Criticism Economics Political Philosophy

Dreaming can be dangerous

Gavin Kennedy responded to my post of several weeks ago, written in response to the spectacular success of Goldman Sachs, which I saw as a repudiation of the free market in which I offered the “modest proposal” of tearing down our capitalist system and replacing it with a free market. Kennedy responded:

Much of Joe’s thinking is well motivated but he is confused because he advocates root and branch transformation in a long-established socio-economic system, and that isn’t going to happen.

The sheer impracticality of it is breathtaking.

I can understand why Kennedy responded as he did to this post. The tone was radical – deliberately so. I tried to suggest in the opening that I was writing “looser” than normally and called my radical suggestion a “modest proposal” – realizing it was not. I intended to suggest Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” though I did not intend the piece to be satire – but rather a rant unmoored from my usual pragmatic hedgings.

Barack Obama said a few times with regards to health care that “if he were starting from scratch” he would suggest a single-payer system – but then acknowledge that we were not starting from scratch. This post was my attempt to “start from scratch” without attempting to triangulate what position was and was not practical – to explain what was fundamentally wrong, and to suggest what we should be moving towards. Rather than sudden, centralized changes though, I advocate tinkering, reforming processes at the outsides, carefully modulating incentives, experimenting with changes at more local levels before trying them nationally or internationally. I subscribe to Friedrich Hayek’s idea that we shouldn’t willy-nilly “disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time [as w]e don’t understand their logic.”

But there are time to be bold – there are times when the faults of the current order are revealed. Sometimes these call for revolution – but I am no revolutionary. Which is why I believe now is the time to try to try to change the philosophical underpinning of our economic system from focusing on capital to one focusing on opportunity. This doesn’t require a revolution as much as a (and I hate this phrase) paradigm shift.

On one point though, I have to disagree almost wholly with Kennedy. He says that “Dreaming can be dangerous,” seemingly because it is impractical. But what’s dangerous is when you confuse dreams with reality. T. E. Lawrence wrote:

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.

Dreaming with open eyes can be dangerous – just as any risk can. But this doesn’t mean it is bad. The danger lies in the fact that one cannot know in advance whether the decision you are about to make will end well or badly. Living is what happens when you take that risk.

[Image by me.]

Economics Financial Crisis Politics

Tear down our capitalist system and replace it with a free market.

[digg-reddit-me]It’s Friday morning, finally finished with a week while living for the weekend, so I’m feeling loose.

My modest proposal for the day: Tear down our capitalist system and replace it with a free market.

The two terms are usually used synonymously – and I’m sure I am guilty of this myself. But after a long night of fevered dreams about politics and policy (yes, I really do dream about such things) I woke up realizing there is an important difference between the two ideas. (Perhaps as my unconscious mind dredged up some forgotten piece of writing from years ago.)

The free market is a commonsensical idea – as it is based on the values of competition, individual opportunity, and liberty. Adam Smith (from what I know of him) was only a proponent of this system – which he called “the system of natural liberty” – rather than a proponent of “capitalism” – a term he never actually used. Smith – arguing for this system – argued against government being used to prop up industries or to direct them. What he did not argue for though was “capitalism” as it has been understood for the past century. In many ways, the idea of capitalism evolved to defend our system from Marxist ideas – so it evolved to preserve the status quo rather than to describe an ideal system.

In this way, America’s economic system is different from its political system. The political system was created by men who held certain agreed-upon ideals and who attempted to write a governing document incorporating and protecting these ideals. This allowed later generations to try to better follow these ideas – to constantly seek “a more perfect union.” Rather than merely defending the status quo, it created an ideal to strive for. Our economic system though was created in an ad-hoc manner – and the ideology which grew up to defend it lacked any clear ideals. So, this ideology was defined then by what it opposed rather than a positive protection of certain principles. Capitalism then means less government interference, less centralized control of the means of production, less regulation. What this capitalism has created though is a rather unfree market – in which a small number of individuals own most of the capital – in which competition is thwarted by monopolistic practices, by bigger and bigger mega-corporations, by regulations proposed by the mega-corporations to keep out competitors, by bailouts.

Our capitalist system is based on valuing capital over labor, of seperating mangament and labor from ownership, of limiting the liability of individuals for their actions in corporate environments, of externalizing as much cost as possible to the public commons, of profit over all things. It is hard to see what most of these principles contribute to the creation of a free market. Indeed, many of them undermine it – creating a closed market, profitable only for a princely few who have the capital. This new feudalism is called freedom – but it is only free to an elite class of “ultracitizens” while the overwhelming majority of people get by in a “Sharecropper’s society” (to use terms introduced by David Rothkopf and Warren Buffett respectively.)

What we need is a founding economic document – that will describe the free market as it should be. A free market based on competition instead of capital; in which the government’s role is clear, predetermined, and predictable – rather than arbitrary and constantly contested; where regulation is seen as a protector of the free market rather than an encroachment upon it – as it forces externalized costs which are imposed on the society at large to be taken into account by the market; where the government’s role is in protecting and enhancing the opportunity of its citizens – rather than protecting the status quo and mega-corporations.

