This has been one of my complaints about the right as well. Politicians who want to reign in Medicare and Medicaid also talk about “helping out” industries that have fallen on difficult times. As if that wasn’t welfare too. They mistake big business for the free market, as if old bloated industries weren’t the natural enemy of the free market.
What’s worse, the left makes exactly the same mistake. They see giant rapacious corporations that have maneuvered themselves into positions of power, fortified against competitors by government subsidies and regulations (I’m looking at you, Bank of America!) and think that’s what happens when free markets run wild. No wonder they hate capitalism.
That sounds similar to Ayn Rand’s canonization of great industrialists, but Kuznicki argues that this is actually a betrayal of Rand’s philosophy, pointing out something I hadn’t realized before:
Among Ayn Rand’s villains, I don’t believe that a single one was poor. Every one of them was a member of the elite, and almost all of them were rich. They were people much like we know today, who maybe once upon a time set themselves apart through their own efforts. But at some point they committed a cardinal sin — they reached for the state to keep themselves on top. They made bad bets, then pleaded that they were too big to fail.
You’ve heard these things before: “You have to make certain sacrifices to the public welfare… We cannot permit the ruin of an establishment as vast as [GM, or Chrysler, or Citigroup, or Fannie Mae, or Morgan Stanley]… The country’s economy would not be able to stand a major dislocation at the present moment.”
That’s not from the recent financial crisis. It’s on page 902 of Atlas Shrugged. And really it’s everywhere in the book. Always in the mouths of the villains.
I’ve been critical of Rand because I think her books make too much of the contributions of giant leaders of industry, while downplaying the rather substantial contributions of the thousands of people who make our lives better every day — the waitress who remembers how you like your coffee, the convenience store clerk who has painstakingly figured out how to shave a few seconds off the checkout time, the thousands of people who work their asses off behind the scenes to prepare our food, bring us our groceries, build our cars, and program our web sites. Innovative leaders certainly contribute far more than most to our quality of life, but they are vastly outnumbered by the working masses of humanity. The world is carried not by a handful of Atlases but by billions of ordinary humans.
On the other hand, it sounds like she got the villains right, as does Kuznicki:
Often the biggest enemies of the market properly understood are precisely those who have made large fortunes—and who now want the government to shield them from all further risk.
Oh God, yes. In particular, they want the government to shield them from the risk that someone else will come along and figure out how to do what they do, but better, faster, and cheaper, which is bad for them but better for everybody else. Innovation by its nature destroys the systems of the present in order to create a better future. The present winners have the most to lose if that happens, so they will fight the future at all costs.
In Why Nations Fail, authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that the comfortably entrenched have been the enemies of political and economic freedom throughout history, and that the least prosperous parts of the world owe their condition to the efforts of powerful elites to extract all productive output for their own consumption. Naturally, the afflicted populations have no incentive to innovate or increase their efficiently, and they suffer centuries of poverty.
Kuznicki’s not done bashing the right, however:
And now for your second failing: The market has moral value because it is an arena of self-fashioning. But there are other arenas. They have value too, and they should be free for exactly the same reasons.
As I said in a comment to Kuznicki’s post, too many on the right express their faith that free markets are good while forgetting why free markets are good. They want to reduce restrictions on industrialists and bankers, but they fail to recognize that the same principles should apply to drug users and prostitutes and immigrants and atheists. They seem to love the free market, but not so much the free part.
Consider our surveillance state. [...] If you balk at the imposition of taxes, should you not protest even more at having to live your life in a panopticon? That’s where we are headed, my friends. But you could change it—if only you wanted it as badly as you want low taxes.
Consider the Drug War. In the final analysis, it’s a war on the market process, at least for some goods. But it also appears purposefully designed to wreck individual lives and to make a mockery of the kind of self-fashioning that we so value in our defense of the market. Nothing kills self-authorship like being thrown into prison. Not business regulations, not high taxes, not even the demon weed itself.
It’s almost as if some of the people on the right have adopted the rhetoric of freedom because it conveniently dovetails with their own interests and social agenda, not because they actually put much value in freedom. At least not the freedom of others.
Kuznicki is a little more charitable:
My conservative friends, the very reasons why you love free markets and low taxes should bring you to love liberty in many other areas. [...]
I also know that you have an election to win. I don’t expect you to turn against the candidates you’re about to nominate. You’re not going to drop everything and start reading Robert Nozick or Murray Rothbard. But a little Milton Friedman wouldn’t kill you, would it?
It’s an interesting post. You should read the whole thing.
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.