Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It wasn't just your commenters that presented a problem...

This is unbelievable. Don Boudreaux uses the suffering of North Koreans at the hands of an illiberal, tyrannical, undemocratic, communist, police state as an example of caution against proponents of liberal, free, democratic, capitalist government. It's really sad that classical liberalism has degenerated into "government is bad" for some people. There's apparently a spectrum: more government and less government. And apparently I and others are closer to North Korea than Don.

This is how these people think of you who agree with me on a lot of things. And moderate libertarians - this is how minarchists think of you. You're just inching over to North Korea. And minarchists - this is how anarcho-capitalists think of you. It's not fair to say that you're in Kim-Jong-Il's camp, but you're closer to it than the anarcho-capitalists.

I wish more people would have the guts to call B.S. on this sort of thing. Not just give reasons for why we want free governments to do certain things, but to call B.S. on the whole template - the whole way of thinking about the issue. If I thought libertarianism promote liberty best, I'd be a libertarian. If I thought Ron Paul would make the United States more free, I'd support Ron Paul. We disagree on very tough questions. We are not flirting with statism.

Don Boudreaux, I believe is a pretty garden variety libertarian. I'd like to see his reaction if an anarcho-capitalist were to throw these accusations at him. I know Boudreaux doesn't think very highly of Rothbard's mudslinging. What he does not seem to realize is that Boudreaux's logic and Rothbard's logic are very similar.

UPDATE: OK, people seem to really be thinking I'm saying more than I'm actually saying in this post. Of course I agree with Don that unalloyed capitalism would never come close the depravations of unalloyed government control... that's why I'm a market economist and in support of limited government - duh!!! What I'm saying is that Don treats government as a single spectrum where you can have more of it or less of it, and on that spectrum Krugman is between Don and Kim Jong Il. Now, Don did say that the consequences of (please note he referred to the consequences of government before you tell me he wasn't talking about a spectrum) government are non-linear. But he still thinks about government that way, which is wrong. My point is people are more free under a free government and a free market than they are under no government and a free market. Indeed - a free government seems to me to be required to maintain a free market. This sort of thinking is the sort of thinking that leads Mises to grouchily dismiss the attendees of the Mont Pelerin Society as socialists. This sort of thinking is what leads anarachists to call minarchists "statists".


  1. I'm not sure what about Boudreaux's post is bothering you. He seems to be saying that too much capitalism is a hell of a lot better than too much government, where the former is maybe 19th century USA and the latter is North Korea. That seems pretty uncontroversial.

  2. You don't think the identification of "government" as some homogenous blob that he says Krugman take a little of and Kim Jong Il takes a lot of might not be just the teensiest bit misleading and insulting?

    "Capitalism" and "government" aren't two distinct alternatives. Indeed, less government often means less economic freedom (that's why people like me support a lot of the government we support). The discussion of these issues is flimsy, and there's an attempt to score ideological points by using a really terrible dictatorship.

  3. What Stravinsky said. Normally I just take what you write for granted and assume that you're being fair to the person you're talking about,
    but I read Boudreaux's post, and he doesn't come close to saying--or implying-- what you're accusing him of.

    He says right here...

    "The world isn’t always linear, so as a matter of logic it certainly does not follow that imposing more state control over the economies of the west – say, imposing the amount of additional state control endorsed by “Progressives” such as Paul Krugman or even Harold Meyerson – would necessarily move the west closer either to the economic consequences or the political consequences (or both) that we witness today in North Korea (and that were everywhere the horrific results when states had such extensive power – e.g., Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, and Castro’s Cuba)."

    Notice the whole "it certainly does not follow..." part?

    He then goes on to make the argument that capitalism, even at its worst, is a whole lot "safer", one might say, than full-on government control of the market. I would be surprised to find that you disagree with this. But even if you do, that's totally different from the argument you alleged he was making.

  4. Come on guys. I would not contest that part of Don's post and I have not contested that part. Don't act as if I have said "everything Don wrote is absolutely wrong". You all should know I would not contest that argument.

    The problem I am highlighting - that I thought I highlighted quite clearly - is seeing government on a single spectrum, with "more" government and "less" government. Don admits there may be non-linearities in consequences, but he still puts Krugman closer to NK than him.

  5. When you're worried about risk-aversion, seeing government on a single spectrum seems fairly reasonable. Hayek didn't, of course, but he was making an argument for sophisticated thinkers, not voters.

  6. Samuel,

    That is crux of Hayek's argument in ...Serfdom. This Boudreaux fellow is not saying anything much original here.

  7. Comments are back at CafeHayek. No explanation.


  8. Daniel, I would add "hereditary monarchist" to the list of problems with North Korea.

    For a gentle (and awesome) contrast with "hereditary" systems in a freer economy, please see this intriguing account of "adoption" of heirs into "family companies" in Japan ("Adoptive Expectations: Rising Sons in Japanese Family Firms").