The fact is – capitalism as it is currently practiced has undermined the free market at every turn. While our current capitalist system has proved more productive than many other systems in the past, it has clearly fallen short of those implicit promises of what a free market should be. This economic crisis we are still going through – even as the financial crisis has passed – will offer up an opportunity to redefine the social bargain underlying our economic system if we are bold. So, we must be bold then – as soon as we figure out how to approach this.

[Image by me.]

Conservativism Economics Libertarianism Political Philosophy Politics The Opinionsphere

The Limits of the Free Market

George Will:

Trillions of dollars of capital are being allocated sub-optimally, by politically tainted government calculations rather than by the economic rationality of markets. Hence the nation’s prospects for long-term robust growth – and for funding its teetering architecture of entitlements – are rapidly diminishing.

The president’s astonishing risk-taking satisfies the yearning of a presidency-fixated nation for a great man to solve its problems. But as Coolidge said, “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.” What the country needs today in order to shrink its problems is not presidential greatness. Rather, it needs individuals to do what they know they ought to do, and government to stop doing what it should know causes or prolongs problems.

One thing that has frustrated me greatly over the past months has been George Will’s apparently unshaken faith in the perfection of the free market. Here he demonstrates this again – speaking of the “sub-optimal” allocation of resources by the government. I have to wonder what he makes of how the financial sector allocated resources over the past few decades. At this point, I think most of us can appreciate the value of  “sub-optimal” investment when compared to the catastrophic investments the “free market” allowed.

It’s not that I don’t think Will has a point. For one, I tend to agree with his anti-royalist attitude towards the executive branch. And secondly, I agree with him that a free market, by distributing resources and power among many actors, can achieve a kind of collective wisdom – and by allowing constant tinkering and creative destruction we allow for the possibility of positive black swans. This is the genius of the market, rooted in the knowledge that no one person or team of persons can know enough to guarantee the right decision. Instead, the best results are obtained by creating many seperate decision-making bodies and creating a structure that allows those that are actually successful to be rewarded.

But Will doesn’t seem to have noticed the serious flaws in the American and worldwide market – or at least, the only flaws he seems to have noticed are those involving government interference.

[digg-reddit-me]Even in the most traditional analysis, bankers got into this crisis largely because they were able to escape regulation. They created shadow banks, derivative products, and other complex financial instruments which were designed to evade any regulations in place. George Will and others will likely point to government-backed organizations like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as key causes in inflating the housing bubble – but it is difficult to actually make this case – as these institutions, for their size, weren’t that involved in the subprime mortgage market – and in fact were pushed to become involved by the enormous profits being made by the banks. What Will doesn’t want to acknowledge was that even in this most traditional analysis, the root of the problem is the misalignment of incentives rather than government distortions of the market.

What Will fails to acknowledge is that our markets are constricted by lack of government interference. The freedom of the financial marketplace – especially the distribution of power and decision-making that makes the market work – is severely restricted by the size of our banks. Their size not only makes them too big to fail, it also prevents the market from being free.

Our financial and automobile industries have ended up combining the worst aspects of socialism and capitalism – without the benefits of either – and that is even before the government stepped in.

Think about it – the free market is effective because it prevents any small set of individuals from monopolizing decision-making. Especially in the world today with so much information available and events moving so quickly, the “right” business choices to make aren’t always clear. A free market – by allowing each business to make its own choice – prevents decision-making from falling victim to individual follies. But our current economic system – with it’s enormous corporations – ends up recreating the feudal system in which power is not centered in a single place, but in a handful of powerful “princes.” While these “princes” push for free market reforms, it is not in their interest to actually achieve this ideal free market – as Yglesias points out:

As a market approaches textbook conditions—perfect competition, perfect information, etc.—real profits trend toward zero. You make your money by ensuring that textbook conditions don’t apply; that there are huge barriers to entry, massive problems with inattention, monopolistic corners to exploit, etc.

George Will himself has pointed out that those “reforms” that are passed tend to be of a specific sort, following what Will calls, “the supreme law of the land…the principle of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.” What free market supporters rarely seem to admit is that the free market exists not in spite of the government, but because of it. And today, our market is far from free because the government has failed to protect it – and has instead allowed the worst characteristics of capitalism (exploitation of labor; externalizing as much cost to society as possible, for eg. pollution) with the worst characteristics of socialism (concentration of power and limitation of competition) to create a kind of modern feudal society. In  this feudal society, freedom is enjoyed by the “princes” of finance and industry while the creative ferment of a real free market is formally protected but effectively quashed.

I would like to see George Will take on the limitations of capitalism at some point. As a conservative and an intelligent man, he must see they exist.

[Image by mischiru licensed under Creative Commons.]