    Of course, there isn't any mechanism whereby the Japanese system could "only" work in a capitalist system. Remember Colonel Ghadaffi's "adopted" daughter? While it seems that Kim-Jong Un is the spitting image of his grandfather, one may also consider that if it had been a policy of North Korea to replace an unpromising heir, they could have done so by exactly the same system as employed in Japan, where closeness and filial love for one's parents need not be the precondition for succeeding them as the head of the household!

    Back to the important point, however. I read through the Cafe Hayek post in question asking myself the question: "Having given up this much ground, how will the commentator attempt to regain it?" My bet was on a simple, bleating insistence whereby Don Bordreaux would essentially nullify what he had said earlier.

    Like other commentators, I missed the insinuation that we are "much closer" to North Korea than to America at the beginning of the 19th Century (which wasn't a great place, either - especially with regards to robber barons vs. their workforces - don't these guys read any history? It was at least partly because we had an effective, i.e. non-laissez faire, democracy that kept the checks and self-sense of shame going to oppose total economic control by the wealthy).

    Here is the point where he claws back all that lost ground:

    "But we must never lose sight of this important asymmetry: complete or near-complete state control of the economy is proven to generate deep impoverishment and tyranny, while historical periods that have been close to laissez faire – that is, much closer to laissez faire than is America at the dawn of 2012 – have witnessed nothing remotely of the sort."

    Do you see it? Daniel does; I do as well.

    The line where Don Bordreaux says this:

    "But let’s be clear about one indisputable fact: capitalism vigorously pursued has never produced the atrocities – starvation, tyranny, and genocide – that are produced by statism vigorously pursued. Nothing remotely close." merely a feint. It is an arguable point designed to soften up the opposition while diverting attention from the categorical, and extremist, claims to follow.

  9. "that is, much closer to laissez faire than is America at the dawn of 2012 – have witnessed nothing remotely of the sort."

    I don't know.. Enclosures were pretty tyrannical and that was in developing the society closest to the laisezz-faire fantasy-land ideal that the world has ever seen.

  10. "The problem I am highlighting - that I thought I highlighted quite clearly - is seeing government on a single spectrum, with "more" government and "less" government. Don admits there may be non-linearities in consequences, but he still puts Krugman closer to NK than him."

    Yes I got that this was your objection immediately. Even with all the intervention we have today our economy is driven primarily by markets, prices, and irreplaceable profit and loss.

    We're much closer to the nineteenth century than the total central planning of War Communism; even if its a political sin for Don to admit it. Compromises have been made in a lot of cases (since most people have values other than economic efficiency) and I'd imagine Daniel agrees that its probably gone a little too far, but the notion is still absurd even if made for a decent goal.

  11. capitalism vigorously pursued

    what about the South, before the Proclamation?

  12. Daniel, he is not wrong when he says that capitalism has never produced forced starvation and genocide.

    It's just a simple reminder that while we like to think that the worst of our problems today are allegedly unscrupulous insurance companies, who are supposedly the only thing standing between paradise and dystopia, the truth is that they are not the worst problems mankind faces. On the broader scheme of things, these are peacetime activities, and they can never succeed through genocide or starvation, because there will be no markets left.

    The undeniable symmetry is that on the scale of all the things that have done harm to mankind, capitalism leans strongly on the side of things that have done less harm than good. It is why even Karl Marx supported capitalism, which he saw as a liberation of peasants "from the idiocy of rural life".

    Anyway, Boudreaux said nothing about Krugman being closer to Kim Jong Il than him.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I am sure Boudreaux SAID THE VERY OPPOSITE.

    What does he say? READ.

    "The world isn't always linear..."

    " a matter of logic, it does ***not*** follow that imposing more state control....move the west closer to...that we witness today in North Korea"

    Boudreaux did the exact opposite. He said that it is wrong and unfair to compare Kim Jong Il to Paul Krugman.

    He is condemning linear logic.

    He is condemning comparisons of western statism and communism.

    And you guys KNEEJERK and accuse him of making THE VERY POINT HE IS ACTUALLY CRITICISING.

  15. Patreek,

    Hmm you know I just re-read the article and I think your right. My apologies for the misplaced rant, but I'd remembered being irked by it in my less careful reading over my lunch. No need to type with such apparent exasperation either, Patreek, its the internet and while some of us are not trying to contribute to the conversation, like that one anon poster who drops by writing so many obscene profanities, it was not my intention to make such an embarrassing mistake.

    My bit about Krugman, etc. was just saying "hey, Patreek we all agree that drinking Water is a good idea here." for purposes of the record. Again, apologies.

  16. That's Prateek, Warren :)

    Mr. Prateek Sanjay:

    There are two problems. One, who is "you guys?" Bordreaux makes the points me makes, and I don't see us misrepresenting them (however subtle his manipulations may be here). He is choosing to highlight a total non-issue (outside of the most airy towers of academics, anyway) and trying to drum up support for a political scheme by making it appear that we might be on the cusp of a North Korean-style dictatorship if we do not follow his (unrelated) prescriptions.

    Secondly, it is quite clear that he is distorting the issue when he states that current government (which is actually trending more towards minimal government, at least thus far) in the United States is "closer" to North Korea's example than to America of the 19th Century.

    As Daniel says, there is no simple continuum of economic freedom that completely describes America and North Korea; economic freedom is usually categorized as a feature of freedom more generally. Trying to smash the topic of freedom into a little box labeled "economic policy" ignores that there are preconditions for a free market economy, and there are more general preconditions for the whole condition of freedom.

    Movement towards a freer market economy in a free society is possible as preconditions are met, but attempting to cure North Korea or to stave off totalitarianism with market prescriptions is not guaranteed to work (to put it mildly): North Korea is structured such that a free economy cannot work, and America is structured such that there will always be vigorous opposition to any policy that limits somebody's economic freedom (and more besides).

  17. Since Daniel quoted me post above (aw shucks!), I'd better point out that the line "Bordreaux makes the points me makes" should read "Bordreaux makes the points HE makes." Not very elegant, but I hope everybody got a chuckle out of the way I managed to mangle it :)

  18. Warren,

    Whether you're closer to "war communism" or the mythologized 19th century laissez-faire or not depends on where you live, your profession, etc.

  19. Daniel's edit:

    "What I'm saying is that Don treats government as a single spectrum where you can have more of it or less of it, and on that spectrum Krugman is between Don and Kim Jong Il."

    He did not say any such thing.

    He said the opposite.

    He said linear logic does not - DOES NOT - apply to this world.

    He didn't support the very line of reasoning you attribute to him. He criticised it. Why don't you reread his post and respond again?

  20. Lord Vader,

    Well rhetorically that might be true, but the reality is there isn't anything close to the type of planning and grain extraction there was then. Even if some people clearly have different perspectives on the whole economy than others.

  21. Prateek Sanjay:

    It is refreshing that you do not agree with the reading that Daniel and I are making - it is, indeed, a hard sell to any thinking person.

    However I think you still ought to recognize that the pedagogy matters. Just to quote the piece in question again:

    "[...] complete or near-complete state control of the economy has proven to be a sure recipe for deep impoverishment and brutal tyranny, while historical periods that have been close to laissez faire – that is, much closer to laissez faire than is America at the dawn of 2012 – have produced nothing remotely of the sort."

    If we take the first part I have highlighted to mean "complete or near complete control of the economy, even during emergencies (such as the war footing of American economies during WWII), we see once again that the Austrian perspective suggests placing artificial restraints on democracy that limit its ability to respond to crises.

    This is not tantamount to declaring an eternal emergency (ala Egypt) or leveraging a "War on Terror" for political purposes - and I note that in a democracy (and in Egypt) the use of such policies for repression is not taken lightly by the political and popular segments of society.

    There is also the gap in the logic from "historical periods that have been close to laissez faire" to "have produced nothing [like tyrannies]." Here Don Bordreaux is being vague about the timescale and the mechanisms needed to go from America in the 19th Century, which "have produced nothing [like tyranny]" to America at the dawn of 2012," which apparently is yet "closer," despite the continuity of many modes of thinking (political and otherwise) and beliefs in the U.S. throughout that period.

    It almost suggests that only our storied American forebeards were hard enough to make a go of laissez faire.

  22. You speak of life during World War 2, and the regime put in place back then.

    You say it was necessary. Sure, perhaps the alternative was much worse.

    But life was more than a little bit uneasy. New apartment construction stopped during wartime. Families shared apartments with multiple other families. Food and other supplies were rationed. Everyone tightened their standard of living to just above poverty level. Deep impoverishment may not describe it, but it was certainly close to poverty. All this happened not in some part of the Third World, but the industrial powerhouse of United States during the war.

    More than that, let's look at what the word "tyranny" means. The Greek tyrants weren't unpopular. They were charismatic and very much had popular support. But they assumed a scope of powers much wider than previous leaders and used/abused them to a greater degree. During wartime US, there was also strict regimentation. Jailing of newspaper editors who disagreed with the war. Power of the executive to override other parts of the government for wartime purposes. Let's not pretend it was not a kind of tyranny.

    Don't get me wrong; it may have been the lesser evil, but let's just concede life then was under a kind of evil nonetheless. Wartime US, as a strongly state-controlled economy, temporarily had some of the negative features of permanently state controlled economies.


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